A life within the power of the Vow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata’s immense compassion, and I sincerely revere the benevolent care behind the master’s teaching activity.

‘My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling. Therefore, I have selected [passages expressing] the core of the Pure Land way and gathered here its essentials. Mindful solely of the profundity of the Buddha’s benevolence, I pay no heed to the derision of others. May those who see and hear this work be brought – either through the cause of reverently embracing the teaching or through the condition of [others’] doubt and slander of it – to manifest shinjin within the power of the Vow and reveal the incomparable fruit of enlightenment in the land of peace.’ (Shinran Shonin, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho VI:bCWS, p. 291)

These immortal words of Shinran are most encouraging to those of us who have stepped onto the white path between the rivers of water and fire (CWS, p. 89 – 91). This is the journey of nembutsu with shinjin, in the embrace of the Compassionate Vow of Amida Buddha.

It is quite clear that, with unshakeable certainty, Shinran knew the true nature of his destiny. Doubt, slander, or ridicule, could not suppress his joy.

Remember that, by the time he wrote those words, Shinran had already experienced one of the most difficult life histories that anyone could imagine. Until his death at ninety, the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow enabled him to transcend humiliation, exile, poverty, the weighty responsibility of raising a large family, and of teaching his fellow human beings the way to Enlightenment.

Shinran endured deprivation, isolation, threats to his life from jealous rivals, and just about anything else the world of birth-and-death, the world of impermanence, suffering and soullessness, can demand of a sentient being! In spite of the immense challenges that he faced until his parinirvana in 1263, the decisive moment, which he describes here, never failed him:

‘I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Sakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201.’ (CWS, p. 290)

Namo Amida Butsu


Sacred lotus at Adelaide Botanic Garden, where they flower in January.

Shinran Shonin moved back to Kyoto in about 1234 after twenty years in the Kanto. After around ten years, some people began to cause disturbances and conflict within the nembutsu community and society at large. The focus of these conflicts mainly concerned two issues: the matter of ‘once calling and many calling’ and ‘the problem of licenced evil.’  As a result of this, a correspondence developed between Shinran and the disciples who were perplexed by these disputes.

Shinran directly addressed the ‘problem of licensed evil’ in his letters (CWS, pp. 547-54) and – among others – promulgated a tract by Ryukan, a fellow disciple of Honen Shonin.  Shinran also compiled Notes on Once-calling and Many-calling (CWS, pp. 473-90), a sublime and extensive commentary on Ryukan’s short text.  The problem of licensed evil is not only discussed in some of Shinran’s letters, but also Chapter 13 of A Record in Lament of Divergences (CWS, pp. 670-2).

In providing these clarifications, Shinran was offering a resource and relevant information. However, controversy continued to rage in the Kanto and the very fact of conflict and argument itself became a problem.

Shinran’s advice in this regard was to avoid arguing and to turn to the sacred texts in order to deepen one’s own understanding. In other words, each of us should take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being and not waste time in pointless arguments.

Here is Shinran’s letter about the problem of conflict:

‘That the Tathagata’s Primal Vow is spreading is indeed splendid and gladdening above all else. In this, however, there must never be any arguing, person with person in each locality, while adhering to one’s own view. In the capital also there seems to be much arguing over such matters as “once-calling” and “many-calling”; this should never take place at all.

‘Ultimately, you should read carefully and constantly such writings as Essentials of Faith Alone, On the Afterlife, and Self-power and Other Power, and not diverge from their message. Please tell this to all people, wherever they may be. Further, if there are matters that are unclear, since I am still alive today, please take the trouble of coming to see me. Or you may ask someone to deliver a message. Please be sure to relate all of this to the people of Kashima, Namekata, and the neighboring areas also. In such disputation over once-calling and many-calling, merely futile and argumentative words are voiced. You should by all means avoid it.


‘People who do not understand these matters discuss things of little significance. You should avoid such arguments by all means.’ (CWS, p.  559)

These days, the sacred texts that we would probably turn to include Shinran’s own writing, the Letters of Rennyo and the much loved and popular text A Record in Lament of Divergences. It depends on who we are and how much time we have to read and contemplate the Dharma. For most people the Letters of Rennyo and A Record in Lament of Divergences, which both present accurate and succinct accounts of Shinran’s teaching, are clear favourites.

A new life

A New Year: Dawn in Sydney on 1 January 2015 (Photo by Rev Shigenobu Watanabe, minister of Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia.)

Using resources from his predecessors, the Pure Land Dharma Masters, Shinran Shonin described the culminating moment of the working of the Primal Vow for each of us. This quote comes from his teaching notes, which can be found in the last pages of the Collected Works of Shinran.

‘Concerning the entrusting of oneself to the Primal Vow, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] “in the preceding moment, life ends…”

‘This means that “one immediately enters the group of the truly settled” [T’an-luan].

