The significance of The Contemplation Sutra

The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha is an outline of the journey that we all make, one way or another, to the nembutsu. Or, more accurately, the journey of becoming a Buddha through the nembutsu, which is the short definition of the phrase, the ‘True Pure Land way’ (jodoshinshu). We tend to forget the value and importance of this wonderful sutra because it is properly eclipsed by the teaching of the Larger Sutra, which gives an all-important account of the Primal Vow.

In the opening phrases of The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation of the Pure Land Way, which is Shinran Shonin’s structured compilation of the scriptures and commentaries of the true Pure Land teaching, we learn that the true teaching of the Pure Land way is the Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. It is the true teaching because it reveals the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

But the Larger Sutra was delivered to ‘great sages who had already attained supernatural powers’ – and bodhisattvas, who ‘were all endowed with the countless practices and vows’. (Larger Sutra, pp. 3-4) These were people of high achievement anyway. They had already realised the Buddha Dharma.

Upon these great enlightened beings, Shakyamuni Buddha made it incumbent to preserve the teaching of the Primal Vow down through the ages.

Needless to say, my own first real encounter with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha through the Larger Sutra came a lot later than the time – which seems so long ago -, when I first heard about Amida Buddha in an old, crowded temple in the heart of Sydney. It was there that I encountered the wondrous and joyous teaching of The Contemplation Sutra.

What I encountered at the temple was a congregation chanting the nembutsu and walking around a solitary standing image of Amida Buddha. Sitting at the back of the temple, more like a spectator than a participant, I found an English translation the sutra. I discovered a copy of this same edition a couple of years later at a Buddhist meeting back in Adelaide. This one was a free copy that I could keep and cherish for myself.

I did not know it at the time, but The Contemplation Sutra distinguishes itself from the Larger Sutra because it was a teaching given by Shakyamuni Buddha – not to a great sage like those who first heard the Larger Sutra –, but to a person who was deeply enmeshed in the wretchedness of ordinary everyday human tragedy.

During the next few weeks I would like to share with you my love of The Contemplation Sutra and discuss its significance for those of us who are just ordinary, foolish beings.

Author: George Gatenby

George is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia