Then the Buddha said to all those in the great assembly, ‘Among the immediate causes of all sentient beings’ attainment of supreme perfect enlightenment, the foremost is a true teacher.’ (CWS, p. 134)
Without a true teacher we will never hear about the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. A true teacher is someone whose guidance leads us to enlightenment. But, a teacher can not give us enlightenment; he or she can only lead and guide us. The rest is up to us. It amounts to a decision we make.
In the case of nembutsu followers, probably the most succinct explanation of what happens to us if we are guided well is in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:
I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201. (CWS, p. 290)
What is it to take refuge in the Primal Vow? This is described in the Larger Sutra, in the passage on the fulfilment of the eighteenth Vow:
All sentient beings, as the hear the Name, realise even one thought-moment of entrusting heart (shinjin) and joy, which is directed to them from Amida’s sincere mind, and aspiring to be born in that land, they then attain birth and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression. (CWS, p. 80)
The ‘Name’, Namo Amida Butsu, is Amida Buddha.
The word ‘hear’ in the passage from the Larger Sutra means that sentient beings, having heard how the Buddha’s Vow arose – its origin and fulfilment – are altogether free of doubt. (CWs, p. 112)
That is to say, the arising of the Vow is the eighteenth Vow among Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows and its fulfilment occurs when we ‘realise one thought-moment of entrusting heart. ‘ This is cause and effect.
Although this is a simple and pure thing, it is complicated by our karmic make-up, if I can use that phrase. So there are many ways that this happens. I believe that it can even occur without our realising the significance of it at the time.
Somewhere along life’s way for each one of us there comes a moment when we become aware of the need for salvation: to find absolute relief from the thrall of birth-and-death, from samara. But it is not just for ourselves alone. It is for all beings. And a teacher pops up.
Apart from meeting an individual, who says, ‘Put your trust in Amida Buddha’ (to quote from the Letters of Rennyo Shonin), perhaps you take a book with an intriguing title down from the shelf of a bookstore, or you come across something on the web. We have probably already become acutely aware that the problem of birth-and-death is beyond us.
Behind all teachers, though, is the light of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, Amida Buddha. It is Amida Buddha whom Shakyamuni Buddha came to reveal. It is he who has been waiting for us over endless æons. It is Amida Buddha that speaks though someone who says to us:
‘Put your trust in Amida Buddha.’
Namo Amida Butsu.