forestlightIn Jodo Shinshu there is a standard for deciding between good and evil. Good is whatever is in accord with the mind of Amida Buddha.  Evil is anything that is not in accord with the mind of  the Buddha. The good refers especially to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha,  which is Amida’s Dharma. It manifests the mind common to all Buddhas: the mind of unconditional compassion.

The Contemplation Sutra attests to these facts:

‘The Buddhas’ mind is great compassion. It embraces sentient beings with unconditional benevolence.’ (PLS, p. 87)

Such compassion is only realised by Buddhas because they have completed the six paramitas (perfections) culminating in the perfection of wisdom: all things are empty (shunya). This is not mere nothingness but transcendence arising from the demolition of all concepts. From perfect wisdom comes perfect, unconditional compassion.

Compassion is the principal practical quality of all enlightened beings. It is quite wrong to characterise Pure Land Buddhism as having exclusive claim to compassion.  All schools of Mahayana Buddhism have a similar focus.  For example, the most important aspect of Zen is the compassionate bodhisattva vows. Zazen (sitting) is only a means to their fulfilment. Similarly, Shinran’s strongest focus is on the light, or wisdom, of Amida Buddha. Wisdom and compassion have equal emphasis in all schools of Mahayana.

In Jodo Shinshu those who realise deliverance through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha naturally live a life of reciprocity. They strive to repay the Buddha’s unconditional compassion by extending it to all beings.

The first aspect of this is to say the nembutsu so that living beings may hear the call of the Buddha’s Vow. But there is also a social aspect associated with our conduct. We try our level best to bring the Buddha’s unconditional great compassion to bear in our relations with all sentient beings.

As Shinran says in the Tanni Sho, this is difficult for unenlightened creatures like we ordinary folk (bombu) who accept the embrace of Amida’s Vow and say the nembutsu.  We can barely distinguish between good and evil. (CWS, pp. 663 & 679)

But Shinran also suggests that with long faithful engagement with the nembutsu of the Primal Vow, we develop warmth for fellow practicers. (CWS, p. 551) I think  this also tends to expand beyond the sangha to reach into all of our relationships. In non-enlightened terms we may, perhaps, characterise a Buddha’s compassion as inspiring us with growing empathy or love for all beings, which grows through long association with the nembutsu.

The human manifestation of the good, the Buddha’s mind of compassion expressed in the Primal Vow, is fellow-feeling, or empathy, or simply kindness.

True Disciple of the Buddha

The fruit of a pomegranate, March 2015

Shinran Shonin writes about what it means to be a true disciple of the Buddha in the third section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. What makes one a true disciple of the Buddha is the certain realisation of nirvana. To teach the way out of samsara and to realise nirvana is the purpose common to all Buddhas. Because it results in nirvana, the diamondlike heart and mind that is shinjin fulfills the vocation of all Buddhas.

This what Shinran wrote:

‘In the term true disciple of Buddha, true contrasts with false and provisional. Disciple indicates a disciple of Sakyamuni and the other Buddhas. This expression refers to the practicer who has realized the diamondlike heart and mind. Through this shinjin and practice, one will without fail transcend and realize great nirvana; hence, one is called true disciple of Buddha.’ (CWS, p. 117)

While the ‘shinjin and practice’ is of Amida Buddha, the disciple is of Shakyamuni Buddha and the other Buddhas. According to the Chinese Dharma master Shan-tao, the true disciple of the Buddha is one who knows the ‘deeply entrusting mind’ (jinshin):

Deep mind is the deeply entrusting mind. There are two aspects. One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha’s Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth.’ (CWS, p. 85)

The two aspects of deeply entrusting mind are inseparable features of one deep mind. Of these the first is a stunning awareness, indeed, belief, of our failure to realise the ‘teaching of all Buddhas’, which is:

‘Do not commit evil; perform a multitude of good acts;

Purify your own mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.’ (BD, p. 39)

The sutras serve to amplify nothing more than this basic teaching.

So the ‘deep mind’ is one of sorrow and of joy. Simultaneously,  you know that you have fallen infinitely short of the expectations of the Buddhas; yet, you are their true disciples entirely by virtue of the Vow of Amida Buddha.

Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow affords a privilege that is wonderful beyond expression.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Seikatsu Shinjo

The Wisteria Crest of the Honganji Schools of Buddhism

After centuries of observation, our Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha denomination of Buddha Dharma has been able to formulate a statement that expresses what it means to be a nembutsu person of shinjin.  My one reservation about the Jodo Shinshu no seikatsu shinjo (Jodo Shinshu Creed) is that it implies an inherent eclipse of form over spirit. Given, however, that, from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho to the Letters of Rennyo, it is understood that a person of nembutsu is clearly evident in his or her demeanour, it is also apt.

Although we should not make too much of this, our inward disposition is often manifested in our outward attitude.  In fact, nothing is more revealing than the things we say and do, especially when under stress. That is just an uncomfortable fact of life. There is also an important place for outward attitude in the development of inward life. So it is, that, when a person complains that the Seikatsu Shinjo expresses ‘high ideals’ the response given in the Jodoshinshu Handbook for Laymen is that ‘through practice, the [Seikatsu Shinjo] can become imbued into the flesh and blood of the follower’. (HBL, p. 55)

The Seikatsu Shinjo, is obviously intended as both a training tool and an outward expression of one’s inner life. To my mind this is very sound. The Name calls to us to entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow; when we have taken that step, it becomes the nembutsu, the outward manifestation of the shinjin within.

The Seikatsu Shinjo is made up of four clauses, each divided into two sentences.  In every clause the first sentence reflects our inner disposition, and the second, a common attitude and outward manifestation of it.

The first clause is easy. We ‘put our trust in the Vow of Amida Buddha’ – not just any Buddha, but exclusively and absolutely on a particular Buddha and that Buddha’s Vow. The second sentence speaks of the natural outcome of this shinjin – the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu.

It seems clear to me that the Seikatsu Shinjo emerges in our industrial world as a simple, accurate and inspiring statement, which can obviate the need for extensive study and even attendance every week at the temple – given the extraordinary demands that are made on working men and women in our world today.

Here it is:

I put my trust in  the Vow of Amida Buddha.
Reciting Namo Amida Butsu, let us live life to the utmost with strength and joy.

I look to the Light of Amida Buddha.
Constantly reflecting upon myself let us strive to live a life of gratitude.

I shall follow the teaching of Amida Buddha.
Awakening to the right path, let us share the true Dharma with others.

I rejoice in the Compassion of Amida Buddha.
Mutually respecting and aiding each other, let us endeavour to work for the good of all.

Far from being an eclipse of form over spirit, or a demanding mandate, the Seikatsu Shinjo is a simple and natural expression of the life of nembutsu.

Namo Amida Butsu.

The great galleon

galleonLast November I wrote about my admiration for Kosho Yamamoto Sensei and discussed his pioneering work as a translator of Jodo Shinshu texts – and some other Buddhist classics as well, for example, the Nirvana Sutra. One of the books he translated in full was the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.  It was published by Karinbunko, which, I think, was Yamamoto’s own publishing company.

In the preface of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho  Shinran opens with the observation that the ‘universal Vow (guzei) [of Amida Buddha] is .. the great vessel (daisen) bearing us across the ocean [of samsara] difficult to cross (nandokai).’ (CWS, p. 3). Instead of ‘great vessel’ in CWS, both the Numata and Ryukoku translations say ‘great ship‘.

Instead of these terms, Kosho Yamamoto Sensei translates that sentence, ‘His inconceivable vow is a great galleon that passes us across the flood of birth and death.’

Whereas the other translations are strictly correct in their use of words, Yamamoto Sensei immediately fires our imagination with the most colourful imagery. His use, in this passage, of of the words ‘galleon‘,  ‘passes‘ and ‘flood‘ is superb. They reflect the charm and power of his writing. For the moment, I would like to revel in his use of ‘great galleon’.

The correct, but prosaic, use in the other translations of ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’, furnish rather bland terms that do not do as well in conveying the actual power and reach of the compassionate Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Galleon‘ is, of course, an outdated term and has a similar meaning to ‘ship’ but the Vow is much more than a mere vessel, however large. It is infinite in its embrace and entirely void of any discrimination or limitation.

What is a galleon? It was a huge and sophisticated sailing-ship used as both war ships and merchant  vessels.  The largest of these full-rigged ships were, however, cargo carriers built by the Portuguese and the Spanish.  Of course, neither of these uses for the term ‘galleon’ does much to support my sense of the power of this word as a metaphor for the Primal Vow.

