While in Japan recently, I spent some free time (what little there was) catching up on reading including a nice book I purchased recently that summarizes all of Shinran’s writings, called The Essential Shinran. Shinran, who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, is a hard man to figure out sometimes. People often rely on the Tannisho as the basis for understanding Shinran, but without context, it’s confusing and potentially misleading. Shinran’s magnum opus, the Kyōgyōshinshō (教行信証) is a very difficult read due its layer upon layer of quotations, and subtle points made. I managed it once (then wrote the Wikipedia article linked), but can’t remember much of it. So the “essential” book has been very helpful for me in understanding Shinran’s ideas in a more distilled form, but with the much needed context lacking in the Tannisho.
One little gem I found almost by accident was on page 99 of the book (emphasis added by me):
Attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the Pure Land way;
The myriad practices and good acts are the temporary gate.
Unless one distinguishes the accommodated and the real, the temporary and the true,
One cannot possibly know the Pure Land that is naturalness. (Hymns of the Pure Land #77)
The book notes that by “naturalness” Shinran is using the term jinen (自然),1 which if the kanji are broken down, can mean things like “self as it is”, “it is what it is” or some such. The first kanji 自 means self, in all sense of the word, while 然 gets used in words like 天然 (natural, nature), 自然 (shizen, see note 1 below), 偶然 (gūzen, by chance) and so on. One often hears such sentiments in Zen, but may not expect to hear them in Pure Land Buddhism as well. You can see Shinran’s interpretation of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is not a literal paradise located so many buddha-lands to the west, but rather something far more profound. You can see similar sentiments in the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 16:
All harbor thoughts of yearning
and in their minds thirst to gaze at me.
When living beings have become truly faithful,
honest and upright, gentle in intent,
single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha
not hesitating even if it costs them their lives,
then I and the assembly of monks
appear together on Holy Eagle Peak [a historical place in India].
At that time I tell the living beings
that I am always here, never entering extinction,
but that because of the power of an expedient means
at times I appear to be extinct, at other times not,
and that if there are living beings in other lands
who are reverent and sincere in their wish to believe,
then among them too
When living beings witness the end of a kalpa
and all is consumed in a great fire,
this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings.
Or, more bluntly, from chapter 17:
“Ajita, if good men and good women, hearing me describe the great length of my life span, in the depths of their mind believe and understand, then they will see the Buddha constantly abiding on Mount Gridhrakuta, with the great bodhisattvas and multitude of voice-hearers surrounding him, preaching the Law. They will also see this saha world [world of suffering], its ground of lapis lazuli level and well ordered, the Jambunada gold bordering its eight highways, the rows of Jeweled trees, the terraces, towers and observatories all made of jewels, and all the multitude of bodhisattvas who live in their midst. If there are those who are able to see such things, you should known that it is a mark of their deep faith and understanding.
Or even from the Pure Land text, the Amitabha Sutra:
“Furthermore, Shariputra, in the land of Ultimate Bliss there are various birds of brilliant coloring, such as white egrets, peacocks, parrots, sharikas, kalavinkas, and jivamjivakas. The birds sing six times a day in exquisite voices. Their very singing expresses Amitabha’s teachings, such as the Five Roots of Goodness, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. When the people of the land of Ultimate Bliss hear the bird’s voices, all of their thoughts are dedicated to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
And so it is said in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:
“The light of Amitayus shines brilliantly, illuminating all the Buddha-lands of the ten quarters. There is no place where it is not perceived. I am not the only one who now praises his light. All the Buddhas, shravakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas praise and glorify it in the same way. If sentient beings, having heard of the majestic virtue of his light, glorify it continually, day and night, with sincerity of heart, they will be able to attain birth in his land, as they wish. Then the multitudes of bodhisattvas and shravakas will praise their excellent virtue. Later, when they attain Buddhahood, all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten quarters will praise their light, just as I now praise the light of Amitayus.”
Amitabha’s Light is everywhere, all around us, embracing us and guiding us and cannot be exhausted nor obscured ever. If we perceive this light here and now, we perceive the Pure Land, and have already attained rebirth there.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 The same kanji in modern Japanese are read as shizen meaning something spontaneous, natural.