If you desire to free yourself quickly from birth-and-death, of the two excellent teachings leave aside the Path of Sages and choosing, enter the Pure Land way. (Honen Shonin, CWS, p. 512)
There are eighty-four thousand Dharma gates, of which the Pure Land way is one. Eighty-three thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine of them belong to the Path of Sages. Shakyamuni Buddha taught all of them. Both paths are excellent teachings. Which one should I choose?
It depends. What does it depend upon? It depends on self-awareness. It depends on who I am.
Many sages, indeed, practiced the Pure Land way. But it was part of a group of religious practices that they engaged in.
Honen Shonin suggests that we make a choice, and this choice depends upon our capability. (CWS, p. 244) He was not the first of the Dharma Masters to suggest such a choice. The first of them, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva did so too:
In the Buddha’s teaching, there are countless gates. Just as there are difficult and easy among the paths of this world–for journeying overland is full of hardship while sailing on board a boat is pleasant–so it is with the paths of bodhisattvas. Some engage in rigorous practice and endeavour; others quickly reach the stage of non-retrogression through the easy practice of entrusting as the means for attaining it. (Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, CWS, p. 22)
Tao ch’o (562-645) was the first Dharma Master to identify the two paths as ‘The Path of Sages’ and ‘The Pure Land Path’. He felt that the time had arrived wherein practice in the Path of Sages was no longer possible because of the rise of the Age of Declining Dharma. Nonetheless the choice lies before us still. Many schools other than the Pure Land path continue to thrive. No one would–or should–suggest that there is no value in them. To think that way is a serious mistake.
The Pure Land Path was devised with certain people in mind–you and me. The Buddha Dharma has universal relevance. But not everyone feels he or she needs to follow it. People turn to the Dharma because they recognise within themselves the truth of suffering, which is the first of the Four Noble Truths expounded in Shakyamuni Buddha’s first sermon. Not everyone comes to this realisation.
In similar fashion, we recognise within ourselves that we are ‘ordinary’ men and women. Not everyone comes to such an awareness. But we know ‘I do not have the capacity to follow the Path of Sages.’ It was for just such a person as me, and you, that Amida Buddha made the Primal Vow.
Amida is not concerned with those who can make their own way to the Other Shore. His Vow is for ordinary beings (bonbu).
Suppose that all other schools joined together in declaring, ‘The nembutsu is for the sake of worthless people; the teaching is shallow and vulgar.’ Even then, without the slightest argument one should simply reply, ‘When foolish beings of inferior capacity like ourselves, persons ignorant of even a single letter, entrust themselves to the Vow, they are saved. Since we accept and entrust ourselves to this teaching, for us it is the supreme dharma … (A Record in Lament of Divergences, CWS, p. 669)
We decide which path to choose when we respond to Amida Buddha’s bidding. It is not a wholly rational decision. But when, deep down we hear his call, it becomes urgent for us to respond; and we are certain that it was the right decision for evermore.