We are often asked about the supposed Pure Land innovation which states: the sole purpose of Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni was to teach about Amida and the Pure Land.
When I humbly contemplate this teaching of the Pure Land masters, I am made to recognize that this teaching is not an innovation of the Pure Land School, Sūtras or Masters, but is an Ekayana teaching of the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra (jp. Myōhō Renge Kyō, or Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law Scripture).
In Chapter 16 of the aforementioned sūtra, which is entitled “Revelation of the Eternal Life of the Tathagata“, it is recorded that Śākyamuni was speaking to a group of Bodhisattva-Mahasattva‘s at the City of Royal Palaces on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa:
…I have constantly been preaching and teaching in this sāha-world, and also leading and benefitting all living beings in other places in hundreds of thousands of myriads of nayutas of asamkhyeya domains… During this time I have ever spoken of myself as the Buddha Burning Light and other [Buddhas], and have also told of their entering into nirvana. Thus have I tactfully described them all… Whenever living beings come to me, I behold with a Buddha‘s eyes all the faculties, keen or dull, of their faith and so on. And I explain to them, in stage after stage, according to their capacity and degree of salvation, my different names and the length of my lives, and moreover plainly state that I must enter nirvana. I also, in various tactful ways, preach the Wonderful Law which is able to cause all the living to beget a joyful heart… Beholding the propensities of all the living toward lower things, so that they have little virtue and much vileness, to these men the Tathāgata declares: ‘In my youth I left home and attained Perfect Enlightenment.‘ But since I verily became a Buddha, thus have I ever been, and thus have I made declaration, only by my tactful methods to teach and transform all living beings, so that they may enter the Way of the Buddha… All the sutras which the Tathāgata preaches are for the deliverance of the living. Whether speaking of himself or speaking of others, either under his own appearance or another’s, either on his own authority or under the mask of another, whatever he says is real and not empty air. Wherefore? [Because] the Tathāgata knows and sees the character of the triple world as it really is: [to him] there is neither birth nor death, or going away or coming forth; neither living nor dead; neither reality nor unreality; neither thus nor otherwise. Unlike [the way those in] the triple world behold the triple world, the Tathāgata clearly sees such things as these without mistake. Because all the living have various natures, various desires, various activities, various ideas and reasonings, [so] desiring to cause them to produce the roots of goodness, [the Tathāgata] by so many reasonings, parables, and discourses has preached his various truths. The Buddha-deeds which he does have never failed for a moment. Thus it is, since I became Buddha in the very far distant past, [that my] lifetime is of infinite asamkhyeya kalpas, forever existing and immortal… The lifetime which I attained by pursuing the bodhisattva-way is not even yet accomplished but will still be twice the previous number [of kalpas]. But now, in this unreal nirvana, I announce that I must enter the [real] nirvana. In this tactful way the Tathāgata teaches all living beings. Wherefore? If the Buddha abides long in the world, men of little virtue who do not cultivate the roots of goodness and are [spiritually] poor and mean, greedily attached to the five desires, and are caught in the net of reflection and false views—if they see the Tathāgata constantly present and not extinct, [they] will then become puffed up and lazy, and unable to conceive the idea that it is hard to meet [the Buddha] or [develop] a mind of reverence [for him]. Therefore the Tathāgata tactfully teaches: ‘Know…the appearance of buddhas in the world is a rare occurrence.’ Wherefore? In the course of countless hundreds of thousands of myriad kotis of kalpas, some men of little virtue may happen to see a buddha or none may see him. For this reason I say: …A Tathāgata may rarely be seen!’ All these living beings, hearing such a statement, must certainly realize the thought of the difficulty of meeting a Buddha and cherish a longing and a thirst for him; then will they cultivate the roots of goodness. Therefore the Tathāgata, though he does not in reality become extinct, yet announces [his] extinction… The method of all Buddha-Tathāgatas is always like this in order to save all the living, and it is altogether real and not false.
When I read this I see that Śākyamuni (as nirmanakaya), is speaking from the point of view of a Buddha-Tathāgata (as Dharmakaya) announcing that there is only one Buddha-Tathāgata (as Dharmakaya) and when he, the historical Buddha (as nirmanakaya) speaks, he talks of the Buddha (as nirmanakaya) passing away into nirvana, but this an expedient means of indicating the desirability and utility of establishing a direct and intimate relationship with Buddha Nature (which is eternally and universally available and the functions of which are absolute compassion and infinite wisdom) so that they might not fall into the error of undue dependence upon Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni, but depend rather upon that which Śākyamuni himself depended. There is no difference between this and the Pure Land teaching in which Amida is indicative of Buddha-Nature (Dharmakaya).
So, when Śākyamuni announces that he speaks of himself “as the Buddha ‘Burning Light’ and other [Buddhas],” he is clearly indicating that Buddha Nature is the Sole Source of Buddha-hood, and that his mission was to use “tactful methods to teach and transform all living beings, so that they may enter the Way of the Buddha.”
And when he teaches that…
…all the sutras which the Tathāgata preaches are for the deliverance of the living. Whether speaking of himself or speaking of others, either under his own appearance or another’s, either on his own authority or under the mask of another, whatever he says is real and not empty…”
…he is merely declaring that the names of the various Buddhas (like Amida) and presumably Boddhisattvas (like Dharmakara) found in the sutras are indicative of aspects of Śākyamuni himself (as a being possessed of—and manifesting—Buddha Nature).
Amida (the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light), need not, therefore, be seen as being either indistinguishably identical nor completely other than Shakyamuni who is the speaker in the 16th Chapter of the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, which chapter is called: “Revelation of the [Eternal or Infinite] Life of the Tathāgata.”
These excerpts from the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra indicate that the Jodo Shinshu teaching which states that the sole purpose of Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni was to teach about Amida and the Pure Land is not an innovation unique to the Pure Land School(s), though the specific formulation given in Jodo Shinshu is both unique and innovative.
If we understand Amida to be a reference to the Dharamakaya, which Shinran Shonin in no uncertain terms declares we must; and if we understand the Dharmakaya as the shared essence of all Buddhahood (and thus of ‘Infinite Life’) we can clearly see precedent for the Jodo Shinshu teaching in that of the ‘Lotus’ Sūtra.