The Primal Vow

If Amida’s Primal Vow is true, Shakyamuni’s teaching cannot be false. If the Buddha’s teaching is true, Shan-tao’s commentaries cannot be false. If Shan-tao’s commentaries are true, can Honen’s words be lies? If Honen’s words are true, then surely what I say cannot be empty. (Tannisho 2, CWS, p. 662)

In this sublime paragraph, Shinran Shonin leads us to the deepest truth, as it manifests itself through the ages, until we come to his own time and the life of his own teacher, Honen Shonin.

The deepest reality is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. It is the very motive that informs every bodhisattva vow. It is the foundation of each being. It is the ‘universal Vow of great compassion’ (CWS, p. 143). It comes into our awareness as ‘Namo Amida Butsu’.

If beings think on me and say my Name, spontaneously taking refuge in me, immediately  they enter the stage of the definitely settled and will realise the supreme, perfect enlightenment. (CWS, p. 23)

It is common for people to start with Shakyamuni Buddha. We might think that  the Primal Vow is true because it was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. But Shakyamuni would not have manifested himself in this world if there had been no Primal Vow.

Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Shakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya. (CWS, p. 349)

Gaya is the place where Shakyamuni attained enlightenment. It was from his enlightenment that he revealed the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. For a thousand years Dharma Masters transmitted the teaching of the Primal Vow, until the Chinese Master Shan-tao–after a profound and long search–also realised its truth.

Shan-tao alone in his time clarified the Buddha’s true intent;
Sorrowing at the plight of meditative and non-meditative practicers and people of grave evil,
He reveals that Amida’s light and Name are the causes of birth.
When practicers enter the great ocean of wisdom, the Primal Vow,

They receive the diamond-like mind
And accord [with the Vow] in one thought-moment of joy; whereupon
Equally with Vaidehi, they acquire the threefold insight
And are immediately brought to attain the eternal bliss of dharma-nature. (Shinran, Shoshin Nembutsu Ge, CWS, p. 73)

‘The person who continues in the nembutsu is a truly rare person; there is nothing that compares with such a one.’ (CWS, p. 121) Such people are also called ‘the excellent person among people, the wondrous, excellent person.’ Why? Because the person of nembutsu manifests the call of the Vow in Namo Amida Butsu. Such a person may become known to us in one of many ways – through books, or in a meeting with a ‘good teacher of the dharma.’

Because of the nembutsu, such a teacher makes known to us the working of the Primal Vow in our own individual life.

For Shinran, that person was Honen:

When the time came for the Buddha’s guidance through skilful means,
They appeared as Master Genku (Honen)
And teaching supreme shinjin,
Opened the gateway to nirvana.
(Shinran, Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, CWS, p. 389)

Author: George Gatenby

George is a Shin Buddhist priest and lives in South Australia