The value of learning

All the sacred writings that clarify the significance of the truth and reality of Other Power state that one who entrusts oneself to the Primal Vow and says the nembutsu attains Buddhahood. Apart from this, what learning is essential for birth? (A Record in Lament of Divergences, 12; CWS,  p. 668)

The twelfth chapter of A record in Lament of Divergences is very long but I think it is one of the best pieces of Shin Buddhist exegesis available. You will find it on pages 668 and 669 of The Collected Works of Shinran.

In the time of Shinran Shonin — and of his disciple Yuien-bo — some people ridiculed followers of the Pure Land way by taunting them about their lack of learning. Indeed, people who practiced the Pure Land dharma did the same thing to their fellow-followers.

In his instructions to his disciples just before his parinirvana, Shakyamuni Buddha said that he did not teach with a ‘master’s fist’. This is a reference to the tradition of apprenticeship, and religious practice at the time. The master withheld aspects of the teaching and imparted it only directly and privately as a teacher. In other words, Shakyamuni’s teaching was open and accessible.  It did not require secrecy or the effort to uncover difficult ideas through study in order to gain light.

The idea that one can respond to the call of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha only through learning is intrinsically the same as a ‘master’s [clenched] fist’. The implication is that understanding can only come by dependence on teachings that are complicated and difficult to come by. However, Amida Buddha made his Vow, and gave beings his Name, so that they can become Buddhas.  This is the straightforward way that has always been the essence of Pure Land teaching. And for that it is still sometimes ridiculed and abrogated.

The Name is meant to be easy to say for the person unfamiliar with even a single character and ignorant of the lines of discourse in the sutras and commentaries; hence it is called ‘easy practice.’ (CWS, p. 668)

Yuien also notes that the fact that the Pure Land way does not require study of sutras — and commentaries — will evoke derision from other Buddhists. He suggests that the best way to respond to people like that is to be open and honest about oneself and to avoid arguments. ‘Where disputation takes place, blind passions arise.’ (CWS, p. 669)

Yiuen’s attitude is in keeping with the well-known edict of the emperor Ashoka, who reigned in India during the third century before the common era. As the edict points out, it is best to try to understand the other person’s position and the teaching that they follow. Squabbling about religion is hurtful, and tends only to be self-promoting. It achieves little.

Of people who, in various ways, seek to obstruct the nembutsu, Shinran says in a letter:

Teachers of the past have stated that practicers of the nembutsu should act with compassion for those who commit such obstruction, feel pity for them, and earnestly say the nembutsu, thereby helping those who seek to hinder them. You should carefully ponder this. (CWS, p. 564)

But detractors there are, and such people will always exist. This fact was well-known to Shinran and anticipated by Shakyamuni Buddha. As Yuien says in this chapter, we should not be dismayed or surprised by this fact. Remember, too, that in concluding The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran reminds us that the entrusting heart (shinjin) is only deepened when the Pure Land way — or our discipleship of it — is belittled.

May those who see and hear this work be brought – either through the cause of reverently embracing the teaching or through the condition of [others’] doubt and slander of it – to manifest shinjin within the power of the Vow and reveal the incomparable fruit of enlightenment in the land of peace. (CWS, p. 291)

Apart from seeking to remind us that insisting upon learning and study can be an egregious way of throwing obstacles in the path of seekers, and making it difficult for them to traverse, Yuien does, nevertheless, encourage study for those who wish to better understand — for themselves — the ‘significance of the Primal Vow’.  People of nembutsu will be richly rewarded if they choose such a course. For they will see with great clarity how and why the Primal Vow was made, and how and why it calls to beings to entrust it.