Deciding

Painting by Piotr Parda, from Stories for Wisdom by Shojo Honda, published by BDK America

To say Amida’s Name means to make a decision and not calculate in any way. (Shinran Shonin: Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’, CWS p. 463)

The eighth chapter of The Tanni Sho opens with the words, ‘The nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act.’

Here we encounter the need to choose: when beings come to a certain point in their lives and decide upon the Path of Sages or the Pure Land path. Shinran is here reiterating the need to be one thing or another, to make a choice, and not to remain in an unsettled state. His words ‘… to make a decision and not calculate in any way’ is a specific reference to turning from self-power to Other Power, which is nothing more nor less than the Power of the Primal Vow.

Shinran points out that when beings truly decide on Other Power ‘Amida grasps, never to abandon, such a person of this single practice and one mind.’ (CWS, p. 463) Here we see how the seventh and eighth chapters of The Tanni Sho come into alignment. Single mind is not our mind, it is Other Power.

The thought of his teacher, Honen Shonin, lies at the base of Shinran’s experience of abandoning self-power and choosing Other Power. Having chosen Other Power, everything, including the saying of the Name, is left to Amida Buddha.

If you desire to free yourself quickly from birth-and-death, of the two excellent teachings leave aside the Path of Sages and choosing, enter the Pure Land way. (Honen, CWS p. 53)

Note that there is no value contrast between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path. They are both ‘excellent teachings.’ Beings will invariably make a choice in the light of their own capacity. It is through the working of the light of Amida Buddha that beings come to understand the true depths of their own reality. But the choice is between two ways that are of equal worth and value: they are both excellent.

There is a wonderful little book by Shojo Honda, an ordained Shin Buddhist minister. I have a copy and treasure every word of it! It contains just six stories, but they are of great wisdom. In fact, the book is called Stories for Wisdom and it is published by BDK America.  Shojo Honda says in his forward that ‘cultivation through literature, art, and religion is essential, as is developing the body by being physically active.’ I warmed to this author as I read these words! I agree with him.

The first story is about a donkey who is confronted by two equal-sized piles of hay on either side of a roadway. He tries to choose between the two on the basis of various visible characteristics. But he never actually tastes them. He is unable to make up his mind and dies of starvation.

The same principle applies in choosing between the two excellent paths. It is a great mistake to make judgements about which of the two are ‘best’ without ever trying them for ourselves. We can read about them, listen to the endless polemical arguments that proponents use, and argue endlessly about things which will forever remain mere opinion and theory. But all this will leave us weakened and empty.

That is why Shinran asserts in The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation that the nineteenth of Amida Buddha’s Vows is the ‘essential gate’, which corresponds with the Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. It contains practices that are indistinguishable from the Path of Sages – ‘meditative’ and ‘non-meditative’ good.

Many people are deeply aware of the choices and have tasted the Path of Sages for endless aeons in the past; some turn to the ‘essential gate’ of the nineteenth Vow to begin with and practice the good laid down in that sutra, taking up the meditative and other religious practices, which it contains. That is the way I followed early in my life.

But one day, Amida Buddha may make it clear that we do have a choice. When that happens, we can surrender all self-power and take refuge in the Primal Vow.

I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Sakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201. (CWS p. 290)