Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skilful means,
They bring us to awaken supreme shinjin.
(Shinran, Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, 74; CWS, p. 380)
In his fine investigation into the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, the late Hajime Nakamura remarks that
Buddhism attempts to bring people to a state of spiritual serenity by seeing themselves as they actually are, not by forcing them to maintain an established creed and dogma, and by enabling them to experience the Dharma in terms of practical existence. (Gotama Buddha, vol. 1, p. 213)
These wise words from a great and seasoned scholar of human thought in many cultures, remind us how we ought to approach the sutras. The Buddha Dharma wants us to read the scriptures with our own hearts, our own emotions, and our own minds, and then make our own decisions.
There are masters of the teaching who have gone before us and put into practice what they had received from Shakyamuni Buddha. Having realised their deepest significance, these great masters then record their experience and understanding to help people like us – people of later generations. For our sake they share what they have discovered.
One such dharma master is T’ao-ch’o (562-645) who wrote
I have collected true words to aid others in their practice for attaining birth, in order that the process be made continuous, without end and without interruption, by which those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted. (CWS, p. 291)
With that in mind it will serve us well to remember that the Buddha Dharma is for you and me. Its purpose is not to glorify any master, or marvel in great flights of philosophical reasoning, or to establish ideas that we are obliged to accept. The ultimate purpose of the Dharma is to liberate us – yes, to save us – from the thrall of suffering, from the realm of birth-and-death.
When people approach the Three Pure Land Sutras, including the Contemplation Sutra, which we are considering now, they sometimes stumble on elements of the narrative. But if we do not read them with our own eyes, in consideration of our own lives, their wonderful and joyous offering to us will be lost to us.
Couched in the events that befell Queen Vaidehi and her family, lies our story as well. It is not just about the lives of historical personages but about you and me, no less.
To put this in perspective, then: the Contemplation Sutra is about two devout followers of Shakyamuni Buddha. Two people who held his teaching dearly; who lived by it; whose very lives were directed by its fragrance.
As the sutra opens, it reveals the terrible distress of the people involved – devout followers of the Buddha – whose lives have fallen apart, even so. As followers of the Dharma they have come to see, like us, that discovering the Dharma and taking refuge is not the end of our personal journey. It is in the midst of the real events of our lives that the Dharma finds its purpose.
This is what Shinran discovered about the Contemplation Sutra. Its message is that, in the vicissitudes of real life we discover the love and compassion of the Buddhas; not just in theories or in the pages of books. It is that, when things are really bad, and we feel that we have nowhere to turn, we receive the gift of trust and of the nembutsu, no matter who we are or how we seem in the eyes of others.