The Path of Sages and the Pure Land Path

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Often in the Jodo Shinshu community the ‘path of sages’ is seen as being in competition with the ‘pure land path’. Even more often, as a result of self-power and Other-power rhetoric, people will hold that the former path is diametrically opposed to the latter.

It does not seem to have been the intention of Shinran Shonin to reify this dichotomy. Rather, in line with the unfolding of wisdom within him due to the compassionate working of the Great Practice of Amida Butsu transmitted through hearing the Name, the Shonin merely sought to eliminate further causes of suffering for the people.

For persons of superior capacity, whether monastic or lay, the path of sages (in Shinran‘s Time), was simply not a viable option over-run as it was by persons using religious trappings to hide their worldly ambitions. Given this less-than-ideal milieu, one can certainly understand Shinran Shonin‘s desire to steer even people of superior capacity clear of such a spiritual morass (especially after the exile of his Master Honen Shonin and subsequent desecration of his grave).

For persons of inferior capacity, whether monastic or lay, the path of the sages—even when true exemplars were available—was not likely to prove efficient and effective because it required a great deal of its practitioners. As bonbo, our passionate (rather than compassionate) thoughts, words and deeds have sown the seeds of karma in our storehouse consciousness (alayavijnana), such that the weeds of self-willed acts grow rampant and unchecked. This being the case, most persons are simply not able to participate in ‘practice’ without the taint of self-oriented motivation derailing their efforts.

The compassionate heart of Shinran Shonin went out to both these classes of people and he made it quite clear that the ‘path of Sages’ did not, and need not, concern them. He declared that a way had been prepared for them, even especially for them: this way being the pure land path which he articulated with such precision and subtlety.

 

We have heard it asked: “That being the case, then why not eliminate the path of sages altogether?”

Shinran was quite aware of several things of which we may not always be so aware:

  • because Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni himself extolled the path of sages there will always be people who will seek it out.
     
  • Because self-power makes sense to people (it being what they are most used to) there will never be a shortage of people who will enter through that gate which was almost certainly set up by Śākyamuni as an expedient means for that very reason.

 

It is clear that Shinran Shonin recognized the need for a path suitable not only for those entering through the first four gates of mindfulness (teaching, practice, faith, and realization of a state identical to that of the Bodhisattva Mahâsattva Maitreya), which taken together comprise oso eko – the ‘phase of going forth’ to birth in the Pure Land. He was also very aware of the twenty-second vow, which reads:

The Bodhisattvas of that land (i.e. the Pure Land) all fulfill the attainment of Buddhahood after one lifetime, except those who, for the sake of sentient beings, have established their own original vows and, thus adorning themselves with the virtues of universal vows, seek to bring all to emancipation.

 

So, it is just as clear that the Shonin would have recognized the need for a path suited to those entering through the ‘fifth gate of mindfulness’ (realization of Buddhahood as genso eko – the ‘phase of return’ to samsara for the benefit of others). Such persons—having been purified during their sojourn in the Pure Land—are able to endure the rigors of the ‘path of sages’.

In fact, Honen Shonin would have provided Shinran with a perfect instance of the latter case.

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