The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life

To reveal the true teaching: It is the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. The central purport of this sutra is that Amida, by establishing the incomparable Vows, has opened wide the dharma-storehouse, and full of compassion for small, foolish beings, selects and bestows the treasure of virtues. – (Shinran Shonin, The Collected Works of Shinran, Vol. 1, p. 7)

Amida Buddha in meditation. Borobudur, Java
Amida Buddha in meditation. Borobudur, Java

It took quite a while for me to discover The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.

I started out listening to the Dharma quite young.  It began when I heard the story of Shakyamuni Buddha leaving his wife and his son, Rahula.  I heard how his groom Channa brought him his horse Kanthaka. I heard how sad they were that Shakyamuni Buddha was leaving them. Parting from those we love is so hard; so sad.

I heard how the gods made sure that Kanthaka’s hooves did not sound when they struck the ground so that the people in the palace and the surrounding suburbs were not roused from their slumbers. Shakyamuni was on his way, leaving his loved ones behind, in order to save all beings from suffering. I  thought, ‘How remarkable, how wonderful, how generous, how courageous this Gotama must have been to even think of saving suffering beings, let alone dedicating his life to it.’

Eventually I started listening to the Dharma. I studied a book about the Buddhist wisdom tradition – the Perfection of Wisdom – Prajnaparamita. I was captivated by this but its meaning eventually eluded me – as you would expect with a concept like that! I was not empty but full of afflicting passions. I somehow came to see that I was all ego – devoid of any real spiritual insight.

One day a friend told me about the nembutsu and how it was the union of evil, ignorant beings (Namo) and the Infinite (Amida Buddha). I knew the words for ‘the Infinite’ but, being distinctly finite myself, I came to realise that I did not truly understand this teaching very well either. I said the nembutsu diligently, hoping that my enthusiasm would save me. But it just made me tired and obsessive.

Then, one day, I took a book down from a shelf in a bookstore. It was number forty-nine in a series called The Sacred Texts if the East. This volume was called Buddhist Mahayana Texts. To my delight it began with a wonderful, poetic version of the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, up to the point of his Enlightenment. The next text was called The Larger Sukhavati-Vyuha – Description of Sukhavati The Land of Bliss. Eventually, I came to page forty-five:

The blessed Buddhas … glorify the name of the blessed Amitabha [Amida], the Tathagata, they proclaim his glory, they extol his virtue.  And why? Because all beings who hear the name of the blessed Amitabha, and having heard it, raise their thought with joyful longing, even for once only, will not turn away again from the highest perfect knowledge.

What is it to ‘hear’ the Name of Amida Buddha?

‘Hearing’ is to entrust oneself to the Name that embodies the Tathagata’s Vow. (Shinran – CWS, p. 495)

When, hearing the Name, entrusting heart is awakened, one enters the stage of the truly settled.  The struggle and the quest is over; deliverance is assured: Namo Amida Butsu

As Shinran Shonin says,

Amida, by establishing the incomparable Vows, has opened wide the dharma-storehouse, and full of compassion for small, foolish beings, selects and bestows the treasure of virtues

The culmination of the quest for truth by ‘small, foolish beings’ like us resides in The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.

[Note: The events I describe here occurred about forty years ago. I was reading an English translation  of the Sanskrit version of the The Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life by the great Oxford orientalist Professor F. Max Müller.  Shinran quotes this passage from  the Chinese version of the Sutra in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, see the first volume of The Collected Works of Shinran, page 80.]

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.