Yuan-chao (1048-1116)

In a thousand lifetimes, a person might encounter the Vow but once. From this day to the very end of time, wherever you are, give praise to the Vow, and wherever you may go, encourage others to hear it. (Yuan-chao, Commentary on the Amida Sutra; CWS p. 598)

Plum blossom

These wonderful words were written by the great Chinese master of the Vinaya, Yuan-chao.

Yuan-chao was clearly an important spiritual guide to Shinran Shonin, who quotes several important passages from his writings, which were commentaries on the Contemplation Sutra and the Amida Sutra. It is significant that a Vinaya master like Yuan-chao would be so determined to commend the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha to his fellow monastics and the world at large.

It is very likely that Yuan-chao knew of the Japanese Pure Land master Genshin, who died just a few years before Yuan-chao was born. In any case, Genshin was highly regarded in China and, one way or another, his influence had probably reached Yuan-chao. Of course, the Pure Land tradition itself was well-known and practiced in China, especially since the time of the third dharma master of Jodo Shinshu, T’an-luan (476-542).

I also think it possible that the teaching of Yuan-chao appealed to Shinran, not only because of his powerful and articulate advocacy of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, but also because Shinran’s teacher, Honen Shonin, was himself a precept master – a skill that is very like Yuan-chao’s role as a scholar and exponent of the Vinaya.

Genshin, Yuan-chao and Honen, were all men of exemplary conduct, yet they were imbued with the unlimited compassion of Amida Buddha, which embraces all beings, whether they are good or bad, young or old, male or female, wise or foolish. Such is a powerful commendation of the Primal Vow. If people who are superficially not in need of the working of the Primal Vow in order to attain nirvana come to commend it nevertheless, that speaks much of their deep inner reflection and self-awareness.

Such great men of noble character discovered the common need of beings for the Primal Vow, no matter who they may be. In doing this they became aware that all beings are equal before the Buddha. Such wise people, living in the light of Amida Buddha, see that no one is in any position the derogate another. Only the warm embrace of Amida Buddha’s compassion is due to all, and no one can honestly stand between Amida Buddha and beings.

Hence, Yuan-chao wrote:

The Tathagata taught for the sake of such pitiful beings as ourselves. Truly our doubts arise because we do not realise that this dharma is unique and beyond the ordinary. It does not discriminate between wise and foolish; it does not differentiate between priesthood and laity; it does not question the length of one’s performance of practice; it does not take into account the weight of the karmic evil one has committed: only definitely settled shinjin is required as the cause-seed of birth. (The True Teaching Practice and Realisation, 48; CWS, p. 46)

But it is also self-evident that the chance to hear the Primal Vow is extremely rare. In keeping with the famous mandate of Shan-tao, Yuan-chao therefore encourages us to spread the teaching of Amida Buddha’s dharma:

Whatever body and land you may be born into as your recompense, whatever the conditions for teaching others, your work is the same as Amida Buddha’s, without any difference. (CWS, p. 599)

Author: George Gatenby

George is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia