We are often asked about the import of the so-called ‘clause of exclusion’ in the ‘Primal’ (or 18th) Vow of Dharmakara Bodhisattva as found in the Larger Sukhavati-Vyuha Sūtra (Jp. Daimuryoju kyo).
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. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.
When I humbly contemplate matters, I am made to recognize that the so-called ‘exclusion clause’ is so obviously out of step with the tenor and tone of the sūtra in question as well as being out of line with the teachings of the Mahayana/Ekayana Sutras in general that it is clearly either an interpolation, or a case of the skillful use of expedient means.
Shinran Shonin clearly articulated his reading of it as a singularly instructive instance of the skillful use of expedient means in these words:
‘Excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right dharma‘: ‘Excluded’ means that those who commit the five grave offenses are rejected and reveals how grave the evil of slandering the dharma is. By showing the gravity of these two kinds of wrongdoing, these words make us realize that all the sentient beings throughout the ten quarters, without a single exception, will be born in the Pure Land.
That such a reading is not unique to Shinran is clear from the teaching of the Chinese Pure Land Patriarch Shan Tao of Kuang-Ming Temple:
The intent may be understood as a teaching to make us desist from evil. As stated in the Forty-eight Vows, those who slander the dharma and those who commit the five grave offenses are excluded; this means that these two kinds of action are the gravest of hindrances. … The Tathagata, fearing that we would commit these two kinds of faults, seeks to stop us through compassionate means by declaring that we will then not be able to attain birth. This does not mean that we will not be grasped.
In addition, such a teaching of absolute compassion and the nature of the ‘clause of exclusion’ as upaya is also certainly implied in the teaching stories which tell of the course of events leading to Angulimala, Devadatta and Ajatasatru taking refuge.
These teachings from the Majjhima Nikāya (Angulimala Sutta), Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (respectively) indicate that the Jodo Shinshu reading of the so-called ‘exclusion clause’ of the 18th vow of Bodhisattva Dharmakara is neither an innovation of Shinran Shonin, nor a teaching unique to the Pure Land School(s), but is implied and even explicitly taught in the Pali Canon as well as the Mahayana and Ekayana Sūtras.