Affirming life

As for me, Shinran, I have never said the nembutsu even once for the repose of my departed father and mother. For all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in the many states of existence. On attaining Buddhahood after this present life, we can save every one of them. (Tanni Sho, 5; CWS, p. 664)

This paragraph is, in my view, one of the most thrilling statements in the Tanni Sho. For here, Shinran Shonin presents his most profound insight into the Pure Land tradition. He affirms life itself and sweeps away the scepticism, which one may encounter within the Pure Land tradition, about life and existence in samsara, the realm of birth-and-death. In doing so Shinran reveals his genius and the uniqueness of his insight into Buddhism. For he upholds the clear association of the Pure Land way with the bodhisattva path: the way of life, joy and the Buddha’s uncompromising compassion for all beings.

If you are familiar with Shinran’s great compendium of the Pure Land teaching, which he received from Shakyamuni Buddha and the seven dharma masters — The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho) — you will know that throughout his exposition of the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, in the first four chapters, he explains that those who ‘hear’ the Vow, in a single moment free of doubt, will enter the stage of the truly settled. This means that, at the end of this life, they will be born as Buddhas.

Although the twenty-second of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows speaks of those who are born in the Pure Land ‘returning to the world of birth-and-death to teach and guide all beings to awakening’, a Buddha naturally does that anyway. So Shinran assures us that the Pure Land way leads beings, through the working of the Vow, to attain awakening for themselves in order to lead others to awakening. This wonderful way begins when one entrusts oneself to the Vow of Amida Buddha, as it is manifest to us: The Name, Namo Amida Butsu.

All of this is brought about by the power of the Primal Vow, which is summarised in the eighteenth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows, as it is revealed in The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (the Larger Sutra). Far from being alienated from life, those who receive the entrusting heart become truly alive and go on —  at the end of this life — to live as awakened beings in the realm of birth-and-death. That is the true way to live, since …

… all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in the many states of existence. On attaining Buddhahood after this present life, we can save every one of them. (CWS, p. 664)

One of my own teachers, the late Zuiken Saizo Inagaki, who was a man of true entrusting heart, certainly knew the meaning of this quote from The Tanni Sho  and of the way that the true Pure Land teaching is a religion of life:

In life or death
With the Buddha
The journey continues. (Anjin, p. 36)

Though going to fall,
When spring returns
I shall appear again
To share he joy of the Dharma
With you. (Anjin, p. 44)

Author: George Gatenby

Shin Buddhist priest