For how is entrance into the single gate of easy practice possible unless we happily come to rely on a true teacher whom conditions bring us to encounter? Let there be not the slightest distortion of the teaching of Other Power with words of an understanding based on personal views. (Tannisho, Preface)
Most of us need to encounter a true teacher before we can hear the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and accept the entrusting heart.
A true teacher may be one who embodies the dharma that he or she has received and embraced in their lives. Shakyamuni Buddha was such a person. He looked up to the dharma; it was his only refuge. Shinran Shonin was a teacher like Shakyamuni. He looked only to the dharma of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and lived accordingly.
I agree with Rennyo Shonin’s straightforward definition of a true teacher. In one his letters he reproaches people who say, ‘Even if you take refuge in Amida, without a good spiritual teacher it is useless. Therefore, you should solely rely on a good spiritual teacher.’ (Letters of Rennyo, Hongwanji, p. 45) In response to this sentiment, Rennyo says that ‘a good spiritual teacher is the messenger who urges us to take refuge in Amida.’
In other words, the true teacher comes first, before people accept the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha. But we do not rely on the true teacher. If dharma teachers expect us to rely on them, they are not true teachers. Again, they are not true teachers unless they point away from themselves to Amida Buddha.
The true teacher is part of the great universal activity of the seventeenth Vow of Amida Buddha that ‘all Buddha’s praise the Name.’ This is not because a true teacher is anything other than a foolish being and certainly not a Buddha. It is because the nembutsu that they say is the work, the true practice, of the Buddha.
Sometimes a true teacher can be silent like the ox that daily accompanied the famous myokonin Genza in his work; or even an inanimate object, like a book, picture or statue of Amida Buddha. Genza realised the meaning of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha when he noticed his dependence on his ox, Den. The way Den carried the heavy loads resembled the way that Amida Buddha takes on the heavy load of our evil karma. Anyone and anything that calls us to accept the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha is our true teacher.
The writings of Shinran are full of calls to us to take refuge in Amida Buddha. The Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, the Hymns and Letters, essentially serve to call us to take refuge in Amida. All of these writings, especially, present us with a range of perspectives upon how the Name calls to us and how we can accept it.
The author of the Tannisho clearly accepted Shinran as his true teacher because it was through him that Yuien could hear, answer and receive the call of the Primal Vow. In reminding us of the essentials of Shinran’s message Yuien sets himself aside, so that we too can hear Shinran’s teaching with clarity and confidence.