Responding to the call of the Vow

Each of you has crossed the borders of more than ten provinces to come to see me, undeterred by concern for your bodily safety, solely to inquire about the way to birth in the land of bliss. But if you imagine in me some special knowledge of a way to birth other than the nembutsu or a familiarity with writings that teach it, you are greatly mistaken. If that is the case, you would do better to visit the many eminent scholars in Nara or on Mt Hiei and inquire fully of them about the essentials for birth. (Tannisho 2, tr. Hirota and Ueda 1982)

Throughout his life of teaching the Dharma, Shakyamuni Buddha always refused to enter into mere philosophical speculation. His was a practical and straightforward way, which we are free to take up and follow or reject in favour of the more taxing intellectual exercises of other teachers. Shinran was a true disciple of the Buddha and had exactly the same attitude to time-consuming discourse about largely irrelevant matters.

On the basis of his own lived experience, Shakyamuni began his mission by teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. He dismissed unnecessary discussion about the structure of society or how the world began. His principal focus was, in his words, ‘suffering and the relief of suffering.’

Shakyamuni Buddha went on throughout his teaching ministry to address the spiritual needs of the individual men and women who came to him for guidance. He simply outlined the way in accordance with their disposition and capacity. He suggested that the only way to verify the teaching is to take responsibility for oneself.

Therefore in this world you should be islands unto yourselves, your own refuge, depending upon no one else, with the Dharma as an island and the Dharma as a refuge, depending on nothing else.

On the basis of his own lived experience, Shinran Shonin taught that ‘There must be nothing of your calculation in the way that leads to birth. You must simply entrust yourself to Tathagata.’ (CWS, p. 536 et. al.) In the Pure Land way, the Dharma is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha – the Name, Namo Amida Butsu.  It was clearly enunciated by Pure Land masters through the ages.

One of the most prominent of these was Shan-tao. Derived from his own lived experience, his famous analogy of the nembutsu way is the parable of The Two Rivers and the White Path. This is a clear outline of the way of nembutsu, which was revealed by Shakyamuni Buddha in The Three Pure Land Sutras and expounded in practical terms by the seven Dharma Masters of the Pure Land school.

These teachings are derived from actual experience. The only way to respond to the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha is to take those first few steps on the path of Namo Amida Butsu.

Just be decisively settled, single-heartedly hold to the Vow, and rightly and directly go forward, without paying attention to what others may say. (Shan-tao; CWS, p. 105)