The beginnings of Shin Buddhism

Now it is time to look at the Contemplation Sutra in more detail. The sutra gives an account of the first time that Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow was fulfilled in a chronicled human event. A number of individuals played a particular role and acted together, in complex ways, to bring it about.

As a preface to the hymns on the Three Pure Land Sutras (CWS, p. 338), Shinran lists all of the players in Amida Buddha’s action to ground his Primal Vow in the lives of suffering beings.  Chief among these are Amida Buddha and the two attendant Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. They appear in section 15 of the Sutra, as it moves towards its culmination.

The Buddha said to Ananda and Vaidehi, ‘Listen carefully, listen carefully and ponder deeply. I will expound for you the method of removing suffering. Bear my words in mind and explain them to the multitude of beings.’

The answer is implicit in the next paragraph:

When these words were spoken, Amitayus appeared in the air above, attended on his left and right by the two Mahasattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.

In descending scale of eminence, Shinran next lists Shakyamuni Buddha, and the Venerable Bhiksus Purna, Mahamaudgalyayana and Ananda.

When King Bimbisara was first incarcerated without food or any comforts, the Venerable Purna came to teach him about the Dharma, and the Venerable Mahamaudgalyayana imparted the precepts to him. As circumstances deteriorated further, after Ajatashatru caught Queen Vaidehi secreting food to deliver to the imprisoned king, Shakyamuni came to visit, accompanied by his assistant Ananda.

Shinran next lists King Bimbisara, and Queen Vaidehi. These are followed by Jivaka, a Councillor and another councillor, Candraprabha, who dissuaded Ajatashatru from physically attacking his mother in retribution for her insubordination.

The final characters to appear on Shinran’s list are the Venerable Devadatta, Prince Ajatashatru, Varsakara, a councillor, and a guard.

Devadatta was a rival to Shakyamuni Buddha as leader of the mendicant band, and frankly sought to overthrow him. It was Devadatta who engaged in slanderous mischief by telling everyone that King Bimbisara had plotted to murder his own son even before he, Ajatashatru, was born. Varsarkara collaborated with Venerable Devadatta to spread the malicious rumours against Bimbisara. These slanders succeeded in enraging Ajatashatru into harbouring murderous intentions.

So, there we have it: the fifteen people who participated in the first active instance of the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow within the context of ordinary human life.

The sutra demonstrates that we can be unwitting agents for the dissemination of Amida Buddha’s Vow. This may occur in spite of our personal characteristics: a being of good or bad character, or – like most of us — somewhere in between. Furthermore, a person’s status as an exalted member of society, in this case as a monk or ruler, does not of itself guarantee our honesty or decency. Venerable Devadatta and Prince Ajatashatru were decidedly unpleasant and deceitful people.

This wonderful event of salvation could not have occurred without the involvement of each of these individuals. In other words, the birth of Jodo Shinshu took place within the context of ordinary human life in all its complexity, confusion and interpersonal stresses.

In the same way, the working of the Vow occurs in the context of any group or situation: any family, any club, or any workplace. Wherever we go, we will find a group of participants in everyday events, who are not unlike the people who took part in the Contemplation Sutra.

Such ordinary, complex and sometimes vexatious conditions, may prove to be the true occasion for hearing the call of the Primal Vow.