Bodhisattva Dharmakara

Bodhisattva Dharmakara, in his causal stage
Under the guidance of Lokeshvararaja Buddha,

Searched into the origins of the Buddhas’ pure lands,
And the qualities of those lands and their human beings and devas;
He then established the supreme, incomparable Vow;
He made the great Vow rare and all-encompassing.

In five kalpas of profound thought, he embraced this Vow,
Then resolved again that the Name be heard throughout the ten quarters. (CWS, p. 69)

Bodhisattva Dharmakara takes his Vows before Lokeshvararaja Buddha.
Bodhisattva Dharmakara takes his Vows before Lokeshvararaja Buddha.

Most Shin Buddhists hear these words at least once a day when they call to mind the working of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha by chanting the Shoshin Nembutsu Ge, the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu.

The Shoshin Nembutsu Ge comes at the end of the second chapter (True Practice) of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which is Shinran Shonin’s major annotated compilation of important quotes from the Pure Land tradition.

As everyone reading this will know, Dharmakara was the monk who took Vows before the Buddha of his time – Lokeshvararaja – and became a bodhisattva, a Buddha in the formative stage.  He was the bodhisattva who became the Tathagata (Buddha) of unhindered light – Amida Buddha.

Whenever we meet someone for the first time we usually do not know much about them. But a grown, mature adult has become the kind of person he or she is as a result of their upbringing, and the fulfilment of their original hopes and aspirations. For example, when we visit our doctor we are encountering a person who dedicated herself to study and endevour in order to realise a great aspiration – to save lives and help others.

The same process lies behind Amida Buddha who, as Shakyamuni Buddha taught, realised enlightenment ten kalpas ago. Amida Buddha, took the form of Bodhisattva Dharmakara, determined what he wanted to achieve, stating his intentions in his Vows, and then, through dedication to the path, realised enlightenment, becoming Amida Buddha.

Five kalpas is more than just a long time, ten kalpas is vastly greater. In Hymns of the Pure Land, (CWS, p. 340) Shinran explains in detail the meaning of the kind of time-span that is represented by the term kalpa. As a consequence of this, he is able to say

Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinte past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Shakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya. (CWS, p. 349)

Ten kalpas is such a long time that it stretches out to infinity.

When I first encountered the account of Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s career, which resulted in his becoming a Buddha, I found it hard to grasp, or comprehend. And that is how it must be, when we are confronted by such depth and wonder.

Yet, there is an important fact that is immediately apparent when we hear about Bodhisattva Dharmakara from Shakyamuni and Shinran:

As we learn of Amida Buddha’s background we come to see that this is a living Buddha, who for endless æons has actively sought to engage, with light and Name, those of us who so desperately need Amida’s help and guidance.

Namo Amida Butsu.