In praise of Shan-tao

Chih-yung praises the extraordinary virtue of Shan-tao: ‘Shan-tao is an incarnation of Amida Buddha. To say the Buddha’s six character Name is to praise the Buddha; it is to repent…’ (CWS, p. 504)

I referred last week to a gold mine of spiritual nourishment that we find in a letter by Shinran Shonin. Here is another gold mine. It is part of an inscription on one of the sacred scrolls that Shinran and his disciples used.

These scrolls would include the six character Name (Na-mu A-mi-da Butsu) or another form of the Name, for example, Kimyo Jinjippo Mugeko Nyorai – ‘I take refuge in the Tathagata whose light unhindered fills the ten quarters’. Along with the Name in Chinese characters, Shinran added an inscription in the form of passages from the sutras.

There were also scrolls that featured portraits of Dharma Masters, like Bodhisattva Nagarjuna and Bodhisattva Vasubandhu. The inscription above is found on a scroll that featured a portrait of the fifth Dharma Master of Jodo Shinshu, Shan-tao (613-681).

As I have said already in this blog, Shan-tao is clearly one of the truly great Dharma Masters in Buddhist history. For the Pure Land school, he was a significant reformer, who disseminated the teaching of the nembutsu to the people of his era. There seems to be no record of Chih-yung, who is the person who is quoted in this inscription. But his words praising Master Shan-tao are wonderful.

Shinran circulated his own commentaries on the inscriptions on sacred scrolls and, in this one, he tells us that Chih-yung was a venerable monk in China. The sacred text in the Taisho Tripitaka, Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, does not include any reference to the Venerable Chih-yung.

As Shinran notes in his commentary, Chih-yung praises the extraordinary virtue of Shan-tao by saying, ‘Shan-tao is an incarnation of Amida Buddha.’

It is easy to dismiss a statement like that but it is very important. The seven Dharma Masters of Jodo Shinshu are the way that Amida Buddha keeps working in history. He has been active in this way, calling to us, from the time that he appeared as Shakyamuni Buddha and made known the Primal Vow.

Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Shakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya. (CWS, p. 349)

From then on, Amida Buddha works through the lives and teachings of great Pure Land sages and in the lives of nembutsu people.

Chih-yung then goes on to say, ‘To say the Buddha’s six-character Name is to praise the Buddha…’ Again, this is Amida Buddha at work. When the nembutsu moves from being a cry for help (‘Amida please save me!’) to a cry of joy, it manifests a change of heart. This is the culmination of a process that may be sudden and surprising, or slow and halting, but it happens nonetheless.

‘To say the Name,’ continues Chih-yung, ‘is to repent.’ It seems to me that these two attitudes in those who say the Name – praise and repentance – manifest the two-fold deep mind that is such an important feature of Shan-tao’s teaching:

Second [of the three minds] is deep mind, which is true and real shinjin. One truly knows oneself to be a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good, transmigrating in the three realms and unable to emerge from this burning house. And further, one truly knows now, without so much as a single thought of doubt, that Amida’s universal Primal Vow decisively enables all to attain birth, including those who say the Name even down to ten times, or even but hear it. (CWS, p. 92)