Concerning compassion

Banksias in flower

Concerning compassion, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path.

Compassion in the Path of Sages is to pity, commiserate with, and care for beings. It is extremely difficult, however, to accomplish the saving of others just as one wishes.

Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

However much love and pity we may feel in our present lives, it is hard to save others as we wish; hence, such compassion remains unfulfilled. Only the saying of the nembutsu, then, is the mind of great compassion that is thoroughgoing. (A Record in Lament of Divergences, 4; CWS, p. 663)

This is the full text of the fourth chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences. Although it may not be immediately obvious, like several other passages in the same work, it speaks directly to the very heart and significance of Pure Land Buddhism.

Properly understood, the nembutsu way is one of two straightforward options for those who practice the bodhisattva vehicle: the Path of Sages, or the Pure Land Path. The true Pure Land teaching is the ‘selected Primal Vow’ (Shinran, CWS, p. 524), whereby one attains birth in the Pure Land at the end of life and realises Buddhahood.

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. (The Essentials of Jodo Shinshu)

The Path of Sages includes schools like Zen, Tendai and Shingon. In all of these teachings one becomes a Buddha in this life and, therefore, a paragon of compassion.

It is not uncommon for modern commentators on Pure Land Buddhism to parody it by suggesting that it  is a ‘devotional form of Buddhism’ that results in some kind of everlasting life in a remote paradise. But, in truth, birth in the Pure Land is not the end of the story for those who have taken the Pure Land way.

Furthermore, the profound sense of gratitude, on the part of those who have realised shinjin, is not mere devotion. It is deep appreciation for the fact that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha has granted them entry into the Pure Land way – the means that will lead to the ultimate benefit for themselves and others – in accord with the bodhisattva path.

Compassion is at the very core of all practices and teachings in the bodhisattva vehicle, the Mahayana. It is the ultimate virtue and good. When compassion is consummate, as it is in Amida Buddha, it is not an ordinary unenlightened human quality because there is no element of egoistic illusion remaining on the part of the one who has realised it. Absolute compassion is to become the other and to accept their suffering as one’s own.

But on the way to true compassion, a disciple of the bodhisattva path practices the perfection of wisdom and tries to exercise the elements of compassion in daily life. These are listed in the fourth chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences, which I have quoted at the beginning of this post. They are ‘pity, commiseration and care for beings’.

As we can see – not only from other passages in A Record in Lament of Divergences, but also in the Pure Land Sutras and the writings of the Dharma Masters and Shinran Shonin – ‘pity, commiseration and care for beings’ are the qualities that all Pure Land followers strive for and keep before them. Living in the light of Amida Buddha’s compassion, saying the nembutsu, we learn how far we fall short of true compassion, and live with grateful longing, knowing that all will be well when the time comes to be born in the Pure Land at the end of this life.

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.