The Path of Sages and the Pure Land path


The fifteenth chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences is concerned with the essential differences between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land path. These are really important because it is quite common for people to confuse them.  This happened during the time of Shinran Shonin and it still happens today.

In his own writings, and especially his letters, Shinran deals with this topic in various ways. In A Record in Lament of Divergences the critical issue that emerges in the discussion is the implication that entrusting heart and enlightenment are the same event.

On the assertion that one attains enlightenment even while maintaining this bodily existence full of blind passions. (CWS, p. 674)

Yuien-bo jumps straight into a succinct summary of this proposition:

This statement is completely absurd. (CWS, p. 674)

Followers of the Other Power teaching of the Pure Land path, are foolish beings right up until the moment of death, when they become Buddhas, even though receiving the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha in the present.  As Rennyo Shonin repeatedly points out, nembutsu people experience two phases of awakening.  The first of these is the entrusting heart, or shinjin, and the second is enlightenment, which occurs upon birth in the Pure Land.

In several places in his writings, Shinran summarised the distinction between the two paths in this way:

Among all the teachings that Shakyamuni Buddha taught during his lifetime, those that teach attaining sacred wisdom and realising the fruit in this world are called the Path of Sages. They are termed the path of difficult practice. (CWS, p. 222)

Attaining sacred wisdom and realising the fruit in the Pure Land of peace is called the Pure Land path. It is termed the path of easy practice. (CWS, p. 223)

The term ‘path’ or ‘way’ is interesting in these two instances, too. Upon the Path of Sages one walks by oneself. In the path of Pure Land one is carried by Another – the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light. It is the Buddha that has walked the Path. Followers of the Pure Land Path walk the Noble Eightfold Path by being carried along it by the Primal Vow. Pure Land followers jump aboard the sacred Name and reach the goal that way.

In the meantime they remain foolish beings. In fact they rest at ease being carried across the tumultuous storms of birth-and-death, without fear or wavering, on the great galleon of the Primal Vow.

I reflect within myself: The universal Vow difficult to fathom is indeed a great vessel bearing us across the ocean difficult to cross. The unhindered light is the sun of wisdom dispersing the darkness of our ignorance. (CWS, p. 3)

Are followers of the Pure Land path lazy? The answer is ‘no’, they are not. Nembutsu people build relationships and nurture families in one way or another. They contribute to society by paying taxes and the work they do. If unable to find work or retired, they contribute in other ways.  Nembutsu people support both members of temples of the Pure Land path, as well as communities that belong to the Path of Sages. In fact, nembutsu people are the jewel and leaven of the dharma and keep it flourishing from generation to generation by their generosity, devotion and love.

Third, the person who continues in the nembutsu is a truly rare person; there is nothing that compares with such a one. For this reason, the white lotus is used as an analogy. The white lotus is called ‘the excellent flower among people,’ or ‘the rare flower,’ or ‘the best among the best,’ or ‘the wondrous excellent flower.’ What has traditionally been called the ‘blossom bearing the white tortoise’ is none other than this flower. The person of the nembutsu is the excellent person among people, the wondrous, excellent person, the best among the best, the rare person, the very finest person. (CWS, p. 121)