Revised and completed by Zuio H. Inagaki
The Larger Sutra says:
If all sentient beings, hearing the Name and having joy in faith even once – through the Buddha’s sincere endowment – desire to be born in his land, they can instantaneously obtain birth and dwell in the Non-retrogressive State – excepted are those who have committed the five gravest offences and abused the right Dharma” (The fulfilment of the 18th Vow).
As I reverently contemplate ‘the fulfilment of the 18th Vow’, this passage is the consummate sacred teaching of all the teachings of the Buddha Sakyamuni; it reveals the inmost heart of all Buddhas; it is the essence of the Larger Sutra on which Shin Buddhism was founded; it is also the essence of the Three Sutras (The Larger Sutra, The Contemplation Sutra and The Smaller Sutra) of the Pure Land school.
Hearing the name:
There is no other way of salvation for those who are ignorant and evil, defiled with delusory thought and passions, than to hear and accept the Name – ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ – which is his call, ‘Come to me; come at once; I will assuredly save you and protect you. The Name is the manifestation of Amida’s great wisdom and great compassion; it is Amida’s Vow and Vow-Power in action. To obey his call without doubt and apprehension is to hear the Name. To hear the Name is the Pure Faith. Besides hearing the Name, no prayer is needed.
The saving power is the cause of our salvation. The saving power is the Name in action, which works through the Vow-Power. There is no cause of our salvation – Pure Faith – apart from the saving power that is embodied as the Name. To obey his call is to hear the Name. To hear the Name is to awaken Pure Faith; the essence of Faith is the Name itself, or his compassionate call, which comes to us through his Vow-Power – the saving power.
Therefore, ‘hearing the Name’ means complying with and accepting the saving power that becomes the cause of our salvation.
If a man hears and recites the Name with doubt, discrimination and ego-centric notions, he will be attached to the Name and seek to gain its merit for his own benefit; and so he will lose sight of Amida’s compassionate Vow-Power which is working through the Name.
Most aspirants hear the Name but do not know that their salvation is in the Name, and so aspire to be born in the Pure Land by reciting the Name many times or by strengthening their faith and devotion to Amida. It is a pity that they thus miss the essential point.
A man of Pure Faith is quite satisfied and contented as he is and has peace and joy in his heart, finding that his salvation is in the Name. This is what is meant by ‘hearing the Name’.
In this case, we must note that Pure Faith transcends the ordinary law of causation; it transcends the moral and religious disciplines and various types of meditation of self-power Buddhism.
Those who aspire for the perfect enlightenment and realize the highest good, should carefully examine: (1) the truth or path that they practice or believe in and; (2) their own ability.
The doctrine of self-power Buddhism is really in accord with truth. But it is too high and too difficult for the common people to practice. Any religion that is against the law of causation is not worthy of serious effort to follow. An ideal religion ought to be a religion that is easy to practice and accords with truth, that is, it must give the people intellectual satisfaction and emotional contentment as well. In this sense, Shin Buddhism is the ideal religion.
‘All sentient beings’ means that each and every living being is able to hear the Name. And the Name embodies the power to save all beings. In Shin Buddhism we can see the harmony between the ‘power to save’ and the ‘beings to be saved’.
People generally like to hear of wonders and miraculous signs. True Buddhists are not interested in wonders, for they know: (1) even devils (Maras) can perform miracles; (2) anyone who is pure at heart and ready to dissociate oneself from worldly affairs can learn to perform miracles; (3) a practiser who performs moral discipline and practices meditation can display some miracles; (4) the Buddha and Bodhisattvas of higher stages can perform miracles; and (5) there were many Bodhisattvas who actually performed miracles in India, China and Japan.
Buddhists aspire to attaining insight, or satori, or pure faith in order to become Buddha, and thereby become emancipated from delusions, karmic evils and passions. A religion that teaches the path that leads to the castle of Nirvana is the true religion. I can, therefore, define a true religion as ‘the way to enlightenmen’.
Every sentient being has Buddha-nature (a priori enlightenment) and so everyone can become a Buddha, but, as a matter of fact, in this age of defilement there is no one who can perfectly perform the disciplines of the self-power schools. Hereupon, the patriarchs of Shin Buddhism, taking up the Three Pure Land Sutras, showed us, ignorant and evil people, the way to the Pure Land. This way is Shin Buddhism.
The sutras, discourses and commentaries of Shin Buddhism are so voluminous that the ordinary people cannot easily find important passages through which they can attain the Pure Faith.
Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism, after having perused the whole Buddhist scriptures for 20 years on Mt. Hiei, became a disciple of Honen Shonin and studied the Pure Land school under his guidance. At last he found the true passage in the Larger Sutra by which every one can attain the Pure Faith.
