How is entrance into the single gate of easy practice possible unless we happily come to rely on a true teacher whom conditions bring us to encounter? (A Record in Lament of Divergences [Tannisho], Preface, CWS, p. 661)
This middle section of the Preface to A Record in Lament of Divergences refers to two distinct ideas – the gate of easy practice; and a true teacher.
Among the earliest recorded references to the gate of easy practice are those found in The Questions of King Menandros (Milindapanha) by Bhikkhu Nagasena, and The Chapter on Easy Practice from The Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna. Both allude to trust in the Buddha as one way that followers of Buddha Dharma can enter the path to ultimate realisation.
The Mahayana has followed the guidance of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna. Indeed, his teaching of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha abides as the core of Jodo Shinshu.
Bodhisattva Nagarjuna inherited the teaching of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and promoted it – only reluctantly – in his Commentary. Nevertheless it is a venerable path that can be adopted by anyone without the need to abandon domestic life to become a mendicant or a monk. Associated with the entrusting heart (shinjin), it quickly brings one to the stage of the truly settled, and the assurance of becoming a Buddha at birth in the Pure Land when we die.
Throughout its long history, the path of easy practice – the way of nembutsu – has sometimes fallen out of favor but returned re-invigorated by the prompting of a teacher who has been able to delve ever more deeply into its meaning and significance, thus making it available to his own generation. In our own time it seems to be moving back into a more dormant phase.
These circumstances suggest that those of us for whom the teaching of easy practice continues to be an infinite source of liberation and joy have a great responsibility to review, renew and preserve its teachings for future generations. The way of easy practice will come to the fore when circumstances are such that people once again become alert to the truth of our deep self-deception and flawed nature.
Even so, we continue to need the guidance of a true teacher – literally a being of knowledge. A true teacher is necessarily someone who has personally awakened to the dharma that we seek. Indeed, a true teacher can be any being.
In A Record in Lament of Divergences, this person is Shinran Shonin. But he paradoxically disparaged the idea that he was a teacher at all. He insisted that our true teacher was Tathagata, the Buddha.
Shakyamuni also rejected his disciples’ claim that he was an indispensable teacher. It is only the dharma that is our teacher and guide. We must put it into practice and realise it for ourselves. Each one of us must awaken to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. No teacher can attain this on our behalf.