The Essential Gate

The Pomegranates are ready to harvest

Since the wondrous principle of true reality or suchness has reached its perfection in the Primal Vow, this Vow is likened to a great treasure ocean. (Shinran, CWS, p. 486)

We have touched on the deep significance of the Contemplation Sutra already. But, if we return to the beginning of its chronological account, we will discover the person at the heart of the sutra and what that person represents.

Behind the Larger Sutra and the two other Pure Land sutras, and even delving into the whole Buddhist canon, lies the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The Primal Vow is before everything else. As Shinran says, it is perfection of the true and real – suchness, ‘the wonderful principle of true reality’.

The impulse to seek release from birth-and-death comes from the Primal Vow; accepting its working when we eventually encounter the Name is Namo Amida Butsu. The Contemplation Sutra is a stark and accessible example of the working of the Primal Vow and reveals how we encounter it by recounting tragic events at Rajagrha castle.

In a commentary, the fifth Dharma Master of the True Pure Land School, Shan-tao (613-681), collated the background chronology of the events that befell the King, Bimbisara and his consort, Queen Vaidehi – great patrons and supporters of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the sutra we meet them at the culmination of that process. Their son, Ajatasatru has imprisoned the King and the Queen has been caught providing him with food.

There are many terrible things that can — and do — happen to us. But among the most distressing is the collapse of our domestic life. Harsh things are said and done, blame is given, sadness fills our hearts; we cannot believe that this can be happening to us. Vaidehi may have been a member of the royal family but suffering does not discriminate – it affects us all.

Lest we should think that in our age and civilisation we are less subject to suffering, it is useful to consider what suffering means. Shakyamuni’s teaching is clear: birth, old age, illness, and death comprise the four sufferings. The eight sufferings are also right before us every day: meeting those one hates, parting from those one loves, not being able to satisfy one’s desires, and clinging to the ‘five aggregates’ – bodily, feelings, perception, mental-constructs, and consciousness.

Needless to say, not everyone recognises that they are suffering. And only those who come to that realisation and understand the deep nature of suffering, may decide to turn to the Buddha. Yet, no progress can be made in the quest to resolve the problem of suffering at its source, rather than deal with the symptoms, unless we encounter the Buddha in one way or another – in the form of a disciple; or a book, perhaps.

This encounter — taking refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and adopting the precepts and meditation, is known as the ‘Essential Gate’. For some it may be a beginning. But for no one is it the culmination of their quest, until it is a meeting with the Primal Vow.