‘Concerning immediately attaining birth, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] “in the next moment, you are immediately born.”

‘This means that “one immediately enters the stage of the definitely settled” [Nagarjuna]. Further, “One is termed a definitely-settled bodhisattva.”

‘Know that it is the diamondlike mind that is Other Power.’ (Shinran Shonin, Gutoku’s Notes, Pt ICWS, p. 594)

Towards the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran relates the details of his own experience. He describes abandoning religious practices and being led to the Primal Vow through the working of the Name, Namo Amida Butsu.  Then, he describes a new life – of sailing upon the ‘ocean of the Vow’, propagating the Dharma of Amida, and saying the Name from gratitude for its working (ho-on nembutsu) (CWS, p. 240)

Also, when giving an account of his abandonment of the monastic life and his encounter with his teacher, Honen Shonin, Shinran summarises this decisive moment when he writes:

‘I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201.’ (CWS, p. 290)

It seems clear to me that this straightforward statement is the experience of accepting Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart in a nutshell. Giving away all attempts to try to gain something for oneself – no matter how noble or edifying – by engaging in religious practices, abandoning oneself to the Primal Vow, one enters a life of joy and one’s nembutsu becomes an act of thanksgiving.

The moment, which Shinran describes in all of these places, passes in a flash. It may even be imperceptible. In commenting on the statement of fulfilment of the eighteenth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows in the Larger Sutra (‘all sentient beings, as the hear the Name, realise even one thought-moment of shinjin and joy …’) (CWS, p. 474) – Shinran says:

One thought-moment is time at its ultimate limit, where the realisation of shinjin takes, place.’ (CWS, p. 474)

Just then, we enter the life of nembutsu. A new life.


Lake Eyre, South Australia
Lake Eyre, South Australia

Among other things, Jodo Shinshu is a religion of home and hearth.  Its life blooms in the context of many millions of households.

In a sense, temples are also domestic quarters. On the grounds of every Jodo Shinshu temple there is a home, where people live and share their lives.  All members of Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha are also strongly encouraged to see their local temple as a home, and that there they belong to a large, extended family.

The teaching of Shakyamuni has mainly been preserved by monastic communities but, nevertheless, ordinary human relationships emerge in the scriptures and are cherished. Among these is Shakyamuni Buddha’s relationship with his son, Rahula.

Rahula became a monk on the occasion that Shakyamuni returned to visit his ancestral home.  Famously, Shakyamuni met his son Rahula, who claimed his inheritance, the Dharma. Rahula became a mendicant like his father.

On one occasion, Shakyamuni was with his son and instructed him, as many fathers do, about some basic principles of living. In one of these discussions, Shakyamuni said

‘Rahula, for what purpose do you use a mirror?’ Rahula replied, ‘It is to see oneself reflected.’ The Buddha said, ‘Rahula, as you reflect yourself in the mirror, only after repeated deliberations should you act’. (BD, p. 293)

Shakyamuni then proceeded to outline a method for making decisions based entirely on reflection, meaning deliberation.

In my view, Jodo Shinshu inherits this advice to Rahula.  It is as though we are all Shakyamuni’s sons and daughters.  Our way of determining ideas and actions come from this fundamental principle of reflection.  Our life is the ‘way of naturalness’ (jinen) and we do not take precepts. Instead we reflect upon matters of concern and decide accordingly.

Upon what – and how – do we reflect? I  think we reflect upon our hearts and the Buddha’s heart. I mean, by this, our inner life both rational and affective. By ‘the Buddha’s heart’, I mean the heart and mind of Amida Buddha. His manifest reality is the Primal Vow: the non-discriminating inconceivable light of compassion, and the Name that fills the universe.

The great precedent of reflection is not only in Shakyamuni Buddha’s words to his son Rahula, but Shinran Shonin’s own  example.

It often goes unnoticed, but I think it is of great significance that Shinran explains that most discussions in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho are based on his reflection, his contemplation of the concerns that he addresses.

Starting with the Preface of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and for most subsequent sections, Shinran introduces each topic in this way:

‘I reflect within myself …’ (Preface) (CWS, p. 3)

‘Reverently contemplating … I see .. (Chapter I) (CWS, p. 7)

‘Reverently contemplaing … I find..’ (Chapter II) (CWS, p. 13)

‘As I reflect, I find … ‘ (Preface to Chapter III) (CWS, p. 77)

‘Reverently contemplating … I find …’ (Chapter III) (CWS, p. 79)

‘Reverently contemplating … I find …’ (Chapter V) (CWS, p. 177)

Then,  like Rahula, and Shinran’s example, we are, in this sense, heirs to Shakyamuni’s encouragement to engage in careful reflection about matters of concern to us, both spiritual and practical. This is not to suggest that we practice meditation (dhyana) in any formal sense.  Reflection is not ordered in that way. It is not a structured discipline directed at a particular objective.

