The bodhisattva vehicle

The four vehicles are: first, the Buddha vehicle; second the bodhisattva vehicle; third, the pratyekabuddha vehicle; fourth, the sravaka vehicle. The Pure Land school belongs to the bodhisattva vehicle. (Lamp for the Latter Ages, CWS, p. 534]

Shakyamuni Buddha, the Giver of Sutras; Gandhara (modern Pakistan/Afghanistan) ca. first century of the Common Era

This week I will continue with an exploration of the eighth letter in Lamp for the Latter Ages, which is a collection of Shinran Shonin’s letters to his disciples. Shinran wrote these letters in response to enquiries from distant disciples after he had left them behind in Kanto to live in Kyoto. He appears to have been motivated to return to Kyoto in 1234 so that he could continue working on his major anthology of Pure Land scriptures, The True Teaching Practice and Realisation.

The eighth letter of Lamp for the Latter Ages is essentially a list of categories to which the Pure Land school belongs; thus identifying its place within the overall wider scope of the Buddha Dharma. Here Shinran identifies the Pure Land school as belonging to the bodhisattva vehicle.

These days it is more common to refer to the participating groupings within Buddhism by other names. For example the only surviving school of the sravaka (‘hearer’) vehicle is the Theravada of southern Asia. Terms like ‘Mahayana’ (great vehicle) are familiar to us but this term is not very helpful, in my view. It is usually synonymous with the term bodhisattva vehicle but does not tell us much.

The bodhisattva vehicle is alive in the biographical details of Shakyamuni Buddha. This is not only in regard to his birth, death and life some twenty-five centuries ago, but also of the jataka—birth stories, which span the endless aeons that he spent seeking enlightenment for his own sake and for the sake of all beings.

Shinran’s reminder that the Pure Land school belongs to the bodhisattva vehicle is sometimes forgotten in discourse about our school, but it is the most important aspect of it and should never be forgotten. Birth in the Pure Land is not an end in itself. It is a commitment to the way of a bodhisattva, in which people of shinjin participate:

The mind that aspires to attain Buddhahood
Is the mind to save all sentient beings;
The mind to save all sentient beings
Is true and real shinjin, which is Amida’s benefiting of others. (CWS, p. 365)

This means that Amida’s entrusting heart, which is imparted to people of nembutsu by the working of the Primal Vow, is to enable them to become Buddhas upon birth in the Pure Land.

Those who reach the Pure Land of happiness
Return to this evil world of five defilements,
Where, like the Buddha Shakyamuni,
They benefit sentient beings without limit. (CWS, p. 329)

The official teaching of our Hongwanji school reflects this reality with great clarity. The document entitled The Essentials of Jodo Shinshu – My Path describes our teaching in this way:

Attaining ‘entrusting heart’—awakening to the compassion of Amida Tathagata (Buddha) through the working of the Primal Vow—we shall walk the path of life reciting Amida’s Name (Nembutsu). At the end of life, we will be born in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood, returning at once to this delusional world to guide people to awakening.