The distinguished life of the Larger Sutra

Ushiku Daibutsu (Amida Buddha). Photo: Mark Healsmith.
Ushiku Daibutsu (Amida Buddha). Photo: Mark Healsmith.

I love the opening sentence of the Introduction to the Hongwanji translation of the Larger Sutra (The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha):

‘In the history of Mahayana Buddhism, the Pure Land tradition has played a distinguished role in spreading the Buddhist message of universal compassion.’ (LS p. vii)

Everyone reading this blog will know at first hand the truth of that statement.  Many of us have found ourselves despairing at finding a spiritual path that could deliver us from  constant failure, despite good intentions, in our efforts to enter the bodhisattva path – the way of self benefit and benefit of others. To do good for ourselves and help others.

It is true that we can become an adept of one profession or occupation, that may bring  healing and relief in body and mind to many people in a secular sense, but to bring the joy of ultimate deliverance from birth-and-death, or – at least – true felicity and spiritual freedom, has proven to be beyond our reach. It has been, for us, the Pure Land way that has enabled us to fulfil our aspirations through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, which takes form in our lives as Namo Amida Butsu.

For us, the Larger Sutra has proven to be a treasure beyond calculation. And so it has been throughout history. Clearly, the Pure Land way is essential if we aspire for the spiritual good of ourselves and the good of others. That is why, over many centuries it gradually gained in popularity.

The Larger Sutra, which lies at the heart of Pure Land Buddhism because it gives expression the the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, is a sacred text from antiquity.  One thing we know well about such texts is that they have survived when many other similar writings have been lost.

For a magnificent religious text like the Larger Sutra to reach us it must have proved its worth in the longing hearts of countless seekers for truth. It has, perforce, served to bring them light,  deliverance and joy. Application of the teaching of the Larger Sutra has actually brought about entry into the bodhisattva path for those who hear and accept its sublime teaching.

For these reasons, the Larger Sutra has been a mainstay of the Mahayana, which teaches universal deliverance from suffering. In this regard, the first thing we need to recognise is the inter-dependent nature of all existence.

‘No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.’ (John Donne)

By accepting Amida Buddha’s Vow in the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) we are delivered so that we can deliver others. To be embraced in this process of ‘going’ (to be born in  the Pure Land) and ‘returning’ (to the world of birth-and-death for the sake of others) we participate in the Buddha’s mission, the Buddha’s pure karma. That is to say,  the relief of suffering through breaking the bonds of ignorance and attaining wisdom.

‘In life or death
with the Buddha
the journey continues.’ (Zuiken, AZS, p. 36)

Neither monk nor one in worldly life

Image by Mark Healsmith

‘The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Genku – the eminent founder who had enabled the true essence of the Pure Land to spread vigorously [in Japan] – and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their [alleged] crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given [secular] names, and consigned to distant banishment. I was among the latter. Hence, I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life.’ (CWS, p. 289)

Thus, as Shinran Shonin draws his great compendium, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, to its conclusion, he explains the consequences of his banishment and the degradation of his status as a monk. His own eventual interpretation of this event is quite special and inspiring. Yet, it was a grave injustice. For many people it would have been a source of anger and humiliation.

Shinran’s statement that he was neither a monk nor a layman is ironic. This is because there are four types of Buddhists: monks, nuns, laymen and lay women. In his banishment, Shinran is no longer any of these, he is an ‘ordinary person’ (bombu Sk. prthagjana).

While such a person is technically outside the scope the community of the Buddha Dharma he or she is able to participate in it through the indriyas, or faculties. One of these is ‘faith’ (shin, Sk, shraddha), which is clarification of the mind (AKB, p. 191).

In his heart and mind Shinran was not cut off from the community of the Dharma. Nevertheless, upon entering his exile, Shinran clearly adopted his prthagjana inheritance, his lowly status. For example:

‘The peddler is one who buys and sells things; this is the trader. They are called “low.” Such peddlers, hunters, and others are none other than we, who are like stones and titles and pebbles.’ (CWS, p. 459)

There is another perspective to Shinran’s loss of status. The third Monshu of Jodo Shinshu, Shinran’s descendent Kakunyo Shonin (1270-1351), said that Shinran greatly admired Kyoshin (d. 866) a sage who began his life as  a scholarly monk. However, he turned to the Pure Land way and adopted a radically different lifestyle.

