I have no idea whether the nembutsu is truly the seed for my being born in the Pure Land or whether it is the karmic act for which I must fall into hell. Should I have been deceived by Master Honen and, saying the nembutsu, were to fall into hell, even then I would have no regrets.
The reason is, if I could attain Buddhahood by endeavouring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever I do. (CWS, p. 662)
‘Hell’ is a translation of the Japanese word jigoku, or naraka in Sanskrit. In the Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam Vasubandhu Bodhisattva tells us that there are six realms in the world of birth-and-death (samsara). The realm that we inhabit and experience is the kama-dhatu, the ‘world of desire’.
The ‘world of desire’ includes six heavens, the realms of human beings, fighting spirits, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. The sixth dharma master of Jodo Shinshu, Genshin (942-1017), gives a graphic outline of the conditions of the ‘world of desire’.
The heavenly realms have absolutely nothing whatever to do with the Pure Land, which is synonymous with nirvana and completely transcends samsara (CWS, p. 191), the world of birth-and-death.
The heavens are redolent with pleasure, and the hells with pain. In the human realm we experience both. To be born in hell is to be limited to one aspect of existence in the realm of desire. It is to be deeply entrenched in unrelieved suffering. There is an end to hell, just as there is an end to existence as an unenlightened human being.
For followers of Buddha Dharma nothing is more important than to become a Buddha; to ‘benefit oneself and benefit others’ by attaining enlightenment. Birth in the fulfilled Pure Land is just such an event. For those who accept Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart, becoming a Buddha at the end of this life is the most important thing.
Shinran Shonin’s twenty years of study and searching was a quest to find this ‘most important thing’. In our modern materialistic, consumer society, few people even give a thought to such prospects. But, due to the coming-together of various conditions from the past, some people long for nothing else and are born ready to hear the Dharma of Amida Buddha. A great mystery, it is the greatest source of joy to understand and realise it.
In these two paragraphs, Shinran is not intending to be sensationalist, or use hyperbole to express his situation. His point is that either the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, manifested as Namo Amida Butsu, is the way to Buddhahood or it is not.
At the the end of Shinran’s long spiritual journey he realised this:
Deep mind is true and real shinjin. One truly knows oneself to be a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good, transmigrating in the three realms and unable to emerge from this burning house. And further, one truly knows now, without so much as a single thought of doubt, that Amida’s universal Primal Vow decisively enables all to attain birth, including those who say the Name even down to ten times, or even but hear it. (CWS, p. 92)
At that point his quest ended and his nembutsu became a natural expression of joy and gratitude to Amida Buddha.
It was Honen Shonin who guided Shinran towards this discovery. Shinran accepted it because the light of Amida Buddha showed him that there was, in fact, no other alternative for him.