Adventures : Japan Tales (21)

Reflections on Shinran’s Pure Land Teachings

I just finished viewing an animated film titled ‘Shinran-sama: His Wish & Light’, which is a summarised biography of Shinran, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (True Pure Land School – the most widely practised Buddhist tradition in Japan today). It was created in commemoration of the 750th anniversary (next year: 2010) of Shinran’s passing. I wanted to buy the DVD back in Japan while visiting the gift shop of Nishi Hongwanji Temple, but due to budget constraints, I did not. Thankfully, a friend has a copy here in Singapore to loan. You can catch a trailer of it at

Below are some dialogues from the show, which resonated with me in one way or another, followed by personal unenlightened comments on them, with a tinge of perspectives from the Chinese Pure Land tradition. (I’m new to Shinran’s teachings, and am interested in various interpretations of the Pure Land teachings across different Buddhist traditions. Comments are most welcomed. Please note that the dialogues are unlikely to be quoted totally verbatim from the historical characters.)

Similar Faith?

Honen: (Hearing a commotion at his cottage in Yoshimizu, where he teaches) What seems to be the problem?
Monk 1: That Zenshin! (Who later became Shinran)
Honen: Did Zenshin  do something wrong?
Monk 2: He said that Honen’s (their master) Shinjin (entrusting heart – wholehearted and unwavering entrusting to an acceptance of Amida’s Primal Vow* as we intone the Nembutsu) and his Shinjin are the same.
Monk 1: We cannot understand how a young monk like Zenshin who came here just a few years ago, can say that he holds the same Shinjin as Master Honen, who has fully come to understand the Nembutsu (mindfulness of Buddha) path.
Zenshin: There is no difference. If Shinjin were a matter of self-power, there would be a difference according to the level of practice. Good-bad, high-low, superior-inferior. But with Shinjin of Other-power, there is no difference. Both Master Honen’s Shinjin and my Shinjin are the same.
Monks: Are you still saying that!?
Honen: Stop that at once! (The monks bow.) I received my Shinjin from Amida Buddha. Zenshin also received his Shinjin from Amida Buddha. Therefore there is no difference. If any of you have a different Shinjin from me, you will not go to the same Pure Land that I will go to.

Comments: [*The Primal (18th) Vow: ‘If, when I (Dharmakara Bhikkhu, who became Amida Buddha) attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters (everywhere), with sincere mind entrusting themselves, aspiring to be born in my (Pure) land, and saying my Name (Amida Butsu; Amituofo; Amitabha Buddha) perhaps even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment (Buddhahood).’]

We tend to think that confidence to be born in Pure Land is mostly dependent upon self-power. However, much of this confidence really comes from the Other-power of Amida Buddha, when he manifests in various ways during our practice to inspire unshakable faith. This is so because it is natural to doubt our ability to be born in his Pure Land due to mindfulness of our limitations in merits and wisdom. The faith that Amida Buddha inspires in good Pure Land practitioners has to be of the same quality as he has equanimous compassion for all, while less good practitioners might seem to experience differences due to their own lack of equanimity.

Faith or Practice?

Narrator: On another occasion, senior monks raised the question of whether one’s birth is guaranteed when one entrusts oneself to Amida’s Primal Vow (Shinjin: based on one’s Entrusting Heart or ‘Deep Faith’ as key provision) or rather, on the merits that have been earned through the number of times the Nembutsu (name of Amida Buddha) is recited (based on Practice as key provision). (The following scene show the monks taking sides.)
Honen: (Upon entrance) Shinjin. Please put me down for Shinjin.
Zenshin: Certainly. (Writes Honen’s name on the ‘voting’ paper.)
Honen: Accepting Amida’s Primal Vow without any doubt is the true meaning of the Nembutsu. Merely reciting the Name is only a practice of self-power. We must truly believe in Amida’s Primal Vow.

Comments: Among the Three Provisions (for birth in Pure Land) of faith (in ability to be born in Pure Land), aspiration (to be born there) and practice (for birth there, mainly by mindfulness of Buddha), faith comes first, thought the trio is actually interconnected and ideally equally strong. Without strong faith as the key provision, strong practice is inadequate for birth in Pure Land. If one has to choose between nurturing faith or practice due to some reason, strong faith should be the priority, which should ideally lead to strong aspiration to be born in Pure Land. In a sense, nurturing strong faith and aspiration constitute the primary practice, while merely having strong practice in terms of chanting much with a lot of concentration without enough faith or aspiration is simply not enough. Strong faith (and aspiration) inspires strong practice to, as strong faith connects us more readily to Amida Buddha.

