On the Contemplation Sutra – by Mark Healsmith

This week a special post.

Here is a Dharma Talk by Rev Dr Mark Healsmith, who is one of our ministers at Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia.

By coincidence, Mark decided to talk about the Contemplation Sutra at our Hanamatsuri celebrations on 8 April this year. Because I have been writing about the Contemplation Sutra in The Udumbara Flower, he kindly agreed to let me post it here. I think it makes a fine conclusion to our investigation of this wonderful Sutra.

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I will start my talk today, as I usually do, with some words from our teacher, Shinran Shonin. This is from the Jodo Wasan and is the seventh of the nine hymns ‘On the Contemplation Sutra’.

All of them great sages –
By various means, brought the most foolish and lowest
Of evil people to enter the Vow
That does not neglect people of grave offences and transgressions.

(The Collected Works of Shinran – p 346)

When I first read the Contemplation Sutra (full title – The Sutra on Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life), I didn’t really get the point of the story of Queen Vaidehi. I think I was overwhelmed by Shakyamuni Buddha’s exposition of the Pure Land contemplations and probably at that time still harboured attachment to self-power practice. I naively wondered if I could attempt the visualization practices that the Sutra detailed.

I had – of course – the point of the Sutra completely backwards. Fortunately Shinran Shonin compassionately taught us how to read the Sutra correctly.

The Contemplation Sutra begins with the story of the confinement of King Bimbisara by his son, Prince Ajatasatru. When he learns that Queen Vaidehi, Bimbisara’s consort and Ajatasatru’s mother has been secretly providing food and drink to Bimbisara, Ajatasatru – already intending parricide – threatens to kill his mother. He is dissuaded from immediate action by his councillors, but locks Vaidehi up. Some time later ‘emaciated with grief and despair’ Vaidehi worships Shakyumuni Buddha from afar and the Buddha appears before her with some of his attendants.

Vaidehi pleads with the Buddha to show her a world free of the misery she is living through and the Buddha miraculously displays to Vaidehi innumerable Buddha-lands, ‘all pure and free of defilement and all of them resplendent’. Vaidehi tells the Buddha that she wishes to be born in the Land of Utmost Bliss of Amitayus. The Buddha then teaches Vaidehi the practice of visualization of the infinite wonders of the Western Land of Utmost Bliss and of the inexpressible glory of Amitayus Himself and his attendant bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.

The glorious exotic detail of this part of the Sutra invites the imagination to its own attempt at visualization. More formal practice is tempting, but is, in the end, only for the rare adept, and not for the bonbu tied to secular concerns and passions. It is not for such as us.

The Sutra concludes with the passages setting out the nine grades of those born in the Western Land. These passages are daunting and complicated at first reading. The reader can’t help but ask himself where he might fit in but that is the wrong question to ask. We are bonbu and surely should know our place. To understand what is really being taught, we need to read this Sutra with the compassionate teaching of Shinran Shonin to hand.

In the Kyogyoshinsho Shinran Shonin, in his own words and in his selected quotations, elucidates the explicit and most importantly the implicit and true meanings of the Sutra. The explicit meaning refers to

‘presenting the meditative and non meditative good acts and setting forth the three levels of practicers and the three minds.’

The true import of the Sutra, however, is not the explicit teaching. Shinran Shonin goes on to begin to explain.

‘The two forms of good and the three types of meritorious acts, however, are not the true cause of birth in the fulfilled land… Further, the three minds that beings awaken are all minds of self-benefit that are individually different and are not the mind that is single, which arises from Amida’s benefitting of others.’

(The Collected Works of Shinran, p 212)

Shinran Shonin goes on to explain that the players in the drama of Vaidehi were all ‘great sages’ acting out their parts with the compassionate intention to demonstrate the right intention of Vaidehi’s selection of the Western Land of Utmost Bliss.

And, the Sutra tells us, when she had made her selection, the ‘World-Honoured One smiled’.

Shinran Shonin further teaches that ‘implicit’

‘refers to disclosing the Tathagata’s universal Vow and revealing the mind that is single, to which [practicers of the three minds] are led through Amida’s benefitting of others…Through the condition brought about by the right intention in Vaidehi’s selection, Amida’s Primal Vow of great compassion was clarified.’

(The Collected Works of Shinran, p212)

It is not the three minds that are essential. The three minds are the fruit of self-power practice and vary depending on the ability of the individual practitioner. It is ‘the mind that is single, which arises from Amida’s benefitting of others’ that is essential and the mind that is single is the mind of great faith, of shinjin given by Amida Buddha. It is by saying the nembutsu that we leave self-power practice behind and are embraced by the compassion of the Tathagata and given His mind as great faith.

Again, from the Kyogyoshinsho

‘In its implicit meaning the sutra discloses the true and real dharma that is difficult to accept. It reveals the inconceivable ocean of the Vow, seeking to bring beings to take refuge in the ocean of unhindered great shinjin…

Solely though the greatness of Amida’s universal vow,
Foolish beings, when they become mindful of it, are immediately brought to attain birth.’

(The Collected Works of Shinran, p 226)

In the Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran Shonin makes the difficult and implicit teachings of the Sutra easy, open and accessible. In his Wasan he further summarises the essence of the Sutra, and the compassionate heart of the Sutra is presented in the hymn I quoted at the start of this talk – that the great sages bring us – the lowest of people – beings full of karmic evil – to enter the Vow and none are excluded. The last hymn summarises the implicit meaning of the Sutra.

‘Let us overturn the three minds of self-power, whether meditative or non-meditative,
Which vary with each practitioner;
Let us aspire to enter into shinjin
That arises from Amida’s benefiting of others.’

(The Collected Works of Shinran, p 346)

So, let us all aspire to enter into shinjin, and just say the nembutsu.

Thank you.

Namu amida butsu

Mark Healsmith

Author: George Gatenby

George is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia