Two Kinds of People

According to Shin Buddhism, there are two kinds of people who seek birth in the Pure Land: those of Other Power and those of self-power. This has been taught by the Indian Masters and Pure Land teachers. (Mattosho, 2; CWS, p. 525)

Part of Flinders Ranges Landscape by Hans Heysen, 1956
Part of Flinders Ranges Landscape by Hans Heysen, 1956

Last week we considered the first of Shinran Shonin’s letters, which have been collected in a book entitled Lamp for the Latter Ages (Mattosho). With this passage from the second letter as a focus, I would like to explore one insight into the relationship between the objectives and understanding of these ‘two types of people’.

There are nembutsu people who are fully engaged with the Pure Land path and follow one of the three Vows. Two of these Vows are the nineteenth and twentieth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows. Shinran tells us that these Vows are provided by Amida Buddha to lead nembutsu people, through compassionate means, to take ultimate refuge in the Primal Vow, which–among other descriptions–is known as ‘the Vow of shinjin, which is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth’.

Before we move on to discuss the two types of people that Shin Buddhism embraces, it is worth remembering that not all people of self-power see themselves as being part of the Pure Land path, even though they speak about the Pure Land and use its imagery.

Our particular lineage is descended from the Buddha through seven Dharma Masters. All of them are important, but it was the Chinese Master, Shan-tao, who especially recognised that we are saved by the working of Amida Buddha’s light and Name.

The Buddha alone initiates this approach, and there no sense at all that self-power can lead us to final liberation in the Pure Land. Such teachings have no relevance in our Shan-tao lineage but do have validity within the Path of Sages. Shinran delineates the attitude and approach of these practicers from the Pure Land way when he says,

But the monks and laity of this latter age and the religious teachers of these times are floundering in concepts of ‘self-nature’ and ‘mind only’. (CWS, p. 77)

Here Shinran is referring to the people that I have been talking about: the men and women who use the Pure Land scriptures and tradition in a sophisticated way that is nevertheless not strictly speaking the Pure Land way that we follow. Throughout his writings Shinran is very careful to maintain a clear distinction between these two approaches to the Dharma.

The phrases ‘self-nature’ and ‘mind only’ can also be accurately translated more expansively as ‘that one’s true nature is Buddha’ and ‘that the Buddha’s Pure Land exists in one’s mind’ (Ryukoku Translation Series V, p. 84.) Such ideas are not compatible with the genuine Pure Land teaching.

Nevertheless, I think it is important to stress, as Rennyo Shonin often does, that all of the eighty thousand Dharma teachings are legitimate vehicles for eventual deliverance and realisation.

But for those of us who seek deliverance by way of the Pure Land teaching, it is wise to be aware of these distinctions, so that we are not distracted from the nembutsu way by practices to which we are not called by the working of the Primal Vow.