Were saying the nembutsu indeed a good act in which I strove through my own powers, then I might direct the merit thus gained towards saving my father and mother. But this is not the case.
If, however, simply abandoning self-power, we quickly attain enlightenment in the Pure Land, we will be able to save, by means of transcendent powers, first those with whom we have close karmic relations, whatever karmic suffering they may have sunk to in the six realms through the four modes of birth. (The Tanni Sho, 5; CWS, p. 664)
The transfer of merit (eko) is especially important in the context of the Mahayana. But it is common to all schools of the Buddha Dharma throughout the world. Shinran Shonin is referring to this feature of the dharma here. After a time of religious practices, which aim at purification, Buddhists usually offer the merit they have gained thereby to benefit other suffering beings.
All true teachings of the Buddha Dharma have three essential characteristics that distinguish it from other religious teachings and practices. These are the ‘Three Seals of the Dharma’. The presence of the Three Seals determines the authenticity of the teaching.
In the history of the Buddhist community some schools have claimed to be genuine representations of the dharma but eventually fell out of favor because they disregarded the Three Seals. The best known of these were the Pudgalavadins who taught that there is a distinct entity, similar to the popular European ideal of a ‘soul’, which transmigrates from life-to-life.
The Three Seals are impermanence, non-self and nirvana. They are immutable truths. In part, our dissatisfaction, anxiety and uneasiness about life is associated with a failure to see these truths clearly, as incontrovertible and inexorable.
From these Three Seals comes a sense among Buddhists of the importance, centrality and virtue of giving (dana). If nothing is permanent and cannot ultimately be secured by us, why not give it away? Because the Three Seals are absolute, we can grow towards acceptance of them by putting them into practice — relinquishing the external things, which we cling to in the misguided quest for a sense of security.
Shinran went further. It seems to me that, following the logic of non-self to its real depth and significance, he saw that we have nothing to give away because there is nothing that can create any ‘virtue’ or ‘merit’ to pass on to others. All that we really have are our blinds passions (bonno or, in Sanskrit, klesha). These are the very substance of our existence.
This is a profound realisation of the truth of things as it is understood by the Buddha Dharma. To know it in the depth of our hearts brings a sense of peace and joy. Such peace and joy arises in realising that the only virtue, or merit, comes from that which is not me – Amida Buddha. It is entrusting heart (shinjin).
… this entrusting heart (shinjin) is none other than Buddha-nature. (Shinran, Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’; CWS, p. 461)