Enlightenment – Chapter 58: The Gift of Faith

Honen’s (see Chapter 42) most famous disciple was Shinran (1173­1262), who set forth the doctrines that would be central to the True Pure Land Sect (Jodo Shinshu) in Japan. His most important work was entitled Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way (Kyogyoshinsho), a work that he continued to revise until his death. It contains passages from Indian and Chinese texts, as well as treatises and poems by Shinran, selections from which are included here. Like Honen, Shinran was a monk of the Tendai sect, leaving its headquarters on Mount Hiei in 1201 to follow Honen. He was one of the disciples who was defrocked by the government and sent into exile in 1207. Shinran would become a popular teacher of the nembutsu among the common people, marrying and raising a family (the lineage of the True Pure Land sect is traced through his descendants), although he famously declared that he was neither a monk nor a layman.

Shinran made important revisions and elaborations of the Pure Land doctrine that he had learned from Honen, some of which are evident in the passage below. One of the most important of these was the notion of shinjin. Although translated by some as ‘faith’, other scholars regard any simple translation to be misleading. It might be glossed as the buddha-mind realized in the entrusting of oneself to Amitabha’s (Japanese: Amida) name and vow. Shinran praises it here in terms that would typically be used for the most exalted categories of Buddhist philosophy: emptiness, the dharmakaya, or the buddha nature. Shinran often would contrast self-power (jirikij) and other-power (tariki), with the former referring to the always futile attempts to secure one’s own welfare, and the latter referring to the sole source of salvation, the power of Amitabha’s name and vow. Thus, Shinran regarded the Mahaydna practice of dedicating merit to the welfare of others to be self-power; the only dedication of merit that was important was that made by the bodhisattva Dharmakara, who vowed to become the buddha Amitdbha and establish the Land of Bliss for those who called his name (see Chapter 8). He regarded the deathbed practices advocated by Genshin (see Chapter 9), meant to bring about birth in the pure land, to be self-power; and he regarded multiple recitations of namu amida butsu to be self-power. Shinran refers often to the single utterance which assures rebirth in the pure land. This utterance does not need to be audible, indeed it is not even voluntary, but is instead heard in the heart as a consequence of the ‘single thought-moment’ of shinjin, received through Amitdbha’s grace. Thus, as Shinran states below, this salvation has nothing to do with whether one is a monk or layperson, man or woman, saint or sinner, learned or ignorant. He said that if a good man can be reborn in the pure land, so much more can an evil man, because the good man remains attached to the illusion that his virtuous deeds will somehow bring about his salvation, while the evil man has abandoned this conceit.

Whereas Honen sought to identify the benefits of the nembutsu in contrast to other teachings of the day, Shinran sought to reinterpret Buddhist doctrine and practice in light of Amitabha’s vow. Thus, in the passage below, he states that those who attain shinjin are comparable to bodhisattvas who attain the first of the bodhisattva levels (bhumi) called ‘Joy’, an exalted station on the Mahayana path. The important Mahayana doctrine of the ‘one vehicle’, the buddha-vehicle whereby all sentient beings will follow the bodhisattva path to buddhahood, is interpreted by Shinran to be nothing more nor less than Amitabha’s vow. Indeed, the sole purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha’s appearance in the world was to proclaim the existence of Amitabha’s vow.

Amida Buddha’s name manifests the highest virtues of awakening; it is itself wisdom that transforms our evil into good. Vajra-like shinjin is true reality that sweeps away doubt and uncertainty and brings us to attainment of enlightenment. Such is the teaching easy to practise for small, foolish beings; it is the straight way simple to traverse for the dull and ignorant. Among all the teachings the great sage Sakyamuni preached in his lifetime, none surpasses this ocean of virtues. Let those who seek to abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure; who are confused in practice and vacillating in faith; whose minds are dark and whose understandings deficient; whose evils are heavy and whose karmic obstructions manifold – let these persons embrace above all Sakyamuni Buddha’s exhortations, take refuge without fail in the most excellent direct path, devote themselves solely to this practice of saying the name, and revere only this shinjin.

Ah, hard to encounter, even in many lifetimes, is the decisive cause of birth in the pure land, Amida’s compassionate vow to bring all beings to awakening! Hard to realize, even in myriads of aeons, is undefiled shinjin that is true and real! If you should come to realize this practice and shinjin, rejoice at the conditions from the distant past that have brought it about. But if in this lifetime still you remain entangled in a net of doubt, then unavoidably you must pass once more in the stream of samsaric existence through myriads of aeons. Wholly sincere, indeed, are the words of truth that one is grasped by Amida, never to be abandoned, the right dharma all-surpassing and wondrous! Hear and reflect, and let there be no wavering or apprehension.