We, nembutsu followers, are the people, of all of Shakyamuni’s disciples, who reflect on our hearts and the Buddha’s heart. That is how we proceed – on the way of reflection. Informal reflection, deliberation, and consideration are our modus operandi.

When we read and study the scriptures, as Rennyo Shonin encourages us to do, and again, following Shinran’s example, we read and reflect upon the teaching. For example, we might ask ourselves questions like these: What is Shinran saying to me? What is his underlying intention? I find this difficult – why? And finding the answers in our hearts and the compassionate heart of the Buddha, we deepen our understanding.  And grow in joy.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA striking feature of the Pure Land tradition is that, from its inception, the accurate transmission and practice of the teaching has been characterised as extremely difficult. In the Larger Sutra, we hear Shakyamuni Buddha say

‘The most difficult of all difficulties is to hear this sutra and accept it with  the entrusting heart: nothing surpasses this difficulty.  Therefore, I have thus presented the Dharma, thus preached it, and thus taught it.  You should accept it in trust and practice in accord with it.’ (LS, p. 102)

Yet, in the second century, the first Dharma master of Pure Land Buddhism, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, conceded that the nembutsu could bring a bodhisattva to the stage of non-retrogression. In contrasting it with the difficulty of the path that he outlined in his work on  the Ten Bodhisattva Stages he described the nembutsu as the ‘easy’ path:

‘In the Buddha’s teaching there are countless gates. Just as there are difficult and easy among the paths of this world – for journeying overland is full of hardship while sailing on board of a boat is pleasant – so it is with the paths of bodhisattvas. Some engage in rigorous practice and endeavor; others quickly reach the stage of non-retrogression through the easy practice of entrusting as the means [for attaining it]…

‘If a person desires quickly to attain
The stage of non-retrogression,
He or she should, with a reverent heart,
Say the Name, holding steadfast to it.

‘If bodhisattvas desire to realize the supreme, perfect enlightenment through attaining the stage of non-retrogression while in their present existence, they should think on the Buddhas of the ten quarters.’ (CWS, p. 22)

In a broad sense the Buddha Dharma recognises at every level that hearing the teaching at all is fraught with difficulty because the first requirement is to be born during the time of a Buddha. As time elapses, the teaching becomes lost in the mists of time. This fog is the natural state of affairs.

In addition, one must ‘meet’ a Buddha because it is the actual voice and presence of a Buddha that most reliably transmits the Dharma. This is because each individual has specific needs and characteristics that must be addressed.  After the teaching becomes ossified within a written canon, after many generations of one-to-one oral transmission, it appears fragmented and confusing.

The need for the personal presence of a living Buddha is met in many ways. Among them we find the ‘direct transmission’ of the Dhyana (zen) School, the presence of an Arhat or an otherwise enlightened teacher, or the living and active reality of a Buddha like Amida.

In the case of Pure Land Buddhism, however, the difficulty is somewhat nuanced. There are many references to the intrinsic problem of the difficulty of hearing the Pure Land Dharma in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. One of them is that the ease of ‘practice’ beggars belief. (CWS, p. 109, et. al.)

In spite of the fact that Pure Land Buddhism (like most Buddhist teachings) is intuitive rather than credal, our current secularised prejudices also present a stumbling block for some people when they encounter the narrative of the Larger Sutra.

Shinjin, however, is not mere belief in a set of phrases, events or ideas.  It is the relinquishment of doubt, which is resistance to the working of the Primal Vow, embodied as the Name. The entrusting heart is not self-willed  conviction. (CWS, p. 458)

This is the nub of the difficulty associated with the Pure Land way. It is simply difficult for us to disentangle our own intellectual creations and emotional desires from the quest for attainment. Hence, our only option is to abandon every effort on our part and to surrender to the working of the Vow. Shinran says:

‘For the foolish and ignorant who are ever sinking in birth-and-death, the multitudes turning in transmigration, it is not attainment of the unexcelled, incomparable fruit of enlightenment that is difficult; the genuine difficulty is realizing true and real shinjin. Why? Because this realization takes place through the Tathagata’s supportive power; because it comes about wholly through the power of great compassion and all-embracing wisdom. If pure shinjin should be realized, that mind will not be inverted; that mind will not be vain or false. Thereupon that sentient being of extreme evil, profound and immense, will realize the mind of great joy and receive the veneration and love of all the sacred honored ones.’ (CWS, p. 79)

Is there anything more wonderful than this? What an extraordinary and unwarranted gift! What can we express in response but profound gratitude? What can we do but trust it and relinquish any effort? How can we not accept the Name and say the nembutsu?

‘Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida!’ (CWS, p. 662)

Namo Amida Butsu!