Abandoning his books altogether,  he walked away from monastic life. Devoting himself to the nembutsu alone, he married and worked as a farm labourer and porter.

‘Kyôshin, who settled in Kako, built no fence to the west: toward the Land of Bliss the gate lay open. Nor, befittingly, did he enshrine an image of worship; he kept no sacred books. In appearance not a monk nor yet worldly, he faced the west always, saying the nembutsu, and was like one to whom all else was forgotten.’ (Anonymous, P, p. 49)

Although Kyôshin took to this life voluntarily, Shinran was grateful for the opportunity to adopt it after his exile.


Image by Mark Healsmith

‘For myself, I do not have even a single disciple.’ (Shinran Shonin, Tannisho, CWS, p. 664)

‘In that land of happiness, every single being is born transformed from the pure lotus of Amida Tathagata’s perfect enlightenment, for they are the same in practicing the nembutsu and follow no other way. This extends even to this world, so that all nembutsu practicers within the four seas are brothers and sisters. ‘ (T’an-luan, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, CWS, p. 155)’

In the very first letter of the Gobunsho, Rennyo Shonin recalls Shinran’s attitude to relations between teacher and disciple, in his words quoted by the third caretaker (monshu) of the Hongwanji, Kakunyo Shonin (1270-1351):

‘I do not propagate any new Dharma at all; I entrust myself to the Tathagata’s Dharma and simply teach that to others. Besides that, what do I teach that I would speak of having disciples?’

Rennyo continues:

‘Thus we are one another’s companions and fellow practicers. Because of this the master spoke respectfully of “companions (dobo) and fellow practicers (dogyo).” (Tv74, #2668, p. 10)

That we are companions and fellow practicers is an idea that appears with greatest clarity in Shinran’s writings in Japanese, most notably his letters, and especially the collection known as Lamp for the Latter Ages (mattosho) (CWS pp. 523-555)

There are two closely related terms, dobo and dogyo.  The first has the sense of ‘fellow disciple, fellow believer’ and the second, since gyo means practice, fellow-practicer.  In the Mattosho, dogyo is translated as both ‘companion’ and ‘fellow-practicer’, depending on context. Nevertheless dobo means a ‘true friend who follows the nembutsu way’ and dogyo means ‘a fellow who practices the same path’. (HBL, p. 31)

By making a point of the importance of dobo-dogyo, Shinran is supporting the proposition originally made by T’an-luan that the equality of nembutsu practicers who are born in the Pure Land extends to this world. It is a particularly powerful idea because it suggests that it is worthwhile to try to embrace the realities of the Pure Land even in this world of delusion. The true trumps the false, even now.

This is not at all to suggest that we can actually replicate the Pure Land in this world of the blind passions (bonno) but it does point to Amida Buddha and the Pure Land as the source of our values and aspirations: in other words, the truth of Other Power.  The truth we adopt is from elsewhere and we bring it to bear as best we can in our daily lives.

I like to ponder the ramifications of dobo-dogyo. What does it mean in an ecclesiastical or educational sense?  Does it have implications for the economic conditions of nembutsu followers and their households? It is certainly an idea that I have tried to keep before me for the decades that I have listened to Shinran. Indeed, I think it is possible to even take it out into society and our workplaces.

Even so, I think its true relevance lies entirely within the context of the nembutsu way. I particularly like T’an-luan’s rationale, quoted in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (above) that we are fellow practices and companions on the way because we are, as he says, ‘the same in practicing the nembutsu and follow no other way.’

People who are sincerely and unconditionally devoted to the nembutsu way, to the exclusion of all else, can be confident in a commonality in understanding by dint of those conditions.

We can trust each other absolutely as we share the joy of the Dharma of Amida Buddha. Because we share exactly the same practice, we share the same teacher – Amida Buddha, its source. The distinction between teacher and student – or disciple – blurs and falls away altogether.

We may pose as teacher or disciple but in reality we respect and learn from each other.

The Man Who Planted Trees

Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith

Everyone will have heard about Jean Giono’s wonderful fable The Man Who Planted Trees. It is still available in several editions.

I was first attracted to the story because of my undying love of trees – all trees.  Trees are extraordinary organisms, their quiet presence always calling forth admiration and reflection; their cool shade always welcoming us in the summer.

One of life’s great pleasures is planting a tree. We have planted many, both in our garden, and here and there in public spaces. One tree, which I planted at the bottom of the garden about thirty years ago is now a huge giant, adorning the suburban skyline of the flat terrain for a great distance.

My father was a protector of trees, launching a community project to buy unsold forest in the valley below our house, so that it could be saved for posterity. My grandfather, George, was an immigrant, who settled in the New England Tableland of New South Wales in 1910.  A medical practitioner and farmer,  he planted English trees – oaks and beeches – to adorn his farm and the streets of a nearby town.

So Giono’s short story attracted my attention from the very beginning. It tells of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who lives in the remote, mountainous areas of south-eastern France. Giono’s narrator finds him by accident during a walking tour of the area. In Bouffier he discovers a man of few words, exemplary house-keeping habits  and care of his charges – sheep and a dog. As well as these splendid virtues Elzéard Bouffier spends most of his days planting carefully selected acorns.

When the narrator returns to  the area many years later, and after the ravages of the first World War, he finds flourishing forests and human societies, where before there had been little but desert and desperation.

This is a wonderful tale and it is a credible source of inspiration to anyone who thinks that one of the great tragedies of human progress has been deforestation. And if you do not read it carefully, you will think that is all there is to it. However, it is also a parable of resilience and persistence. In fact it reminds me of Lokeshvararaja Buddha’s words to the Bodhisattva Dharmakara as told in the Larger Sutra:

‘It is as if a person were to bail out the great ocean using a pail and eventually reach the bottom after many kalpas.  Such a person would then obtain the precious treasures to be found there. Likewise, if one seeks the Way sincerely and  diligently, one should be able to reach one’s goal. What Vow could not be fulfilled?’ (LS, p. 18)

Essentialy, Giono’s story is one of appalling loss and tragedy, which turns out to be a productive, life-changing event:

‘But [Elzéard Bouffier] had lost first his only son, then his wife. After that he came here to be alone, enjoying the unhurried existence with his sheep and his dog. But it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.’ (Giono, Harvil Secker, London, 2015, p. 13)

Shinran Shonin lost everything in 1207, when he was unjustly exiled to a remote and forbidding region of Japan – just for the crime of saying and advocating Namo Amida Butsu. There, in Echigo, he found a life-companion, Eshin-ni and, moving ahead in life, began to propagate the nembutsu way just where he found himself. After terrible, unjust loss, he took the opportunity that it provided to fulfil a refreshed mission in life.

In Giono’s story Elzéard Bouffier perseveres in spite of constant setbacks, and is able to look back, as his end approaches, on a quiet, inconspicuous but glorious achievement.  This is fiction, but Shinran’s story is biography. 800 years later, his legacy still inspires millions of people.

Our lives are not fiction either. From the story of the Two Rivers and a White Path we draw encouragement to persevere until the task of living in this saha world of endurance comes to its conclusion. In the process, who knows in what ways we might benefit others? To live with our eyes turned to the light, saying Namo Amida Butsu, is, in itself to live selflessly.  Such a life has endless possibilities.

Our nembutsu is given in appreciation for the undeserved compassion of Amida Buddha: the sound of inner joy and thanksgiving.  It is isami-no-nembutsu, courageous nembutsu, joyful nembutsu. It does not seek anything, it is not a cry for help, – it is a ‘brave and forceful call for doing good’. (KGSS, p. 350)

Giono says of Elzéard Bouffier, what we can say of Shinran’s life of resilience and perseverance:

‘To see a human being reveal really exceptional qualities one must be able to observe his activities over many years. If these activities are completely unselfish; if the idea motivating them is unique in its magnanimity; if it is quite certain they have never looked for any reward; and if in addition they have left visible traces in the world – then one may say, without fear of error, that one is in the presence of an unforgettable character.’ (Giono, p. 19)

Such a person was Shinran.


Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith
Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith

‘Simply give yourself up to Tathagata’s Vow; avoid calculating in any way.’ (Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, CWS, p. 537.)

When I write about gaining ‘understanding’ of the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha and Shinran Shonin, it is only to satisfy our own curiosity, or to assure ourselves that we are imparting the teaching correctly, that I intend. Those are the only reasons we need to acquire knowledge about the true teaching.

As I have said before, we also read and enjoy the writings of the Masters and Shinran for love: to hear again the wonderful news of the nembutsu way to Buddhahood because it reminds us of the joy that it imparts. From its very beginnings, Buddhists of all schools have loved to listen to the teachings; recite them and learn them. The Dharma is ‘beautiful in the beginning; beautiful in the middle; beautiful at the  end.’

Yet, no matter how much knowledge we accrue, it is of little use if it does not lead us to take absolute and single-minded refuge in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

We can know everything there is to know about Pure Land Buddhism from what is written about it, but this alone will not avail to bring us to ultimate enlightenment in the Pure Land way. From my own experience I can add that the gathering of mere knowledge can lead to intellectualisation of the teaching, which is often detrimental to faith. The Dharma just becomes an interesting idea, perhaps even a compelling one, but not something we really know; not something that is part of our flesh and marrow.

Unless we speak from the heart, or listen to the truth of our inner reality, whatever we know will not deliver us from birth and death, or  lead us on the path to becoming a Buddha, which is the ultimate vocation of us all – at least, from the Mahayana perspective.  And what is our inner reality? Entrusting heart (shinjin) , as we have already seen in my recent posts, comprises

  1. entrusting heart that is self-benefiting – ‘to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death’
  2. and to believe deeply and decidedly that being carried by the power of the Vow you will attain birth is ‘entrusting heart that is Amida’s benefiting of others’. (CWS, p. 605)

Shinran Shonin gives expression to this realisation repeatedly in his writing but none is as elegant as these three verses from Hymns of the Dharma Ages:

‘Although I am without shame and self-reproach
And lack a mind of truth and sincerity,
Because the Name is directed by Amida,
Its virtues fills the ten quarters.

‘Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

‘With minds full of malice and cunning, like snakes or scorpions,
We cannot accomplish good acts through self-power;
And unless we entrust ourselves to Amida’s directing of virtue,
We will end without knowing shame or self-reproach.’ (CWS, p. 422.)

And what tomes, writings and resources do we need to study to come to this understanding? All we need is the working of Amida Buddha’s light and Name, and the karmic consciousness of entrusting heart. (CWS p. 54)

The Name, Namo Amida Butsu, calls to us at all times; the voice of Amida Buddha.  The light – inconceivable though it is – emanates, not from within, but from the Pure Land, and reaches – unhindered by anything, including our blinded minds – throughout the cosmos, taking in and embracing all who entrust themselves to the call of the Vow.

We cannot see this light, but we can know its working in its task of revealing the truth of our selves. Again we can meet it in the lives of any person of nembutsu who has accepted the Buddha’s call.

Shakyamuni Buddha brought his disciples to realisation and quick attainment of nirvana by means of his ‘progressive talk': a short outline of the essentials of the Dharma. We find the same themes in both the Larger Sutra and the Pali Canon.

Shakyamuni guided each disciple, individually, into an awareness of the impermanence of the phenomenal world, the joyful tranquility of the other shore and the way to reach it. Just then  the disciple became a shravaka: a hearer of the roar of the timeless beyond. (DR, p. xviii)

The barest essentials of the Jodo Shinshu teaching are sufficient to bring a person to the nembutsu way if they are ready for it.  Hundreds of people came to a full awareness of the working of the Primal Vow, not by reading and study, but by listening to Honen Shonin and, later, Shinran himself. And the Dharma of Amida Buddha spread like wildfire inspired by the simple and straightforward words of Rennyo Shonin’s wonderful letters.

We do not need books, we do not need study, we simply need an encounter with a person of nembutsu, either in person, by repute, or in their writing, however brief and rudimentary.

Nothing I have read or studied has added much at all to what I heard in my first encounter with the nembutsu through the agency of a friend forty years ago. For many years after that time I knew little more than the Wasan of Shinran and the Letters of Rennyo could tell me.