That passage is:
‘All sentient beings, hearing the Name and having joy in faith even once, can instantaneously obtain birth’.
The passage is short, but the significance of ‘hearing the Name’ is deep and difficult to understand. Those who have a ‘self-power mind’ (self-attachment and contrivances) cannot readily understand the true significance of the passage.
In order to ‘truly hear (believe in) the Name’, one should fulfil the following conditions:
One should believe in the law of causation.
One should believe in the Three Treasures – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
One should believe deeply that one has been sinking in the sea of birth-and-death for innumerable kalpas, and that one has no hope of emancipation from evil karmas, for one is full of delusion, attachment and evil passions of love-and-hatred.
One should have an ardent aspiration for attaining enlightenment and becoming a Buddha.
One should think of one’s own death, which is coming at one’s heels, that is, one is ever threatened by death that may come at any moment.
One should think that one is now at one’s deathbed.
One should remember that at their deathbed all dying persons must experience utter darkness, fear, hopelessness and solitude.
One should remember that the hell-fire is waiting for one.
One should realize that one has no ability to practice the highest good or the highest meditation for the attainment of salvation for oneself.
One should realize that one is like a man who is thrown into the rough sea in the dark night.
One should be free from all superstitions that falsely promise exemption from diseases, calamities and poverty through prayer and worship, or through divination and fortune-telling.
‘All sentient being’ refers to all living beings whose minds are defiled with evil passions; ‘the Name’ implies Amida Buddha’s mind – wisdom and compassion; and ‘hear’ means the unity of sentient beings’ minds and Buddha’s mind, that is, through ‘hearing’ one attains Faith; ‘having joy in faith’ implies perfect satisfaction and contentment on the side of the practiser.
By hearing the Name and Amida’s call to the depth of our heart, the Buddha’s mind and our minds are united into one. Buddha’s mind is the great wisdom and compassion. The great wisdom and compassion are the cause for attaining enlightenment. The essence of Faith is Amida’s compassion and wisdom. Therefore, the Pure Faith is the cause of our birth.
Regarding the relation between compassion and wisdom, Master Donran (T’an-luan) said:
When a Bodhisattva has attained the absolute wisdom, he sees with it the delusory and false state of sentient beings, and then he raises the great compassion to save them.” Amida’s compassion is ‘compassion in wisdom'; and his wisdom is ‘wisdom in compassion.’ They are not separate. The essential virtue of the mind-itself, or Buddha-nature is the absolute, great wisdom and the great compassion, which has the power to deliver beings from their karmic bondage. The power is embodied in Amida’s Name.
Shin Buddhism can be called ‘a religion of the Name’ or ‘a religion of Amida’s Vow’ or ‘a religion of Buddha’s wisdom’ or ‘a religion of great compassion’ or ‘a religion of Pure Faith’ or ‘a religion of birth through Faith’.
Faith in Shin Buddhism means responding to Amida’s call with obedience and with singleness of heart without entertaining any doubt.
‘Even once’ means responding to Amida’s call with single-minded entrusting and joyful heart and indicates the very moment when Pure Faith is established in one’s heart as the right cause for birth.
The Primal Vow addresses ‘all sentient beings in the ten quarters’. This shows that (1) Amida embraces all sentient beings in the ten quarters; (2) Amida’s Vow is extensive and universal. The ‘fulfilment of the Primal Vow’ in the words of the Buddha Sakyamuni says ‘all sorts of sentient beings.’ This means that (1) Amida saves all people, wise and ignorant, good and evil, and (2) Amida’s compassion is great and effective.
In the 19th Vow, Amida vowed to save those who have practiced various meritorious acts, including meditation and reciting the Name. And in the 20th Vow, he vowed to save those who have recited the Name many times. But those two vows are the ‘Vows of expediency’ and do not reflect Amida’s true intention. Amida’s true intention is to save all kinds of people who entrust themselves to him, as shown in the 18th Vow. Amida’s true intention is expressed in innumerable ways; likewise his expediency is manifested in innumerable ways. The expedient Vows are meant to bring immature beings to prepare themselves for eventually coming to the true Vow. In the ‘One-Vehicle teaching of Amida’s Universal Vow’ which is the culmination of Mahayana Buddhism, there are no Two Vehicles (Hinayana teachings) or Three Vehicles (the teachings of self-power Buddhism for Hinayanists and bodhisattvas). The Two Vehicles and the Three Vehicles are the provisional teachings established as expedients for preparing people and leading them ultimately to the Path of the Other-Power revealed in the 18th Vow.
‘The Name’ is Amida’s Name glorified in the 17th Vow. The essence of the 17th Vow is the Name – “Namu Amida Butsu” – which contains all the merits and virtues of the absolute Truth and Reality. The Name is not a mere symbol; it is itself Amida – the embodiment of Universal Illumination and Eternal Life. Amida works through the Name and as the Name to endow sentient beings with inconceivable virtues, thereby delivering them from their karmic evils and their resultant suffering.
The Name which is revealed in the 17th Vow is Amida’s call. The Buddha Sakyamuni’s sincere admonition urging us to hear the Name is also Amida’s call; Amida makes the Name glorified by all the Buddhas so that all sentient beings may hear it. When we hear and receive the Name, there is no faith apart from hearing. Faith is to hear the Name. Sakyamuni appeared in this world with the sole objective of proclaiming the Name for the sake of human beings.
The essentials of Shin Buddhism can be summarized as follows:
Amida vowed that he would save all sentient beings by means of the Name.
The Name is the manifestation of Suchness, the absolute truth.
The Name is the manifestation of Amida’s great wisdom and great compassion.
The Name and Amida’s enlightenment are one and the same.
Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, and his merits and virtues are as great and inconceivable as those of the Name.
The Name represents Amida; and Amida abides in the Name. The Name and Amida are one and the same thing. So in Shin Buddhism we say: ‘Those who entrust themselves to Amida are saved’ and also ‘Those who hear and accept the Name are saved’.
Amida’s personality and Name, which represents the law of salvation, are distinguishable but in the realm of absolute truth they are one.
In Shin Buddhism, the Law is the power to save, embodied as the Name. The Name, when transferred to us, becomes our practice required for our attainment of birth in the Pure Land. The Name does all the work, and we just leave it to do its saving activity.
Shinran Shonin says: ‘The Name is the treasure sea of True Suchness.’
The Name and the Vow or Vow-Power have their distinct functions but they work together. The Name is promised in the Vow, and the Vow-Power works to accomplish the Name. Shin Buddhism declares, ‘Those who entrust themselves to Amida are saved'; but it also says, ‘Those who trust in the Vow are saved’. Furthermore, it is said, ‘Those who hear and accept the Name are saved'; again, it is said, ‘Those who have attained the Pure Faith are saved’. These expressions bear the same meaning.
Salvation through the Name cannot easily be understood. Although it is difficult to understand this intellectually, we can easily accept the Name and recite it as the Nembutsu. ‘To hear and accept the Name’ implies the awakening of Faith; ‘to recite the Name’ is our Practice. Faith and Practice are inseparable. The Nembutsu, as it spontaneously comes to our lips, is the Nembutsu of the Other-Power.
Unless we accept the fact that the Buddha Sakyamuni attained perfect Enlightenment – the highest spiritual state – we cannot possibly follow his teachings.
The Name is the life-line for those who are floundering in the ocean of birth-and-death.
The Name is like the boundless universe; it contains all merits and virtues.
The Name gives the true benefit to all who are doomed to eternal perdition through their evil karma.
The Name is the truth in action; it liberates all from self-created illusion.
The Name is like a sharp sword that cuts the chain of karmic bondage.
The Nembutsu is not a prayer or a mantra-like invocation.
We never call on Amida for salvation; we never pray to Amida for our birth in the Pure Land. Amida calls us, saying ‘Come to me; come straight to me! I will assuredly protect and save you as you are’.
The Nembutsu is the expression of our thankfulness and gratitude.
The Name is Amida’s call – the Vow-power to bring us to the Nirvana-Realm of Emancipation.
The Name has the irresistible power to make us obey his call.
One who sees Amida’s Body sees Amida’s Mind. The Buddha-mind is the great compassion, which delivers us from Samsara. But we, who are karma-bound and passion-ridden, cannot see Amida’s Body. Therefore, out of expediency, Amida makes us hear the Name. When we hear the Name, we are filled with Amida’s great compassion; that is the Pure Faith.
The Name accepted in us as the Pure Faith is the cause of birth in the Pure Land and subsequent attainment of Enlightenment. There is no Faith apart from the Name.
The Name produces Pure Faith; and from Pure Faith arises the Nembutsu.
If we speak from the standpoint of the Buddha, he saves all beings by making them hear the Name. This is called ‘salvation through the Name’.
If we speak from the standpoint of ordinary beings, they are saved through Faith. This is called ‘birth through Faith’.
‘Birth through the Name’ is the same as ‘birth through Amida’s Vow-Power’.
The Name, whose essence is Amida’s wisdom and compassion, is always active; it is itself the saving power. The Name, through its spontaneous activity, manifests itself in the aspirants’ mind and becomes their Faith. And Faith manifests itself on the lips of the aspirants as the Nembutsu – the utterance of the Name.