At the heart of the pure land path lies Amida’s transference of wisdom-compassion to us, which functions in two aspects: for our going forth from samsaric existence to the pure land; and for our return to this world to work for the liberation of all beings.

Within Amida’s transference of wisdom-compassion to us for our going forth, there is great practice, there is great shinjin.

Great practice is to say the name of Amida, the buddha of unhindered light. This practice, embodying all good acts and possessing all roots of virtue, is perfect and most rapid in bringing them to fullness in us. It is the treasure-ocean of virtues that is suchness or true reality. For this reason, it is called great practice. This practice arises from the vow of great compassion.

Saying the name sunders the ignorance of sentient beings and fulfils all their aspirations. It is the right act, supreme, true and excellent. The right act is the nembutsu. The nembutsu is namu- amida-butsu. Namu-amida-butsu is right-mindedness. Let this be known.

The nembutsu is not a self-power practice performed through the calculation and designs of foolish beings or sages; it is therefore called the practice of ‘not directing merit towards reaching enlightenment on the part of beings’. Masters of the Mahayana and Hinayana and people burdened with karmic evil, whether heavy or light, should all take refuge in the great treasure-ocean of the vow selected by Amida and attain buddhahood through the nembutsu.

Those who attain the true and real practice and shinjin greatly rejoice in their hearts. This attainment is therefore called the stage of joy. It is likened to the first fruit: a sage of the first fruit, though he may give himself to sleep and to sloth, will still never be subject to samsbric existence for a twenty-ninth time. Even more decisively will the ocean of beings of the ten quarters be grasped and never abandoned when they have taken refuge in this practice and shinjin. Therefore the buddha is called ‘Amida’ [boundless]. This is other power.

Concerning the practice and shinjin that Amida transfers to us for our going forth to the pure land: practice may be grasped as ‘one utterance’, and shinjin, ‘one thought-moment’. ‘One utterance of practice’ indicates, in terms of the number of voicings of the name, the complete fulfilment in a single utterance of the easy practice that Amida selected for beings in the primal vow.

When we have boarded the ship of the vow of great compassion and sailed out on the vast ocean of light, the winds of perfect virtue blow softly so that the waves of our evil undergo transformation. The darkness of our ignorance is immediately broken through, and quickly reaching the land of immeasurable light, we therewith realize great nirvana and begin carrying out compassionate action in this world.

In the expression for Amida’s vow, ‘ocean of the one vehicle’, ‘one vehicle’ refers to the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, or buddha- vehicle. To realize the one vehicle is to realize the highest perfect enlightenment, the realm of nirvana. The realm of nirvana is the ultimate dharma-body. To realize the ultimate dharma-body is to reach the ultimate end of the one vehicle. There is no thatagata apart from this, no dharma-body apart from this. Thatagata is itself dharma-body…. Reaching the ultimate end of the one vehicle is without limit and without cessation.. There is no one vehicle other than the one buddha-vehicle, the vow of Amida Buddha..

Concerning ‘ocean’: ever since the remote past, the waters of rivers and seas have been undergoing transformation. The rivers are the various acts of practice and discipline performed by ordinary people and sages. The seas are the ignorance – measureless as the sands of the Ganges – of those who commit the five grave offences, who slander the dharma, or who lack the seed of buddhahood. These have been transformed into the great treasure-ocean of all true and real virtues, countless as the sands of the Ganges, of the wisdom-compassion of the primal vow. As a sutra states, ‘The ice of self-afflicting blind passion melts and becomes the water of virtues.’

Bodhisattva Dharma-Repository, in his causal stage,

Under the guidance of World-Sovereign Buddha,

Searched into the origins of the buddhas’ pure lands,

And the qualities of those lands and their humans and devas.

He then established the supreme, incomparable vow;

He made the great vow rare and all-encompassing.

In five aeons of profound thought, he embraced this vow,

Then resolved again that the name be heard throughout the ten quarters.

Everywhere the Buddha casts light immeasurable, boundless,

Unhindered, unequalled light-lord of all brilliance,

Pure light, joyful light, the light of wisdom,

Light constant, inconceivable, light beyond speaking,

Light surpassing sun and moon is sent forth, illumining countless worlds;

The multitudes of beings all receive this radiance.

