Three Ways

In the Pure Land Teaching there are true and provisional. The true is the selected Primal Vow. The provisional teaches the good of meditative and non-meditative practices. The selected Primal Vow is the true essence of the Pure Land way; good practices, whether meditative or non-meditative, are provisional ways. (CWS, p. 524)

I said last week that I would like to explore the letters of Shinran.

The Flinders Ranges, South Australia

There are several collections of these letters. The largest collection is Lamp for the Latter Ages (Mattosho). The other collections are: A Collection of Letters) (Zensho Text) (Go-shosoku shu (Zensho bon), Letters of the Tradition (Shinran Shonin ketsumyaku monju) and a few non-allocated letters, as well. My hope is that we will explore all of them.

The first letter in Lamp for the Latter Ages is headed Concerning Thought and No-thought. It is a good place to start our exploration of Shinran’s Shonin’s letters because, although it is not immediately obvious, this first letter is really a discussion of the position of the True Pure Land School (Jodo Shin Shu) in the overall scheme of things.

By this I mean that Shinran’s teacher, Honen (1133-1212), was the first great Buddhist leader in history to formally present Pure Land Buddhism as a discrete School of Buddha Dharma. Until his time, it was a part of other traditions.

But, in compiling his fine work, A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Primal Vow (Senjaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu), Honen Shonin established a new school of Buddhism. As Shin Buddhists we are heir to the tradition that he established. It is this teaching that Shinran, Honen’s disciple, further clarified in his teaching and writing.

Part of the extension and further examination of Honen’s School by Shinran uncovers a clear perspective about just what the Pure Land School is about. Shinran makes it clear without any equivocation that the Pure Land School consists of the ‘True School’ of the selected Primal Vow, and also includes ‘provisional’ Pure Land schools.

If we want to know the significance of these distinctions we need go no further than The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, where Shinran says that the selected Primal Vow is the way of Other Power:

Other Power is none other than the power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow. (CWS, p. 57)

In the letter that we are considering now, Shinran points out that there are ‘provisional’ paths within the Pure Land way. And there is also the true way of the Primal Vow – Other Power. In his other writings he associates the provisional ways with the nineteenth and twentieth Vows of Amida Buddha. The former involves meditative practices and disciplinary rules. In practical terms, it is the same as the non-Pure Land Schools, the Path of Sages, which includes Zen Buddhism.

The twentieth Vow reveals another form of provisional Pure Land Buddhism. It involves complete dedication to the nembutsu as a religious practice and endeavour on one’s own part, rather than the true way of the eighteenth Vow in which the nembutsu is gratefully accepted and received in beings as the manifestation and fulfillment of the Primal Vow.

The two provisional paths of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows serve to nurture our aspirations within the Pure Land way. They can lead us to the complete trust of the Primal Vow. But the selected Primal Vow of Other Power is the only true way. Shinran tells us that ‘it is the consummation of Mahayana Buddhism’.