Rather than the factual significance of a galleon, its imagery is the source of its impact. Yamamoto Sensei, whether consciously or intuitively, uses the word ‘galleon’ to call upon the deep recesses of our memory and imagination to remarkable effect. He reminds us of the mercantile ships of the Spanish main – and the buccaneers that populated them -, which were regularly featured in movies at the time. It conjures huge hulking complex vehicles of the sea teeming with a wide range of colourful human beings: people of all kinds, good and bad, from all over the known world.

In this way, just by choosing a single word in the opening paragraph of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we get the message that, I believe, Shinran Shonin intends: the light of the universal Vow embraces everything and everyone; the vast tapestry of living things. Its reach and compassion is huge beyond reckoning like a great and complex galleon filled with its precious cargo – embracing the righteous and mendacious at the same time.

The great galleon of the Primal Vow safely carries to the other shore of nirvana all of us who step aboard it, no matter who we are. It is not by qualifying in some way or another but by simply getting on board the great galleon of the Primal Vow that we can reach the other shore.

From the Shinran:

‘In reflecting on the great ocean of shinjin, I realize that there is no discrimination between noble and humble or black-robed monks and white-clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, old and young. The amount of evil one has committed is not considered; the duration of any performance of religious practices is of no concern. It is a matter of neither practice nor good acts, neither sudden attainment nor gradual attainment, neither meditative practice nor nonmeditative practice, neither right contemplation nor wrong contemplation, neither thought nor no-thought, neither daily life nor the moment of death, neither many-calling nor once-calling. It is simply shinjin that is inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable. It is like the medicine that eradicates all poisons. The medicine of the Tathagata’s Vow destroys the poisons of our wisdom and foolishness.’ (Shinran, CWS, p. 107)

To a very special person

Pink and White Lotus
Pink and White Lotus, a fourteenth century Chinese silk scroll.

In the first fascicle of the sixth chapter of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin tells us that there are three kinds of people who say the nembutsu.

People of the nineteenth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows view the nembutsu as one practice among many. These people uphold many other religious practices as necessary to attain deliverance. These practices are described as ‘meditative and non-meditative good’.

The Pure Land Buddhism of the nineteenth Vow is called ‘The Essential Gate’.

Then there are the people of the twentieth Vow for whom the nembutsu is the greatest possible good. These people are certainly dedicated nembutsu followers, and they direct the merit that they accrue from saying the nembutsu towards birth in the Pure Land.

The Pure Land Buddhism of the twentieth Vow is called ‘The True Gate’.

Finally, there are the people of the eighteenth Vow. Shinran describes this Vow as  ‘The Ocean of the Selected Vow’.  (CWS, p. 240) The eighteenth Vow is also called ‘The Vow of Sincere Mind and Entrusting’ and the follower of this Vow is ‘The Person in the Stage of the Truly Settled’. Even on formal celebratory occasions, like their daily observances, the nembutsu of the  people of the eighteenth Vow is a joyful and spontaneous expression of  ‘sincere mind and entrusting’ – faith of the Primal Vow.

Of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows, the eighteenth is especially the Primal Vow. It is the Vow in which the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) is selected as the vehicle for birth in the Pure Land.  The intrinsic quality of this nembutsu is that it is an outward expression of what is within –  shinjin, or entrusting heart, transferred by Amida Buddha.

You will probably have a sense of being embraced by the inconceivable light of Amida Buddha’s compassion. Your nembutsu is uncluttered by any motive to attain an outcome – a person of single-minded nembutsu. You will never take to any other path and will continue in the nembutsu way as long as you can.

We read about such a person in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

‘Third, the person who continues in the nembutsu is a truly rare person; there is nothing that compares with such a one. For this reason, the white lotus is used as an analogy. The white lotus is called “the excellent flower among people,” or “the rare flower,” or “the best among the best,” or “the wondrous excellent flower.” What has traditionally been called the “blossom bearing the white tortoise” is none other than this flower. The person of the nembutsu is the excellent person among people, the wondrous, excellent person, the best among the best, the rare person, the very finest person.’ (CWS, p. 121)

To become a person of the eighteenth Vow is a simple matter. Shinran describes it perfectly towards the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and Rennyo Shonin encourages us to take this step in every one of his letters:

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

If you have not yet done so, why not follow Shinran’s example? Why don’t you accept Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin) and say the nembutsu?

Namo Amida Butsu!