Three Vows

Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skilful means,
They bring us to awaken the supreme shinjin.
(Shinran Shonin, Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, 74; CWS, p. 380)


We come now to the fourteenth chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences. But before we look at it more closely we should remind ourselves of the way that The Three Pure Land Sutras are structured. In their explicit sense, each of the sutras relates to one of three Vows that were made by Amida Buddha, when he was a bodhisattva. The Vows are stated in the Larger Sutra. They are the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth Vows.

The eighteenth Vow is the main Vow, and one of its traditional ascriptions is ‘the Vow of shinjin, which is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth.’ It is also called ‘the selected Primal Vow’, and ‘the Vow of birth through the nembutsu.’ This is the ultimate of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows, and the core expression of his purpose. The Larger Sutra is explicit about the eighteenth Vow, which is the Primal Vow.

The nineteenth Vow is associated with The Contemplation Sutra, and is called ‘the Vow of performing meritorious acts.’ The implicit teaching of The Contemplation Sutra is the same as the Larger Sutra but its teaching includes an explicit way of religious practice that seeks to attain birth in the Pure Land. Practice includes ‘non-meditative good’ and meditation. Finally, the twentieth Vow is associated with The Amida Sutra and, among other titles, is called ‘the Vow of cultivating the root of virtue’. The ‘root of virtue’ refers to the practice of nembutsu as a way of accruing virtue towards birth in the Pure Land.

The Pure Land tradition in its various forms reflects the working of these three Vows. There are those who practice precepts and meditation associated with the Pure Land teaching, but only as one of many similar practices. This is the way of the nineteenth Vow. Then there are those for whom the nembutsu is their exclusive practice. That is the working of the twentieth Vow. Finally, there are those whose nembutsu is an expression of joy and gratitude because they have received and accepted the entrusting heart. Since the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) is the vehicle of shinjin they naturally say the nembutsu because it is the manifestation of their inner disposition. This is the nembutsu of thanksgiving (ho-on-no-nembutsu) or, expecting nothing in return, it is robust: ‘hearty nembutsu’ (isami-no-nembutsu).

This brings us to the problem that the author of A Record in Lament of Divergences seeks to address in the fourteenth chapter. This is how he expresses it:

On the assertion: You should believe that the grave karmic evil binding you to birth-and-death for eight billion kalpas is eradicated through a single utterance of the Name. (CWS, p. 672-4)

This belief is directly associated with the nineteenth Vow of Amida Buddha and is found in The Contemplation Sutra. As we have seen repeatedly when thinking about A Record in Lament of Divergences, such an idea is not a part of the eighteenth Vow – ‘the Vow of shinjin, which is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth.’ When isolated from the other sutras and the eighteenth Vow, it is not an aspect of the way of Other Power, which this book seeks to highlight as the essential point of Jodo Shinshu – the ‘true teaching of Pure Land Buddhism.’

After explaining the origins of this claim, which is that salvation is an incremental, calculating  and strategic effort on the part of the practicer, rather than the working of Other Power, Yuien explains just what true nembutsu of Other Power is:

For by virtue of being shone upon by Amida’s light, we receive diamondlike shinjin when the one thought-moment of entrusting arises within us; hence, already in that instant Amida takes us into the stage of the truly settled, and when our lives end, all our blind passions and obstructions of evil being transformed, we are brought to realize insight into the nonorigination of all existence. Thus the nembutsu that we say throughout a lifetime with the thought, ‘If it were not for this compassionate Vow, how could such wretched evildoers as ourselves gain emancipation from birth-and-death?’ should be recognized as entirely the expression of our gratitude for the benevolence and our thankfulness for the virtuous working of the Tathagata’s great compassion. (CWS, p 673)