In my view the truth about our existence lies entirely in the The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Larger Sutra). If you ask me, ‘What philosophy? What teaching? What guidance? What is it that is of enduring worth?’ If you were to ask any such questions, my answer would always be the Larger Sutra.
In the early days of the Mahayana, communities were separated by large distances and different languages. So it is natural that a set of ideas, an array of individual experiences, the insights of awakened sages, a plethora of realisations and language, would lead, over time, to some variations in related texts. Hence, although there are several versions of it, Shinran Shonin revered the Larger Sutra, whatever the version, because its message is consistent and clear.
Sutras are in fact originally unwritten. A sutra is not originally a hand-written or printed document. They emerge from the heart of truth and are conveyed to us by Buddhas – fully enlightened beings, including Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived in India almost 2,500 years ago.
According to Shinran, the Larger Sutra is the ‘true teaching of the Pure Land way’. Furthermore, the true intent of the sutra is ‘to teach the Tathagata’s Primal Vow’. (CWS, p. 7) This, the true intent of the Larger Sutra, is praised by all Buddhas. It is a teaching of universal relevance; all Buddhas are students of Amida Buddha, the Dharma-body as compassionate means.
The first version of the Larger Sutra that I encountered, when I was a young man, was the translation from the Sanskrit by F. Max Muller. Like all versions of the sutra it gives a striking and radiant example of its true intent.
And again, O Ananda, in the ten quarters, and in each of them, in all the Buddha countries equal in number to the sand of the Ganges, the blessed Buddhas equal in number to the sands of the Ganges, glorify the Name of the blessed Amitabha, the Tathagata, they preach his fame, they proclaim his glory, they extol his virtue. And why? Because all beings who hear the Name of the blessed Amitabha, and having heard it, raise their thought with joyful longing, even for once only, will not turn away again from the highest perfect knowledge.
That is to say, that all those who hear the Name – Namo Amida Butsu – and accept it with joy will enter into the stage of the truly settled and eventually become buddhas. This is what countless millions of people have heard and this is the path they follow. Of special note are the great Dharma Masters – the founder of the Mahayana, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (2nd – 3rd century CE); the founder of the Yogacara, Vasubandhu Bodhisattva (4th century CE); the Chinese sage Master Tanluan (476-542 CE), above all; but also Master Taocho (562-645 CE), his disciple; Master Shan-tao (613-681 CE); Master Genshin (942-1017 CE) and Honen Shonin (Genku – 1133-1212 CE). Over two thousand years these great sages have joined all the Buddhas in ‘glorifying the Name of the blessed Amitabha’.
Not everyone will agree with my assessment of the Larger Sutra. But Master Shan-tao makes a plea that, as followers of the Buddha Dharma, whom Shakyamuni Buddha taught to be ‘islands to themselves’, and who largely – and happily – follow the way that has been given to them, we accept each other’s own path as suitable for each:
To emerge from one gateway is to emerge from one gateway of blind passion; to enter one gateway according to your opportunities and conditions is to enter one gateway of emancipation- wisdom. In this way, you should undertake practice in accord with your opportunities and conditions and seek emancipation. Why do you obstruct and confuse me with what is not the essential practice corresponding to my conditions? What I desire is the practice corresponding to my conditions; that is not what you seek. What you desire is the practice corresponding to your conditions; that is not what I seek. Each person’s performance of practices in accord with his aspirations unfailingly leads to rapid emancipation.
Practicer, know that if you desire to gain understanding, you will be able to study without obstruction the teaching relevant to the stages of ordinary beings or sages or to the fruit of Buddhahood. If you desire to undertake practice, by all means follow the method of practice corresponding to your conditions. In return for a little effort, you will gain great benefit. (CWS, p. 89)
Consistent with Master Shan-tao’s words, Shinran begins the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho by carefully delineating who it is that turns to Amida Buddha and follows his way.
Each person who takes up the Pure Land way is one who seeks …
… to abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure; who is confused in practice and vacillating in faith; whose mind is dark and whose understanding deficient; whose evils are heavy and whose karmic obstructions manifold – let such persons embrace above all the Tathagata’s exhortations, take refuge without fail in the most excellent direct path, devote themselves solely to this practice, and revere only this shinjin. (CWS, p. 3)