The Primal Vow

Photo by Mark Healsmith
Photo by Mark Healsmith

In his excellent introduction to Shin Buddhism Professor Kosho Yamamoto engages us in a fascinating discussion, which he titles, ‘What to Believe.’ He begins by telling us that we often say that we ‘get saved by the Other Power’ which ‘works on us from without.’ But then, he asks us to consider, what exactly is the ‘Other Power’?

As we have recently seen in this blog, Shinran Shonin defines Other Power very succinctly.  He says that is it the Primal Vow and nothing else:

Other Power is none other than the power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow. (CWS, p. 57)

So far, so good.  But Yamamoto invites us to ask, what exactly is it that ‘works’ on us? What is it that calls to us? What is the agent (so to speak) of the awakening of shinjin? We know that it is the ‘light’ and the Name, Namo Amida Butsu. The light that is Amida Buddha is inconceivable.

It is inconceivable but we know of its working in our happiness and joy.

The light of compassion reaches far, bestowing happiness;
Hence the Buddha is called ‘light of joy.’
Wherever it shines, joy of dharma is attained;
Thus, I pay homage to the great consolation. (T’an-luan; CWS, p. 195)

Nevertheless, the tangible, ‘bodily’ manifestation of the Primal Vow is the Name – Namo Amida Butsu.

The Primal Vow that was made following a meditation of over five kalpas and the practices over incalculable kalpas to its fulfilment are but manifestations of Amida Tathagata’s intent to deliver us sentient beings without fail. Towards this purpose, He laboured with great effort and established the Primal Vow called ‘Namo Amida Butsu’. (Rennyo Shonin, Shinshu Seiten, (1978) p. 370.

So, Other Power is the Primal Vow and the Primal Vow is the Name. Even so, most people speak of Amida Buddha – Amida Buddha’s shinjin (‘mida no shinjin). Indeed, the Contemplation Sutra tells us that, at the penultimate moment of her awakening, Queen Vaidehi saw Amida Buddha standing before her in the sky.

In the Shoshin Nembutsu Ge, for example, we say, ‘I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life, Homage to Inconceivable Light.’ The Tathagata of Immeasurable Life and Immeasurable Light is, of course, Amida Buddha.

It is the image of this manifestation of Amida Buddha that most of us replicate in our homes and temples as the principal image – honzon.  It is a wonderful image that always reminds us of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light – the Buddha of light that outshines the sun and moon and fills the universe.

Yamaoto Sensei says of the multiple form that is the focus of our attention:

Three things stand before one which seeks faith, which are: 1) Amida Buddha who saves, 2) the Vow, which is Amida’s Will to save shown in concrete, and 3) the Name, the working means by which communication is done with us beings to be saved.  (Shin Buddhism, Kosho Yamamoto, 1963)

In the concluding paragraph of this topic, Yamamoto Sensei tells us that it is up to us to choose for ourselves which of these we conceive of as the focus of our faith. He points out that Shinran and other writers also speak of Amida Buddha, the Primal Vow and the Name as essentially the same.

But the direct, tangible, and easy to conceive approach by Amida Buddha is the Great Practice, the Name.

The Name is complete, perfect and sufficient. Namo Amida Butsu.

Author: George Gatenby

Rev George Gatenby is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia.