The bodhisattva pitaka

The two collections of scripture are: first, the bodhisattava-pitaka; second, the sravaka-pitaka. The present teaching belongs to the bodhisattva-pitaka. (Shinran, Lamp for the Latter Ages, 8; CWS, p. 534)

Let us return to the eighth letter in the collection known as Lamp for the Latter Ages, written by Shinran Shonin to his disciples between 1251 and 1260.

In the eighth letter of this collection, Shinran provides a wonderful list that delineates the way that the Pure Land teaching is classified within the overall context of the Buddha Dharma. Today, I would like to consider the place of the principal scriptures that we rely on – The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, The Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, and The Sutra on Amida Buddha.

There were various translations and versions of the first two of these sutras, but our tradition finally settled on the specific sutras of our canon by the time of Shinran’s teacher, Honen Shonin (1133-1212). Needless to say, in The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, Shinran sometimes examines other versions of these as well.

Everyone will know that ‘pitaka’ means ‘basket’. In the Buddhist context it refers to a collection of sacred texts. Shinran is here referring to the collections of discourses delivered by the Buddha. Although the sutras were initially passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, they were not recorded in writing until much later. It was itself a gradual process that took several centuries.

In fact, it seems that it was not until the fifth century of the Common Era that the great Indian scholar of the Doctrine of Consciousness School, Asanga, divided the discourses of the Buddha into the sravaka pitaka and the bodhisattva pitaka. The second of these two collections is comprised of scriptures especially for those who belong to the bodhisattva vehicle. The Pure Land School is concerned entirely with the bodhisattva pitaka.

In The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran quotes the following passage from T’an-luan–the third Dharma Master of our school–in a commentary on The Treatise of the Pure Land by Vasubandhu Bodhisattva.

What Vasubandhu relies on is the sutras. He relies on them because what the Tathagata taught [in the sutras] is the manifestation of the true and real virtues. (CWS, p. 28)

T’an-luan goes on to make it clear that it is not the sravaka pitaka that Vasubandhu relies on but only the bodhisattava (or Mahayana) sutras.

The three sutras that we rely on comprise our canon of scripture and I am one of those who think that they are sufficient for our spiritual needs. Indeed, it is wonderful that they are enmeshed in the most sublime religious teaching known to humankind—the bodhisattva vehicle. The way of being, of striving and of becoming that is imbued with perfect wisdom and unstinting compassion.

It is no wonder that the three sutras of our school are filled with pure truth, reality, compassion–and a warm resplendence of which we never tire.

In the history of Mahayana Buddhism, the Pure Land tradition has played a distinguished role in spreading the Buddhist message of universal compassion. (The Three Pure Land Sutras, Vol II, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, p. vii)