Hearing the Primal Vow

The myokonin Genza and Den, his working ox

It is always wonderful to hear nembutsu people recount the moment in their lives when, as Shinran Shonin suggests in Gutoku’s Notes, one life ends and another life begins (CWS, p. 594). This is the decisive moment that the they put unconditional trust in Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and begin in earnest the life of single-minded nembutsu.

 In the Contemplation Sutra we learn that Queen Vaidehi was the first lay-person who is recorded to have put wholehearted trust in Amida Buddha.  This awakening occurred amidst the most appalling family squabble, when her son, the crown prince Ajatashatru imprisoned his father, King Bimbisara. As a result of this conflict Vaidehi appealed to the Buddha for help. He visited her and showed her the way to deliverance from birth and death through the nembutsu.

Genza is a famous Shin Buddhist who lived from 1852 to 1930. After a massive spiritual struggle that was precipitated by the death of his daughter, he heard the Vow of Amida Buddha through the agency of his working Ox, Den. He realised in a moment of great joy that, just as Den made his life easier by carrying loads of hay that were too heavy for Genza, so Amida Buddha bore the burden of Genza’s evil karma, thus freeing him from birth-and-death and enabling him to be born in the Pure Land at the end of his life.

Shinran Shonin describes the moment of accepting the Vow of Amida Buddha with great clarity. He was even able to say what year it occurred:

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

Hearing the Vow of Amida Buddha is initiated by Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida. Perhaps it begins with a growing understanding of the Buddha Dharma. That is why we are encouraged to hear the dharma with great dedication and earnestness.

Most people seem to encounter the Vow in unexpected ways. A friend of mine discovered the teaching of Amida Buddha when he bought a copy of the Letters of Shinran (Mattosho) just after they were translated into English and published by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha in 1978.

Then, of course, there is the well-known allegory written by the fifth dharma master of Jodo Shinshu, Shan-tao (613-681), The Two Rivers and the White Path. It seems to me that this allegory illustrates a typical experience of an individual who has exhausted all options for salvation and has no choice but to accept the call of the Primal Vow. Such a moment is invariably a time of great joy and relief.