Hearing the Vow

The word ‘hear’ in the passage from the Larger Sutra means that sentient beings, having heard how the Buddha’s Vow arose – its origin and fulfillment – are altogether free from doubt. (CWS, p. 112)

July in the Adelaide Hills

A good movie, or novel, has at least one character in it that we feel we can identify with. It may be an anti-hero, someone who is not a perfect role model and a failure, or it may be a heroic person. We do not really have a rational process by which we find characters in fiction that we admire in one way or another. But, obviously, we would probably begin yawning with boredom or close the book if there was nothing that reached into our hearts.

The same sensibility sways us in more factual reports. ‘Human interest’ stories in newspapers definitely have a strong attraction to readers, whether they depict truly unthinkable and horrible events or heart-warming acts of goodness and kindness that were well beyond the ‘call of duty’.

In the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, Shakyamuni Buddha reveals the bodhisattva career of Amida Buddha when he manifested himself in the realm of birth-and-death as Bodhisattva Dharmakara. This is rather like a news report, except that it comes from the realm of enlightenment, the Buddha. It is perfect fact and not flawed like fiction, history or newspaper reports.

When in The True Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment, Shinran Shonin says that to hear the Dharma is to hear how the Buddha’s Vow arose, it is possible to see this solely in an objective way as mere description of the bodhisattva career of Dharmakara many aeons ago. But speaking for myself, I cannot see the account in the Larger Sutra like that because I am nothing like Dharmakara. From that angle, it has little to say to me. Any vows I took would be as nothing – the babbling of a fool. I am a being of blind passions endlessly wandering in samsara.

Rather, the Primal Vow arose precisely because Amida Buddha knew that you and I would be beings of blind passions, without the slightest capacity to work our way towards enlightenment. The cause of the Primal Vow is sentient beings. The Primal Vow arose because you and I need it.

Amida’s light shows beings just where they stand in relation to the Buddha Dharma. And what it shows them they know with certainty; it is not just a belief. In the moment that they see this, there also arises for them the call of the Vow, which they can only accept.

Hearing the origin of the Vow is directly related to the reality of beings of blind passions. And the fulfillment of the Vow is when we accept without a shadow of doubt Namo Amida Butsu. It is only then that we can see and truly understand what Shakyamuni Buddha teaches in the Larger Sutra.

These days, there are some among the nembutsu practicers in this region who use strange words, saying that these express how one has attained the entrusting heart (shinjin), with a pretentious air that they know very well the entrusting heart of our tradition.

According to them, ‘The entrusting heart is not to forget our indebtedness to Amida, who settled our birth in the Pure Land at the time of his enlightenment ten kalpas ago.’ This is a great mistake. For even though they know all about Amida Tathagata’s attainment of enlightenment, it would be futile if they failed to realise the significance of the entrusting heart of Other Power that assures our birth. (Rennyo Shonin, Letters of Rennyo, p. 27)


When I consider the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realise that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone. (Shinran; CWS, p. 679)