[You can read this letter online or CWS, p. 523.]
The first letter in the Lamp for Latter Ages, the primary collection of Shinran’s letters, was written when Shinran was 79 and it has subsequently been titled Concerning Thought and No Thought.
If this letter is to make sense to us we need to understand the meaning of the terms ‘Path of Sages’ and the ‘Pure Land Path’.
It was the first Dharma Master of Shin Buddhism, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who drew the attention of his followers to the fact that the Buddha Dharma has two distinct ways of leading aspirants to nirvana or Buddhahood. These he called the ‘difficult’ and the ‘easy’ paths:
‘In the Buddha’s teaching there are countless gates. Just as journeying overland is full of hardship, while sailing on board a boat is pleasant, there are difficult and easy among the paths of this world. So it is with the paths of bodhisattvas. Some engage in rigorous practice, while others quickly reach the stage of non-retrogression through the easy practice of entrusting as the means for attaining it.’ (PLW, Vol 1, p. 6)
As time passed – and the Buddhist community became more and more aware of the growing gulf between the time of Shakyamuni and their own world – Nagarjuna’s insights grew in significance. It was the fourth Shin Buddhist Dharma Master Tao-ch’o (562-645) who identified the Path of Sages with Nagarjuna’s ‘difficult path’ and the Pure Land Path with the ‘easy practice’.
The ostensible purpose of this letter of Shinran is to clarify the distinction between practices in the Path of Sages and the Pure Land teaching. Shinran explains that the terms ‘thought’ and ‘no-thought’, which refer only to forms of meditation in the Path of Sages, refer to the provisional practices of meditative good and non-meditative good, respectively, in the Pure Land Path.
The provisional practices in the Pure Land teaching are those of the nineteenth and twentieth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows. They are provisional because they serve as ways of attracting seekers to the Pure Land teaching and provide a way of practice and faith for those whose hearts are beset by doubt about the truth of the Primal Vow.
Of the two provisional Vows, the nineteenth, especially, is very close to the Path of Sages. The idea of ‘thought’ and ‘no-thought’ in the Pure Land Path concerns the practices in accord with this Vow.
Still, the teaching of the nineteenth Vow and the meditative and non-meditative practices belongs within the Pure Land Path. Shinran says that the Path of Sages ‘comprises teachings of the people who have already attained Buddhahood preach in order to encourage us.’ (CWS, p. 524)
It is a very long time since it became an accepted fact that the Buddha taught two distinct paths for us to choose to travel but we learn from this letter that it is not necessarily easy for people to distinguish between the two. Even today there is confusion about this matter.
It is fortuitous that the distinction between easy and difficult ways has been eclipsed by Tao-ch’o’s Pure Land Path and Path of Sages, because either one of these two ways to Buddhahood has its difficult aspects.
In the Path of Sages we follow difficult religious practices but as monks and nuns our food, housing and clothing, modest as they are, are provided for us by lay followers. In the Path of Sages, the reward is realisation of Buddhahood in this life.
In the Pure Land Path, where we trust in the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, we follow a difficult course by participating in the wider world, working for a living, raising a family, perhaps, and waiting to realise Buddhahood at the end of life.
I do not think that either path is intrinsically more or less worthy than the other, and neither does Shinran. In this letter he is quite impartial in the way that he discusses the various schools of the Path of Sages.
In the latter part of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran tells us to ‘take measure of’ our own ‘capabilities’. (CWS, p. 244) I have heard people interpret this in a way that suggests that we should estimate whether or not we are lazy and should follow the Pure Land Path instead of the Path of Sages, which is for diligent folk.
Rather I think it is simply a matter of vocation. Whichever way we follow, Buddhahood is our objective because we want to participate in the creation of ultimate felicity for all sentient beings. How we get there is a matter of choice.
It does not matter who we are, or how we live, the Mahayana provides a way for us.