Sunday, April 28, 2019

Favorable conditions for accepting the Larger Sutra in faith - commentary on verses 21 - 30 from section 27 of the Larger Sutra


After the episode with the visit of Bodhisattvas and prediction for their attainment of Buddhahood, Shakyamuni continues with explaining the conditions of meeting with the teaching of the Larger Sutra and how precious and inconceivable this Dharma is.

“Without a store of good from former lives,
One cannot hear this sutra;
But those who have strictly observed the precepts
Can hear the Right Dharma.

One who has met a World-honoured One in the past
Can accept this teaching.
Such a person respectfully worships, hears,
And upholds it, and rejoices so greatly as to dance.

Arrogant, corrupt, and indolent people
Cannot readily accept this teaching.
But those who have met Buddhas in their former lives
Rejoice to hear it[1]

There are two karmic causes explained here:  

1   1)  observance of precepts in a former life leads to birth in human form or a realm where one can meet and hear the Larger Sutra and especially the message of the Primal Vow which is the essence of this sutra. The Larger Sutra is called “the right Dharma” because, as I explained at chapter two, it is the true reason for Shakyamuni’s appearance in this world.
2   2)  those who have met a Buddha or many Buddhas in the past and had devotion and respect towards them, are open enough to accept in faith the teaching of the Larger Sutra and especially the Primal Vow of Amida – this is the meaning of “one who has met a World-honoured One in the past can accept this teaching” and “those who have met Buddhas in their former lives rejoice to hear it”. To accept means to have faith. Such people accept all that Shakyamuni explained in the Larger Sutra, but also worship and entrust according to the requirements of Amida in His Primal Vow. They are disciples without any doubt, who are happy to hear about Amida’s wonderful and indiscriminative method of salvation – “such a person respectfully worships, hears,and upholds it, and rejoices so greatly as to dance”.

The good things we did in the past lives, like observing the precepts and being respectful to a Buddha led us to life in human form and to meeting, hearing and accepting the Larger Sutra. Even if now we are not able to observe precepts, we could do that in a former life and as we know from the Buddhist teaching on karma, observing precepts in a previous life has the karmic effect of being born a human or higher form of existence. This does not mean we always observed precepts in all our previous lives, but we had perhaps one life of great efforts in doing that. However, it is important to notice that even if we made great efforts in observing the precepts, and even met a Buddha in one of our previous lives whom we worshiped and respected, we still did not attain perfect Enlightenment because we did not abandon the reliance on the illusion of self-power. As Shinran said,

“Under the guidance of Buddhas who appeared in this world,
Three times the sands of the Ganges in number,
We awakened the aspiration for supreme Enlightenment,
But our self-power failed, and we continued to transmigrate.”[2]

Thus, we should not waste our time anymore in this life with self-power practices, but entrust completely to Amida Buddha about whose Primal Vow we learn in the Larger Sutra.  

Those who are arrogant, corrupt, and indolent people, cannot readily accept this teaching”. These are people who are proud of their so-called “spiritual achievements”, who believe that they can attain Buddhahood in their present bodies, but also people who although they are in human form and met with the teaching of the Larger Sutra they deny the existence of Amida and His Pure Land, or they refuse to entrust to Him completely. So, it is not enough to have observed precepts in a previous life, enjoy the karmic effect of being born a human being, and meeting the Larger Sutra. Many are now in human form and have met the Larger Sutra, but few actually accept the actual existence of Amida and His Pure Land who are the main elements  of the sutra. Many also do not rely exclusively on Amida’s power and are not in accord with His Primal Vow which is the essence of the Larger Sutra. These are people who although they did some good in a previous life, and were even capable of good moral behavior, they were not devotional and respectful enough towards Buddhas, and so they did not receive their blessing and guidance. When Shakyamuni mentioned the meeting of a Buddha or Buddhas, He surely did not refer to an occasional meeting but to worshipping, entrusting, and venerating those Buddhas. It is said in the sacred texts that one who venerates a Buddha, even if he does not live during a time when a Buddha is actually present in human form in his realm, for the true worshipper, it is like the Buddha is in the world. So, we can interpret the reference to meeting with a Buddha or Buddhas in two ways, 1) meeting and being in the presence of an actual great Buddha/Buddhas of the past whom the practitioner respected and worshipped, and/or 2) worshipping and having respect towards Buddhas in a previous life/lives, thus being in their presence even if he did not actually lived in the time of a great Buddha’s appearance in human form[3].
There is no doubt that one who met Buddhas in a previous life and who worshipped and venerated them will have the karmic tendency to continue with the same attitude in the present life. More than this, because all Buddhas praise Amida’s method of salvation, they are all guiding beings who are under their care and who worship them, towards faith in Amida. So, it is easier for one who has veneration and a respectful attitude towards various Buddhas to come to a point where he accepts in faith the teaching of the Larger Sutra and entrusts to Amida Buddha according to His Primal Vow.  