The name embodying the primal vow is the act of true settlement,

The vow of entrusting with sincere mind is the cause of birth;

We realize the equal of enlightenment and supreme nirvana

Through the fulfilment of the vow of attaining nirvana without fail.

Sakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world

Solely to teach the oceanlike primal vow of Amida;

We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,

Should entrust ourselves to the Buddha’s words of truth.

When the one thought-moment of joy arises in us,

The attainment of nirvana is ours without severing blind passions;

When the ignorant and wise, and even grave offenders and slanderers of the dharma,

turn about and enter shinjin,

They are like streams that, on entering the ocean, become one in taste with it.

The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;

The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through.

Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,

Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin.

But though the light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,

Beneath there is brightness, not dark.

When we realize shinjin, seeing and revering and attaining great joy,

We immediately leap crosswise, closing off the five evil courses.

All foolish beings, whether good or evil,

When they hear and entrust themselves to Amida’s universal vow,

Are praised by the Buddha as people of vast and excellent understanding;

Such persons are likened to the pure lotus.

For evil sentient beings of wrong views and arrogance,

The nembutsu that embodies Amida’s primal vow Is hard to accept in shinjin;

This most difficult of difficulties, nothing surpasses.

The masters of India, who explained the teaching in treatises,

And the eminent monks of China and Japan,

Clarified the great sage Sakyamuni’s intent in appearing in this world,

And revealed that Amida’s primal vow accords with the nature of beings.

The ocean of great shinjin is such that there is no discrimination between noble and common or black-robed monks and white- clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, old and young. The extent of evil committed is not considered, the duration of any performance of religious practices is of no concern. It is a matter neither of practice nor good acts, sudden attainment nor gradual attainment, meditative practice nor non-meditative practice, right contemplation nor wrong contemplation, thought nor no-thought, daily life nor the moment of death, repeated utterance of the name nor single utterance. It is simply shinjin that is beyond conception, beyond explication and beyond description. It is like the medicine that eradicates all poisons. The medicine of Amida’s vow destroys the poisons of our wisdom and foolishness.

Shinjin may be grasped in terms of ‘one thought-moment’. ‘One thought-moment’ expresses the ultimate brevity of the instant in which a person realizes shinjin, which is the vast, inconceivable mind of joyfulness.

The Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life states: ‘All sentient beings, as they hear the name, realize even one thought- moment of shinjin and joy, which is transferred to them from Amida’s sincere mind; and aspiring to be born in that land, they then attain birth and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression….’

The word ‘hear’ in this passage means that sentient beings, having heard how the Buddha’s vow arose – its origin and fulfilment – are altogether free of doubt and uncertainty. Shinjin is transferred to beings through the power of the primal vow. Joy expresses gladness in body and mind.. ‘One thought-moment’ means that shinjin is free of calculation or doublemindedness, that it is the mind that is single. The mind that is single is the true cause of birth in the pure fulfilled land. When we realize the vajra-like true mind, we transcend crosswise the paths of the five courses and eight hindered existences and unfailingly gain ten benefits in the present life. What are these ten?

  1. We are protected and sustained by unseen powers.
  2. We are possessed of supreme virtues.
  3. Our karmic evil is transformed into good.
  4. We are protected and cared for by all the buddhas.
  5. We are praised by all the buddhas.
  6. We are constantly protected by the light of the Buddha’s heart.
  7. We have great joy in our hearts.
  8. We are aware of Amida’s benevolence and respond in gratitude to the Buddha’s virtue.
  9. We constantly practise great compassion.
  10. We enter the stage of the truly settled.

When foolish beings possessed of the self-affliction of blind passion, the multitudes trapped in birth-and-death and defiled by evil karma, realize the mind of shinjin and the practice that Amida transfers to them for their going forth, they immediately join the truly settled of the Mahayana. Because they dwell among the truly settled, they necessarily attain nirvana. To necessarily attain nirvana is eternal bliss. Eternal bliss is ultimate tranquillity. Tranquillity is supreme nirvana. Supreme nirvana is uncreated dharma-body. Uncreated dharma-body is true reality. True reality is dharma-nature. Dharma-nature is suchness. Suchness is non-duality.

Amida Buddha comes forth from suchness to manifest various bodies – fulfilled, accommodated and transformed.

Translated by Dennis Hirota from Shinran, Ken jodo shinjitsu kyogyosho monrui in Teihon Shinran shonin zenshu, vol. 1 (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1969) and in Shinshu shogyo zensho, vol. 2 (Kyoto: Oyagi Kobundo, 1941).

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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