Saturday, May 16, 2015

If Amida’s Primal Vow is true…

Shinran Shonin

Shinran Shonin said:

“If Amida’s Primal Vow is true, Shakyamuni’s teaching cannot be false. If the Buddha’s teaching is true, Shan-tao’s commentaries cannot be false. If Shan-tao’s commentaries are true can Honen’s words be lies? If Honen’s words are true, then surely what I say cannot be empty.”

The Primal Vow is true. This is the basis of our faith and of the entire Amida Dharma which was taught by Shakyamuni and the succeeding Masters. Everything starts with this – the Primal Vow is true. If we accept that the Primal Vow is true and we rely on it without any doubt, then we are saved; if not, this life in human form is wasted:

“if in this lifetime still you are entangled in a net of doubt, then unavoidably you must pass once more in the stream of birth-and-death through myriads of kalpas”.

In the Primal Vow we find everything we need, and what Amida and Shakyamuni want us to do. We can say that the whole Buddhism is reduced for us, to the Primal Vow. Of course, Shakyamuni taught many things during His lifetime, but nothing is more important to us than those precious moments when He told the story of Amida Buddha and His Primal Vow. As Shinran said:

“Among all teachings the Great Sage preached in His lifetime, none surpasses this ocean
of virtues [the Primal Vow].”

For Shinran and for us “the universal Vow difficult to fathom is indeed a great vessel bearing us across the ocean difficult to cross”. It is “the true teaching easy to practice for small, foolish beings; the straight way easy to traverse for the dull and ignorant”.

In the Primal Vow Amida Buddha made the following promise:

“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”

Those who have faith in Him, say His Name and wish to be born in His Pure Land, will go there. It is as simple as that. Clearly, as Shinran said above, it is something that even the “dull and ignorant” can follow. No special practice, no high virtues or spiritual capacities, no this or that meditation technique, no retire into a monastery, no nothing but a simple faith, saying of His Name (faith and saying of the Name are the same) and wish to be reborn in His Pure Land after death.

The masters of our school always insisted that we must be in accord with the Primal Vow. To be in accord with the Primal Vow means that we accept it as being true and effective in saving us, that we say the Name in faith and wish to be born in Amida’s Land. To accept that the Primal Vow is true and effective also means that the elements of this Vow are true and real. Which are these elements? They are Amida Buddha and His Pure Land. Only in relation with this Buddha and His Pure Land there is a faith, a saying of the Name and a wish to be born. Faith in whom? It is faith in Amida. Saying the Name of whom? Saying the Name of Amida. Wishing to be born in whose land? Wishing to be born in Amida’s Land.

If we have faith in someone, then it means we are sure beyond any doubt that he is reliable and that he will keep his promise. Now I will say something which might sound too simple and obvious to be mentioned, but to believe in someone’s promise means that we accept his existence, too. Promises can be made by living persons, in our case by a living, existing Amida Buddha, not by material objects or fictional characters. If you read Harry Potter or a book about Santa Claus, or even Hamlet by Shakespeare, you cannot actually believe that these characters are real. You know they are part of a fiction and whatever they say in their specific novel, you will never think they are actually promising something to you personally. Why am I saying this and make this silly comparison? It is because some nowadays deluded scholars and false teachers in our international sangha are trying very hard to convince people that Amida Buddha is just another fictional character like Hamlet[1], and not a real Enlightened Person. They also try to present the other element of the Primal Vow – the Pure Land – as being non-existent or something to be attained here and now, in this very existence, and not a place where we should desire to be reborn after death, as the Primal Vow urges us to do.

So, only if we accept the actual existence of Amida Buddha in Form and Name and of His Pure Land, we can have a genuine faith in Him, say His Name and wish to be born there. Because Amida Buddha and His Pure Land are true and real, His Primal Vow, in which he urges us to entrust to Him, say His Name and wish to go there, is itself true and real. We are not speaking here about an empty promise made by an unenlightened person, or by a fictional character in a fantasy book, but about the promise of a real Buddha, the fully Enlightened One called Amida. Because He exists and He is a Buddha, then it means He is reliable and we can let him carry us to His Pure Land.

            Next, where do we hear about Amida Buddha, His Land and his Primal Vow? We hear about them in the teaching of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha who appeared in our world more than 2500 years ago. This is another reason to entrust our karmic destiny to Amida – because Shakyamuni is the witness and the one who told Amida’s story to us:

If Amida’s Primal Vow is true, Shakyamuni’s teaching cannot be false”.

Master Seikaku made a very simple statement about accepting the Primal Vow in faith on the basis that Shakyamuni himself told us about it and the One who made this Vow:

"Suppose that a man whom one deeply trusts and of whom one has no cause for suspicion whatever, tells you about a place which he knows well at firsthand, saying that there is a mountain here, a river there. You believe deeply what he says, and after you have accepted these words, you meet other people who say it is all false. There is no mountain and no river.
Nevertheless, since what you heard was said by a person whom you cannot think would speak a mere fabrication, a hundred thousand people might tell you differently but you would not accept it. Rather, you deeply trust what you heard first. This is called trust.
Now, believing in what Sakyamuni taught, entrusting yourself to Amida's Vow, and being without any doubt should be like this.”[2]

Also the Masters of our tradition who followed Shakyamuni, including Shan-tao, Honen and Shinran[3] accepted and transmitted to us the truth of the Primal Vow:

“If the Buddha’s teaching is true, Shan-tao’s commentaries cannot be false. If Shan-tao’s commentaries are true, can Honen’s words be lies? If Honen’s words are true, then surely what I say cannot be empty”.

Even if they sometimes used different methods, they all taught that Amida and His Pure Land exist and that we should have faith and desire to go there.

[1] Rev Nobuo Haneda actually said “Amida is ‘a fictional character’ like Hamlet or Faust” in his article What Is Amida Buddha?, published on
[2] Essentials of Faith Alone by Master Seikaku.
[3] Also Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o, Genshin, Rennyo Shonin. 

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