Shakyamuni urged us to take His teaching on Amida Buddha very seriously and emphasized the difficulty of birth in human form and of being able to meet with it and hear it:

“To obtain human life is difficult in the extreme;
To meet a Buddha in this world is also difficult;
It is difficult, too, for a person to attain faith and wisdom.
Once you have heard the Dharma, strive to reach its heart[4].”[5]

No matter the circumstance we live in, no matter how hard our lives are, and no matter what suffering we encounter[6], we must not lose our life in vain, but hear Amida Dharma and entrust to it:

“Even if the whole world is on fire,
Be sure to pass through it to hear the Dharma;
Then you will surely enter the Buddha’s Enlightenment
And everywhere deliver beings from the river of birth and death.”[7]

All those who have faith in Amida Dharma, accept the Larger Sutra and are in accord with the Primal Vow of Amida which is the essence of this sutra, are Shakyamuni’s personal friends, no matter how high or low are they on a scale of spiritual evolution:

“If you have heard the Dharma (Amida Dharma/the Larger Sutra) and do not forget it
But adore and revere it with great joy,
You are my good friend. For this reason,
You should awaken aspiration for Enlightenment[8].”[9]

Attention here, as Shakyamuni wanted us to be very careful on this matter – to hear and entrust to His teaching on Amida Buddha in the Larger Sutra does NOT have anything to do with some kind of supernal wisdom or special qualities on the part of the follower. It does not mean to know, as a Buddha knows, all the “technical” details of the Pure Land and how Amida’s method of salvation presented in the Larger Sutra works. This is why Shakyamuni spoke the following verses:

“Neither sravakas nor bodhisattvas are able to know
The Sage’s mind exhaustively;
They are like those who are born blind
And yet wish to guide others.”[10]

Here the term “sravakas” is used for a person in the spiritual state of aspiring for personal freedom from birth and death, and “bodhisattva” for a bodhisattva in training, who has not yet attained perfect Enlightenment (not a Buddha yet). If such people try to understand the impossible to understand details of the Pure Land and how Amida’s method of salvation works, and think they can teach others their limited understanding, they are like ignorant peasants who, after traveling by plane for the first time, they play smart about flying technology and pretend to know everything about plane engines.  

“The ocean of the Tathāgata’s wisdom
Is deep, vast, and boundless.
Even sages of the Hinayana cannot fathom it;
Only the Buddha clearly knows it.”[11]

Only a Buddha can understand Amida Buddha, His Pure Land, as well as all the supernal details related to them:

“Let us suppose that all human beings,
Without exception, have attained Enlightenment
And, with pure wisdom, realized original emptiness.
Even if they pondered the Buddha’s wisdom for myriads of kalpas.

And expounded it with the utmost effort all through their lives,
They would not come to exhaustive knowledge of it.
The Buddha’s wisdom is thus limitless
And pure to its depths.”[12]

As I already explained in this book, the topic of the inconceivability of Amida Buddha's salvation is often mentioned in the sacred texts. Simply stated, unenlightened minds cannot understand the Enlightened Minds and work of Buddhas, just like an ignorant peasant who never got out of his village and who does not know how to read or write, cannot understand planes or the flying technology. Just like ignorant peasants who trust the pilot even if they don’t understand how the planes fly, we should, after hearing Shakyamuni’s teaching about Amida, have faith in Him and trust that He will save us, even if we do not know, like a Buddha knows, the exact way in which He will do that.

to be continued 



[1] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.40
[2] Shinran Shonin, Hymns of the Dharma Ages (Shozomatsu Wasan), The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.403
[3] It can also be the case that a person was born in the Pure Land of another Buddha and there, under the guidance of the Buddha of that realm, he heard about Amida and entrusted to Him, thus going from that realm to Amida’s Pure Land. 

[4] Here is a passage quoted by Shinran in the same line with the passage from the Larger Sutra, and which you might find useful:
 "Foolish beings of the lowest level, fettered by their karmic acts and blind passions, are transmigrating in the five evil courses for a hundred thousand myriads of kalpas. But suddenly hearing of the Pure Land, they awaken aspiration and seek to be born there. [...] All the Buddhas protect them, and enable them to advance directly toward Enlightenment.  Know that such an encounter is rare, even in a myriad kalpas. In a thousand lifetimes, a person might encounter the Vow but once. From this day to the very end of time, wherever you are, give praise to the Vow, and wherever you may go, encourage others to hear it.”
Shinran Shonin (Gutoku's Notes), quoting The Commentary on the Amida Sutra by Yan-chao, master of the Vinaya school (Master Tai-chih)
The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.598
[5] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.41
[6] Also no matter how happy we are and how many pleasant distractions we encounter, we must not lose time but hear Amida Dharma and entrust to it.
[7] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.41
[8] You should awaken aspiration for Enlightenment by relying on the Power and Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, which is the essence of the Larger Sutra.
[9] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.41
[10] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.40
[11] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.40
[12] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.40

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