The oceanlike Primal Vow of Amida

Shakyamuni Tathagata appeared in this world
Solely to teach the oceanlike Primal Vow of Amida;
We, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements,
Should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.
(Shinran Shonin, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation II, CWS, p. 70)

These words are from The Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu. It appears at the end of the section on The True Practice in Shinran Shonin’s principal work, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. His statement that ‘Shakyamuni appeared in this world solely to teach the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha,’ can give the impression that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha obliterates other aspects of the Buddha Dharma. But this is not so.

The eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha, which is recorded in The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Larger Sutra) and is at the heart of the Primal Vow, is known as ‘the Vow that all beings be born in the Pure Land through the nembutsu.’ It is also known as ‘the Vow of the sincere and entrusting heart.’  All beings are clearly included in its scope. There is no one left out of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

But did not Shakyamuni Buddha teach 80,000 dharma gates? What are we to say of the teachings of Dharma that are not mentioned in the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha? There are many schools of Buddhism and their proponents would all say that Shakyamuni Buddha came into the world to proclaim their teachings. Yet, in The Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, Shinran Shonin says that Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world ‘solely’ to teach the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Shinran Shonin intended this to mean that, in the other teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, the teaching of the Primal Vow is implicit. He demonstrated this idea in the final section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, where he discusses two others of the forty-eight Vows of Amida Buddha, apart from the eighteenth Vow itself. These are the nineteenth and twentieth Vows.

The nineteenth Vow of Amida Buddha encourages practices that we find in one of The Three Pure Land Sutras. These are meditative and non-meditative good, known as the Essential Gate. The teaching of this Vow is in concord with The Contemplation Sutra, which teaches a way of meditation and religious practices and precepts.

Although Shinran wishes to make a specific point about the Pure Land tradition in his explanation of the significance of the nineteenth Vow, he also points out that The Contemplation Sutra is, in its explicit aspect, a teaching of the Path of Sages. In doing so he reminds us that the Primal Vow is implicit throughout the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, including in the Path of Sages, just as it is in The Contemplation Sutra.

When we read books or listen to talks that focus on the Pure Land teaching of the Primal Vow and, especially and most importantly, the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha, we are hearing about the ultimate and sole purpose of Shakyamuni Buddha’s coming into this world. But, as Shinran was at pains to point out in his letters to his disciples, that does not preclude a Buddhist way of life.

The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha works to deliver us from birth and death by Other Power nembutsu. But once a being is so delivered, he or she longs to go on to participate in as much of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching as possible, given each person’s specific circumstances and limitations, and to live according to the Dharma.

Such a life is no longer that of a seeker for salvation, which has been fulfilled through trust in the Primal Vow, manifest as the Name, Namu-amida-butsu. Instead, grateful for the salvation that they have received, beings long to honour and praise the Dharma in all its forms and to live accordingly.