The message of the Contemplation Sutra

The light emanating from Amida Buddha’s features and marks shines everywhere throughout the worlds of the ten quarters, grasping and never abandoning sentient beings of the nembutsu. (Contemplation Sutra, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation II, CWS, p. 47)

Last week I introduced the Contemplation Sutra, relating my first encounter with it when I was still seeking to find a reliable spiritual resource for life. I cannot remember the initial reason for its appeal, but it soon became clear that it did have a very special message to convey. This is that saying the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu, eliminates evil karma.

Towards the end of the sutra we learn that there are nine kinds of individuals who attain birth in the Pure Land. These groups are described in hierarchical terms. At the beginning, we read about ‘Those who attain birth (in the Pure Land) in the highest grade of the highest rank,’ at the top, and ‘Those who attain birth in the lowest grade of the lowest rank’ at the bottom of the ranking.

The sutra describes the characteristics of each group. Reading these I would eliminate myself as a candidate in every rank – until reaching the ‘lowest of the low’. There is no question that this section, right towards the end of the sutra, raises the possibility of the nembutsu as a religious practice. This became a strong feature of the general Pure Land tradition from about the time of the fifth Dharma Master, Shan-tao (613-681). It also underscores this practice as the ultimate message of the sutra.

But it also lays bare a problem. Why and how does saying the nembutsu have that kind of karmic effect? The sutra speaks of recitation of the Name as eliminating one’s evil karma ‘binding him to birth-and-death for eighty kotis of kalpas.’ Although given in numerical terms, this length of time is close to eternity.

If we read the Contemplation Sutra our hearts will move towards this conclusion in a series of incremental steps. For earlier in the sutra we will have learned that Amida Buddha’s light ‘grasps, never abandoning, sentient beings of the nembutsu.’ It is this light that enables us to see where we belong in the ranking that I mentioned above. It is this light that brings us to say the Name in faithful trust.

Even while sorrowing that I am but a weak being and unable to rely on anything, I wish to have that spacious plain of light [Amida Buddha] guide me and fill my heart with joy.’ (Takeko Kujo, Flower Without Sorrow, p. 29)

The Contemplation Sutra is redolent with the light that flows from the Primal Vow. It was delivered to a being who was enmeshed in the world of great pain and suffering. But the underlying meaning of the sutra, implicit in the teaching that people of nembutsu are ’embraced in the light’ of the Buddha, is the fact that saying the Name is not initiated by us, but by the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

In our habitual way of thinking most of us will miss this message. So, the sutra has a dual purpose. It also invites beings to enter the path of Pure Land by laying out a program of practice for those who are yet to accept Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart.