In the Buddha Dharma we often remember important aspects of the path in a numerical way. There is the Fourfold Noble Truth and the Eightfold Noble Path, the five precepts, the Six Perfections, the twelve links in the chain of causation, the Five True Vows of Amida Buddha, and so on. But ‘three‘ seems to be the most common number.
High on the list is the Three Treasures of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Also the path in Buddha Dharma is delineated in the Three Branches of Training: morality, meditation and wisdom.
Then there are the Three Baskets of the Tripitaka, the scriptures: vinaya (the rules), sutra (the discourses); and the most lively basket, the sastras (the commentaries). Because of the commentaries the Buddha Dharma is always interpreting itself anew within our ever-changing world. And let us not forget The Three Pure Land Sutras.
Remembering that we do, indeed, live in an ever-changing world reminds me of the Three Seals of the dharma: impermanence, not-self and nirvana. The Three Seals are the irreducible and essential elements of Buddhist doctrine.
What about the Buddha? Well, there are the three bodies of Amida Buddha.
The fulfilled body is the Buddha we know and relate to. It is the result of Amida’s forty-eight Vows and his countless aeons of practice. Secondly, Amida Buddha is an accommodated Buddha-body when he is Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha who lived in north-east India about 2,500 years ago. He was born in Lumbini near Kapilavastu, and died in Kusinara. He is the Buddha that originally propagated the teaching that we now call ‘Buddhism’.
But Amida Buddha is also a dharma-body; the body of true Thusness, or dharma nature. We, unenlightened beings, cannot see and know the dharma-body of Amida Buddha directly.
In Pure Land Buddhism there is also the ‘Journey Through Three Vows’ (sangan tennyu). These are the nineteenth, twentieth and eighteenth Vows of Amida Buddha. All of them set out a way that we can be born into the Pure Land.
The followers of the first of these, the nineteenth Vow, say the nembutsu as one of many spiritual practices. In this Vow there are the ‘meditative’ and ‘non-meditative’ practices. The ‘non-meditative’ practices are precepts. This Vow is called the ‘essential gate’. It is the essence of the path of sages, one of the two paths provided by Shakyamuni Buddha to lead beings to deliverance: the path of sages and the path of Pure Land.
The twentieth Vow comes into play, when a follower eventually turns exclusively to the Pure Land way. Seeing the nembutsu as a practice that will accrue virtue towards birth in the Pure Land, these practicers are earnest and diligent in saying the nembutsu. For them it is the only practice that they follow. This way is the ‘true gate’ of the Pure Land way.
The last of the three Vows and the three gates is the Gate of the Universal Vow. This is the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha. People who hear the call of this Vow enter the stage of the truly settled and will become Buddhas at the end of this life. These people do not engage in any practices to gain merit for birth in the Pure Land because Amida Buddha brings them to see that – for them – this is not possible. They say the nembutsu from joyous gratitude for Other Power, which is the power of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.
We meet these people, for example, in the opening passages of A Record in Lament of Divergences:
Know that the Primal Vow of Amida makes no distinction between people young and old, good and evil; only the entrusting heart, shinjin, is essential. For it is the Vow to save the person whose karmic evil is deep and grave and whose blind passions abound. (CWS, p. 661)