It is impossible for us, who are possessed of blind passions, to free ourselves from birth-and-death through any practice whatever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the evil person’s attainment of Buddhahood. Hence, evil persons who entrust themselves to Other Power are precisely the ones who possess the true cause of birth. (The Tanni Sho, III; CWS, p. 663)
When we read any Buddhist scripture it helps to remember just what we are doing. The teachings of the Buddha Dharma may seem like public drama, but they are actually living realities that are addressing each one of us, as a unique individual. Hence it is said that there are 84,000 Dharma teachings.
This principle applies also to ideas that hold sway in Buddhist practice. Famous schools of Buddhist ‘philosophy’ like the Madhyamika and the Yogacara are, first and foremost, practices. When Shinran Shonin composed his Hymn of the Two Gateways of Entrance and Emergence, which was inspired by the Treatise on the Pure Land by Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, he expounds Vasubandhu’s treatise as outlining the practice of Amida Buddha when he was Bodhisattva Dharmakara. It is the practice of a particular individual and not merely a prescriptive handbook.
The significance of these considerations is that the scriptures of the Buddha Dharma actually come alive when each one of us puts them into practice for ‘me alone’. It is no different when we listen to the teachings of Shinran in his own writing, or in third-party reports of his teaching like The Tanni Sho or the Letters of Rennyo.
I often think of the long journey that Shakyamuni Buddha took on his way to his parinirvana at Kushinara. During much of this time he travelled with only the company of his cousin and disciple Ananda. Their conversation was one-to-one. Though the teachings may have universal relevance, they have no purpose unless they are verified in the life of each one of us, one-by-one. Our Pure Land tradition is no different in that regard. As Rennyo Shonin said,
The prosperity of the school does not lie in showing off with large gatherings. If even a single person gains shinjin, this is a true sign of prosperity. (Thus I Have Heard from Rennyo Shonin, 121)
When we read references to the ‘evil person’ in Shin Buddhism, we are not reading a dogmatic concept that is referring to a general principle, nor are we hearing a description of a particular kind of person, or even of day to day behaviour. We are hearing about the person for whom Amida Buddha’s Vow was made. That person is me alone; that person is you alone.
When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realize that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone! Then how I am filled with gratitude for the Primal Vow, in which Amida resolved to save me, though I am burdened with such heavy karma. (The Tanni Sho, Postscript; CWS, p. 679)