Only one teacher and master

The other day I was reviewing the final piece in my on-line collections of essays about Shinran Shonin’s Hymns and re-discovered an inconspicuous footnote to the final verse of Hymns of the Dharma Ages.

For Shinran, those who have attained true entrusting heart are called ‘True Disciples of the Buddha’.  These ‘True Disciples’ have only one teacher and master,  Amida Buddha.

Plum blossom – harbinger of spring in Adelaide; August 2017

The footnote refers back to the well-known passage in the third section of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, which comes at the beginning of the section on ‘True Disciple of the Buddha’. It makes it clear that a true disciple of the Buddha is the person who, through shinjin and the Name, will ‘without fail transcend and realise great nirvana.’ (CWS, p. 117) Shinran’s statement reasserts the fact that such a person is called a ‘true disciple of Buddha.’

Paradoxically, Shinran himself – a true disciple of the Buddha – always made it clear that he was nobody’s teacher. Yes, he admits in the 116th verse of Hymns of the Dharma Ages that he is – like us all – a frail human being, who is often tempted to be cowed by the blandishments of his fellow-followers and to adopt the idea that he is their teacher. But to counter this idea he is always scrupulously honest about himself as an ordinary person, a foolish being (bombu – Sk. prthagjana) like everyone else.

But how does one sit at the feet of Amida Buddha and listen to his teaching? Can we hear him speak to us? Does he have a voice?

In the Larger Sutra Shakyamuni Buddha introduces Amida Buddha in person. Amida reveals himself in all his splendour to Ananda and those who were also present to hear that sermon. (Larger Sutra, pp. 95-6) After this event Shakyamuni asks Ananda and Maitreya Bodhisattva if they saw the Buddha and his Pure Land? Ananda says that, yes, they did. Did they ‘hear the voice of the Buddha’. Yes, they did hear Amida Buddha’s voice. Earlier in the sutra there is another reference to Amida Buddha’s voice. (Larger Sutra, p. 56)

It is clear, too, that when Shakyamuni Buddha began to teach the Larger Sutra he had previously entered the ‘samadhi of great tranquility’ (CWS, p. 339) and saw the dharma that he was about to teach. Likewise all of the seven Dharma Masters of our lineage were realised men. Can these people be our teachers? Does Amida Buddha speak through them?

Yes… when they help us to hear the call of the Primal Vow.

Notice that Shakyamuni, and the seven Dharma Masters – are not like us. They are enlightened sages. So… . Who is Amida Buddha, and how can we, foolish beings, hear him?

Amida Buddha is the ‘Tathagata of inconceivable light’ (CWS, p. 177, et. al) ; ‘Tathagata of unhindered light’. (CWS, p. 13, et. al.) We cannot contain him within our mind. But we can be moved by the dharma that he has devised to reach into our hearts. This is ‘the fragrance of light’: the Name, Namo Amida Butsu. That way, we foolish beings may hear Amida Buddha’s voice and assent to its call.

A good spiritual teacher is the messenger who urges us to take refuge in Amida. Unless we meet a good spiritual teacher through the ripening of stored good from the past, our birth is impossible. (Letters of Rennyo, Hongwanji, p. 47)

At the moment that all beings – without exception – accept the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) in their hearts, Amida Buddha becomes their ‘only teacher and master.’ From that moment they are ‘companions and fellow followers of the Way’ – each one confident in the warm and secure embrace of Amida Buddha’s light.

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.