Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skilful means,
They bring us to awaken supreme shinjin.
(Shinran Shonin, Hymns of the Dharma Masters 74; CWS, p. 380.)
This verse comes from the section celebrating the life and work of Master Shan-tao (613-681) in Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Dharma Masters. It reminds us of the tender care of the two Buddhas and their over-riding concern for beings; their vocation to understand ‘suffering and the relief of suffering.’
Not only do they teach us about the causes and cure of our own personal existential agony, but they also embrace us in their kind concern and care. They bring joy to our hearts and minds. To say that they are our true parents is no exaggeration, because not everyone experiences the love and care that they deserve as a human being from those who are supposed to look after them. Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha actually provide us with the way to live: their compassion is unlimited.
I have sometimes heard Buddhist teachers compare Shakyamuni with a stern father and Amida Buddha with a kind mother. But both Buddhas offer us only compassion.
Shakyamuni Buddha lived some two and a half thousand years ago in India. He was perfectly enlightened and taught his followers accordingly. Among his teaching legacy are The Three Pure Land Sutras, and it is these that guide the understanding and practice of all beings. In these sutras Shakyamuni Buddha tells us about Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life.
Amida Buddha’s wisdom knows us thoroughly, perfectly, exactly as we are, far better than we do. Because he knows us so well, he gives us his pure mind and heart in the form of the Name, Namu-amida-butsu. This gift is the act of great unbridled compassion. When we accept and adopt the Name, we receive Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin), which is also Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.
Since Amida Buddha’s compassion is freely and unstintingly available to all, it hard to see why beings would not accept it. In fact, in time, all will do so. As Shan-tao’s teacher, Tao-ch’o (562-645) says,
I have collected true words to aid others in their practice for attaining birth, in order that the process be made continuous, without end and without interruption, by which those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted. (CWS, p. 291)