The nembutsu is the single path free of hindrances. Why is this? To practicers who have realized shinjin, the gods of the heavens and earth bow in homage, and maras and nonbuddhists present no obstruction. No evil act can bring about karmic results, nor can any good act equal the nembutsu. (The Tanni Sho 7, CWS, p. 665)
What does it mean to say that the nembutsu is the single path (ichido)? Does it mean that it is the only way to deliverance from birth-and-death; the only way to become a Buddha; or the only way to birth in the Pure Land? It does not mean any of those things.
There are many ways to salvation within the Buddha Dharma. And, as Shan-tao points out, at a decisive point in our lives each one of us makes his or her own decision about which path to follow in accord with our own individual ‘opportunities and conditions’. (CWS, p. 8) No one can convince anyone to follow a particular path. Nor should we try to do that. We are not able to understand the full depth and background of another person’s needs and choices.
No one has a licence to deride and ridicule another person’s choices, either. There are 80,000 paths of dharma. In other words, there are almost infinite possibilities. It is useful to keep this aspect of Buddha Dharma in mind when we meet other people who have made choices unlike our own. In reality, no one except Amida Buddha can understand us as we are. But a foolish being cannot understand others in any real depth.
For those who choose the way of nembutsu there is no other path that is free of hindrances. In other paths there may be many hindrances on the way to liberation.
For example, it is said that someone who tries to obtain enlightenment by the Path of Sages through self-power efforts can be disrupted by ‘maras’. These are beings who try to dissuade a person from taking the path by causing self-doubt and unwanted thoughts, among other things. They are the working of our ‘blind passions’, our kleshas.
In the path of Other Power such maras do not beset us because the nembutsu is the dharma path that carries beings by the power of the Primal Vow.
The path of difficult practice may be compared in its hardship to journeying overland on foot. In the path of easy practice, one aspires to be born in the Pure Land with solely one’s entrusting of oneself to the Buddha as the cause, and allowing oneself to be carried by the power of the Buddha’s Vow, quickly attains birth in the land of purity. Supported by the Buddha’s power, one immediately enters the group of the truly settled of the Mahayana. (T’an-luan’s Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Pure Land; CWS, p. 25)
In some cases, we need certain qualities to traverse a particular path. Examples may be wisdom, virtue, or status. Some religious traditions even expect followers to abjure or try to obliterate an innate characteristic. The nembutsu path does not enjoin such things. The only requirement is true entrusting heart (shinjitsu shinjin). Nothing else is needed – not wisdom, not learning, not precepts, not conditions of gender, not class, not caste, not ethical standards.
In reflecting on the great ocean of shinjin, I realize that there is no discrimination between noble and humble or black-robed monks and white-clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, old and young. The amount of evil one has committed is not considered; the duration of any performance of religious practices is of no concern. It is a matter of neither practice nor good acts, neither sudden attainment nor gradual attainment, neither meditative practice nor nonmeditative practice, neither right contemplation nor wrong contemplation, neither thought nor no-thought, neither daily life nor the moment of death, neither many-calling nor once-calling. It is simply entrusting that is inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable. It is like the medicine that eradicates all poisons. The medicine of the Tathagata’s Vow destroys the poisons of our wisdom and foolishness. (CWS, p. 107)