The Nembutsu without Faith is of no avail; one who utters such Nembutsu cannot enter the Pure Land. A person of True Faith, even though he may die without having time to utter the Nembutsu, will assuredly attain birth.
Pure Land Buddhism generally encourages recitation of the Nembutsu as the necessary condition for birth. But Shin Buddhism especially emphasizes the Pure Faith as the right cause for birth. A person of the Pure Faith spontaneously recites the Nembutsu at any time.
Honen and other masters often speak of birth through the Nembutsu. The Nembutsu, in this case, is not a self-power recitation of the Name. It refers to the Nembutsu originating from the Primal Vow and supported by the Vow-Power. It is the Nembutsu of the Other-Power.
The Other-Power is Amida’s Vow-Power. The Primal Vow produced the power, and the power works to fulfil the Vow.
Once generated, the Vow-Power never ceases to be. It works everlastingly to actualise the salvation of all living beings.
Ordinary people are attracted by the glorious features of the Pure Land and their desire for birth is often motivated by the pleasure which is promised there. Shinran Shonin saw beneath such glorious manifestations the Vow-Power which produced them and was working through them. This Vow-Power is the true spirit of Mahayana bodhisattvas.
Once we have encountered the Vow-Power and given ourselves up to its working, we do not worry about what we will be or where we are going. Our calculations which have directed our course of action are now replaced by Amida’s grand scheme of universal salvation.
The Path is open to everyone. It is difficult to enter upon it if we indulge in deliberation based on selfish desires. If we open our eyes and see things in Amida’s Light, the Path is right here. The Great Path of Universal Vow is the One-Vehicle Path, which leads all to the Castle of Nirvana.
For those with deluded minds, Samsara and Nirvana are different. Many of them seek Nirvana by extinguishing Samsara. Bodhisattvas see no distinction between Samsara and Nirvana. While dwelling in Nirvana’s state of tranquillity, they manifest themselves in various forms to save beings in Samsara.
For the enlightened minds, Buddha is everywhere, and every phenomenon is the Dharma-body. Even a rustle of dead leaves is the Buddha’s proclamation of the Dharma.
Realization of Enlightenment in the Pure Land does not mean that we gain something wonderful. On the contrary, we are deprived of all that we have – good and evil karma, ignorance as well as wisdom. In the state of complete ‘nothingness’ we are fully satisfied – enjoying the Eternal Bliss of Nirvana.
Shin Buddhism teaches us how to give ourselves up rather than how to practice and increase our merits in order to secure a better life in the future. But how could we give ourselves up unless someone receives us? That someone is Amida. He receives in his embracing arms all that we are – just as we are.
At the moment Faith is established in us, the long sequence of karmic causes and effects is terminated, and a new path of karma – the Path of Pure Karma – lies before us. This is the Path of the Nembutsu, the Path of Vow-Power.
Birth in the Pure Land is not the end of our spiritual quest but is the beginning of endless activity. By attaining birth in the Pure Land, we will be reborn as Bodhisattvas.
Buddhism is the religion of wisdom. Bodhi is the highest wisdom with which one intuitively realizes things as they really are – True Suchness. This wisdom penetrates to the depth of our evil karma and falsehood and, awakening great compassion, produces various methods of salvation. The Nembutsu is the easiest and most effective method applicable to us wretched bombu i.e., the ignorant and passion-ridden.
Buddhism is the religion of compassion. There are many religions of love but love cannot save people. Compassion as it is used in Buddhism is based on the wisdom which does not distinguish one from others. Compassion identifies others with oneself and does not seek reward. Compassion of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas reaches each and every living being, and removes the basic cause of their suffering.
Buddhism is the religion of upaya – skilful means. Different types of upaya are provided for different levels of people. By following appropriate upayas, people can attain higher spiritual stages until they reach Enlightenment. The Nembutsu is an upaya which is applicable to all beings – even to bodhisattvas. Great bodhisattvas, such as Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, practiced the Nembutsu for themselves and recommended it to all, thus originating the tradition of Shin Buddhism.
The Seven Patriarchs of Shin Buddhism each revealed the essentials of Amida’s law of salvation by drawing upon the Three Sutras and the works of their predecessors. Shinran perused all the scriptures available in his time, and systematized the Pure Land teaching in the Kyogyoshinsho under the six chapter headings: True Teaching, True Practice, True Faith, True Enlightenment, True Buddha and Land, and Transformed Buddhas and Lands.
Shinran’s intention was not to train his disciples as scholars, but to lead each of them to accept the Primal Vow in Faith and follow the Path of the Nembutsu. As the compass always shows the direction of the polar star, Shinran’s words never fail to indicate the right direction for us to follow – the Eighteenth Vow.
NAMO AMIDA BUTSU