The Threefold Pure Land Sutra

Further, in the expounding of all the various scriptures, there are not more than five kinds of exposition: first, the Buddha’s exposition; second the exposition of holy disciples; third the exposition of heavenly beings and hermit-sages; fourth the exposition of demi-gods; fifth the expositions of miraculous spirits. Among these five, take up the Buddha’s exposition and do not rely on the four other kinds. It should be known that the threefold Pure Land sutra is the true exposition of Shakyamuni Tathagata. (Lamp for the Latter Ages, 8; CWS, p. 534)

This quotation from a collection of Shinran Shonin’s letters, known as Lamp for the Latter Ages, reminds us of our focus as participants in the Pure Land school. In saying that the threefold Pure Land sutra is the true exposition of Shakyamuni Buddha, Shinran is demonstrating the consistency and focus of his teaching.

Everyone will know that the threefold Pure Land sutra is made up of three distinct parts, and that they form the Sutra Pitaka of our school. These are The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life; The Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life; and The Sutra on Amida Buddha.

In A Record in Lament of Divergences, article twelve, we read that there were disciples of Shinran who asserted that birth in the Pure Land was settled only for those who had read the sutras and commentaries. Shinran dismisses the claim out of hand, saying that a person who is confused is the one who needs to study -not those who accept Amida Buddha’s shinjin and say the Name without having engaged in any study at all.

It is the confused person who should ‘engage in study and understand the significance of the Primal Vow.’ (CWS, p. 668) Another reason for study is so that you can be sure to teach others accurately. A distorted account of the Dharma is a very serious matter because it can harm others.

Some people find that the threefold Pure Land sutra leads quickly to the turning of their hearts and minds towards the Pure Land way. To many disciples of the Buddha it is self-evident that the threefold Pure Land sutra is the clear and perfect truth that he came to teach.

In spite of this fortunate situation, it is more common for people to love the Sutra and its message but nevertheless find aspects of it difficult to grasp or assimilate. This is, in fact, a common experience in the Buddha Dharma. Commentaries have always played an important part in helping followers to access the meaning and intention of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching more readily.

The Commentaries are always read in conjunction with the Sutras, and they are not isolated from them.

The Pure Land school has a long commentarial tradition, going right back to the great exponent of the Bodhisattva Vehicle, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who is thought to have lived between 150 and 250 CE. His contribution to deeper insight into the sutras is so great and important that it is still a key part of the Pure Land teaching.

Shinran, too, is an especially fine master of the teaching. This is because — looking into the depths of his own heart and his own lived experience — he explains the threefold Pure Land sutra in the light of other aspects of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching and he also draws on the Commentaries of the Pure Land masters over hundreds of years before his time.

If there is any confusion about Shakyamuni’s teaching in the threefold Pure Land sutra, then the wisest thing to do is listen to Shinran. With patience, a questing heart and careful listening, there is every chance that you will come to understand the teaching well and find salvation, joy and inner strength.