Trust in Buddha

Upon reaching Sunuki, Kozuke, where there were remains of great devastation, Shinran has a terrifying vision of great suffering, and runs into a small temple, where he chanted continuously for four to five days alone.

Shinran: (Narrates) I could not help but chant, wanting to help those who are suffering. I began to chant the Pure Land Sutras a thousand times. However, it was at that time…
Voice: Shinran.
Shinran: Master Honen?
Voice: The only thing to do is to leave it up to the Buddha.
Shinran: Master Honen! What have I done? How could I have thought that there was more than the Buddha’s Name? I almost left the path which I have so deeply believed in. And to think that I could do something so ignorant, despite believing in Amida’s Primal Vow.

Comments: Shinran had mistakenly clung to self-power too much, thinking that the best way to help the deceased in suffering was to personally generate as much merits as possible through Sutra-chanting, for dedication to them. This is not to say the chanting of Sutras for dedicating merits (and sharing the wisdom within them) is useless, but that merits created via self-power for others is severely limited in comparison to the already present and boundless merits of Other-power (of the Buddhas). Shinran was shocked that he had almost forgotten the importance of mindfulness of this Other-power instead, which could help not only himself, but those who generate faith in it too.

Evil We Do

Honen: To satisfy our hunger, we must hunt animals and catch fish. However, as long as we are living, that cannot be helped.
Man: Yes. But I am a bad person who kills wild boars for a living. What can I do?
Wife: We are very worried.
Honen: Now, it’s not only the lives of wild boar, and fish that we are receiving.
Man: You mean [it is through] the lives of the many things around us that we are able to live.
Wife: You mean, Amida wiil save even a person like me?
Honen: (Nods) Amida is a Buddha of great compassion. In expressing our joy to Amida, who with great compassion tries to save those who have done evil things, we recite the Nembutsu, which is the calling of Amida’s name, Namu (‘Homage to’ or ‘Refuge in’) Amida Butsu (Amitabha Buddha).

Comments: Speaking as a vegan, it is possible to live without hunting or consuming animals, though it is true that even the vegan diet might indirectly implicate deaths of insects and animals in the process of growing, harvesting and transporting crops, albeit to a much lesser degree (as breeding and eating animals would require many times more crops.) I take it that Honen was implying that, as I had come across a stone pillar at the entrance of Honenin (a temple in Kyoto named after him) that barred the bringing of meat into it, meaning he must have supported the vegetarian cause strongly. In the conversation above, he was emphasising Amida Buddha’s impartial compassion, even for those who have killed, probably expecially so for the case of the man and his wife, who expressed repentance at having killed much. However, if they were truly touched by Amida Buddha’s compassion and truly repented, they would stop their killing and change their occupation (as killing is taught by the Buddhas as an unskilful livelihood).

Pure Land is for ‘Sinners’

Man: (Inside Shinran’s cottage in Inada) Master Shinran, please tell me! I have killed countless enemy warriors on many battle fields. With my skills in warfare, I have become successful at earning my position. In doing so, I am afraid that I as well as my children and all of their descendants may not be able to go to the Pure Land.
Shinran: Amida Buddha has vowed to save all people without exception. The Buddha as long been aware of our sinful characters and inability to rid ourselves of our greedy desires.
Man: He has?
Shinran: (Nods) The Primal Vow of Amida is to save the fools like us who cannot live without doing evil acts.
Man: That would include me.
Shinran: It is wonderful. I cannot help but to be grateful for the Buddha’s compassion and recite the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu.

Comments: The very rationale of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vows is for helping as many beings as possible, including the ones with the most negative karma. It is possible to rid ourselves of our negative tendencies to attain enlightenment, but for most, it would be very difficult and it would require a very long time over many lifetimes, because these tendencies are deeply rooted. Paradoxically, the moment we truly embrace the compassion of Amida Buddha, we are likelier to uproot these negative tendencies more diligently, as we are transformed by His compassion, as we tune in more to our Buddha-nature. Birth in Pure Land serves to provide an environment and the best teachers (Amida Buddha and various Bodhisattvas) facilitating more efficient uprooting of all negative tendencies, leading to enlightenment.

Amida as Compassionate Father

Girl: With all that you did, you must have had many disciples.
Shinran: Being fellow practitioners, we are all equals, so I did not have any disciples. Not one.
Girl: Huh?
Shinran: The teaching of the Nembutsu is received through Amida. It is not something that I gave to everyone. We are all children of the Buddha. Therefore there are no masters or disciples.

Comments: True Pure Land teachers acknowledge their master (guru) to be Amida Buddha (and Shakyamuni Buddha, who introduced Amida Buddha to us), while not seeing themselves to be the masters of those they teach. They too see themselves as disciples or spiritual ‘children’ of the enlightened, whose love for us is greater than that of parents. They see themselves as mere humble messengers of Amida Buddha’s great compassion. Seeing themselves as also unenlightend beings, this is a reflection of Amida Buddha’s equanimous view of us all as unenlightened beings. (Even masters who were manifested Bodhisattvas present themselves humbly – to serve as good examples.)

Entrusting to Buddha

Monk: So it’s true that we will be born in the Pure Land?
Shinran: I don’t know. I do not know whether the Nembutsu is the cause for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it will lead me into hell. If I could attain Buddhahood by endeavoring in other practices, but instead fell into hell because I recited the Nembutsu, I might feel as though I had been deceived. However, no matter what practice I may take up, I am a foolish being unable to become a Buddha. Therefore, hell is where I will end up. That is because I am not a worthy enough person to say that I had been deceived, If Amida’s Primal Vow which tries to save a foolish being such as myself is true, then Shakyamuni’s teaching cannot be false as well. Which means that (Master) Shan-tao’s (Second Patriach of Pure Land Buddhism) teaching must be true as well. Therefore, Honen, who has followed their teaching cannot be telling lies. And so, if Honen’s words are true, and the exact teaching which I transmit is exactly what Honen is saying, then surely what I say cannot be meaningless. This is how I entrust myself to the Buddha.

Comments: The above paradoxically illustrates how Shinran’s faith in Amida Buddha arose via realising he had no choice but to have faith in him. Earlier, he had exhausted practice of other Dharma methods, with no breakthrough, till he came across Honen’s Pure Land teachings. (While this was the case for him, it might not be for all others due to different karmic affinities.) Actually, mindfulness of Buddha can never lead to hell, as our last thoughts connect us to a corresponding destination of rebirth. This is taught by all other Buddhist tradtions too. Interestingly, the more one thinks it’s likely for one to be reborn in the hells, the more wholeheartedly one might embrace mindfulness of Amida Buddha out of humble choicelessness, leading to greater likelihood of being born in His Pure Land.

Rejoice in Mindfulness of Buddha

Yuien: Some decades have passed since I, Yuien, encountered the teaching of the Nembutsu. I feel I have an understanding of the teaching of Amida. However, if reciting the Nembutsu is such a wonderful thing, why do I not feel like dancing for joy? Such a joyous feeling does not come over me. It is not only that. Despite knowing that this world is impermanent, I have never had an urge of wanting to go to the Pure Land.
Shinran: Is that what was bothering you? Yuien, to tell you the truth, I too, have felt the same way. By the very fact that I do not dance in rejoice, I realize that my birth in the Pure Land is definite.
Yuien: How is that so?
Shinran: It is all because of our blind passions. Amida has known all along that we are foolish beings. Knowing all along, this is why Amida made the Primal Vow. We must not be left without knowing of Amida’s compassion. Despite knowing that we will be born in the Pure Land when we become ill, we worry about whether or not we will die. This is all a result of our blind passions.
Yuien: Unsure? Exactly. I can’t decide. If that is so, does that mean that Amida has compassion even for someone like me?
Shinran: Yes, that’s exactly so. In appreciating the Nembutsu, if I should immediately want to go to the Pure Land, possibly, quite possibly, I could be doubted for not having any blind passions. Having received the Nembutsu, you were made aware of your own ignorance. Rather than being sadden of not being able to let go of your blind passions, appreciate the fact that Amida will not abandon you, and that someday you will be reborn into the Pure Land.

Comments: Birth in Pure Land is exactly suitable for those who don’t feel strong rejoice in its teachings, for those who don’t feel sufficiently compelled to be born there due to their heavy attachment to the worldly. Paradoxically, realising this brings strong joy, and helps to urge one to be born there. With this generation of strong faith and aspiration, the right practice will be undertaken and birth in Pure Land becomes assured.

Unconditional Compassion

Throughout the film, it was mentioned that Amida Buddha’s compassion is always with us. But if so, why were there also many incidents of great suffering among the masses in Shinran’s time? The truth is, all Buddhas do have boundless unconditional love for us, but whether we experience it is subjected to how strongly we let our negative karma overwhelm us, and whether we have created the right conditions to encounter their love via right Dharma practice. It’s just like the sun is always shining in the day, but we need to step into the sunlight, to bask in its warmth, instead of staying in the shadows while lamenting of the sun’s ‘limitations’. If all beings were to mindfully bask in the light of the Buddhas’ compassion and wisdom, this world would transform to be a Pure Land in the moment – because that would also be when they see their own Buddha-nature. Amituofo!

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