Surely every person feels a secret longing to be wise and compassionate, to experience reality just as it is, to attain Complete Perfect Enlightnement (Annutara Samyak Sambodhi) and realize Buddha-Nature; but—if we are being honest with ourselves—we are confronted by the perception that there is an unfathomable gulf between the ignorant and passion-ridden self we experience daily and the perfect wisdom and absolute compassion of Buddha-Nature to which we aspire. This gulf between self-nature and Buddha-Nature seems so great, so utterly unbridgeable, that we feel we cannot possibly attain salvation, enlightenment or birth in the Pure Land.
We may have firm belief in the Pure Land Path, but we may nevertheless be unclear about the nature of Shinjin; we may be willing to utter the nembutsu, but may feel that even earnest recitation is insufficient to bridge the aforementioned chasm. Shinran tells us we need to look to that moment “when faith—firm and diamond-like—becomes settled” to encounter that instant when “Amida’s compassionate light grasps and protects us, so that we part forever from birth-and-death”. Nevertheless we waste time and effort looking in all the wrong places and through all the wrong means. Salvation, birth and enlightenment is only to be found when we completely accept that we are hopeless bonbu full of passions and pretensions, self-serving calculations and delusions of grandeur. This is the minimum requisite for the attainment of birth, for only with the authentic realization of our ignorance and the ineffectiveness of all our calculative self-power efforts do we become able to sincerely and joyfully entrust ourselves to the other-power working of Amida Nyorai.
Amida Butsu, in his causal stage as Dharmakara Bodhisattva, is said to have vowed:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, all 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.
In these few words we are told all we need to know in order to effectively engage the Pure Land Path, yet, scattered throughout the history of Buddhism we find innumerable persons of superior and inferior capacities, both monastic and lay, who looked in vain for enlightenment and birth. Some sought enlightenment through scholarly study of the Sutras and Shatras (by dint of their superior intelligence); some through strict attention to outward ceremonials and offerings (by dint of pious observance of rites and superior wealth and position); some through leading a ‘good’ life (by dint of superior virtue); some even by extremes of penance and fasting (by dint of superior ascetic discipline). Those who sought salvation through self-power working found perhaps intellectual assent to creedal propositions, rigorous application of ascetic practices, and/or comforting performance of religious rituals, but they did not experience that shinjin which cannot be adequately described in words, and is not the result of practice.
How can joyful faith be awakened? Through soaking in the Dharma as revealed by Gautama Shakyamuni, Shinran Shonin and the Pure Land Patriarchs, we may learn that while the constant and reflexive filling of the mind with gross and subtle objects is a major impediment to realization, a completely quiescent or stagnant mind is even less desirable. In this dynamic tension may be found provision for realization of the non-dual abiding of self-nature and Buddha-Nature. Too often this realization is prevented or delayed through compulsive concern with petty social interests, professional activities, personal animosities, sensual desires, worldly ambitions or pious religious performances – an ever-revolving wheel of preoccupations. Rarely do we allow our minds a break from this ceaseless round of moment-to-moment birth-and-death. We fail to be consistent in our awareness of Amida Nyorai and the dependent co-arising of all life. We are like travelers who, embarking upon the great journey to the further shore, take along all that is useless, rather than that one thing needful.
Is verbal utterance of the nembutsu of itself sufficient to attain birth in the Pure Land? Is belief in religious doctrines and creedal propositions enough? Is the performance of religious rites sufficient? Is diligent study of the sutras and shastras enough? Is the hopeful expectation that we shall be born in the Pure Land sufficient to attain such birth? No. Our aim is not to be or become diligent students, pious devotees, disciplined ascetics or wishful thinkers but rather to fully and authentically realize our status as undeserving inheritors; and the key to this inheritance is not found in books, rituals, disciplines or magical thinking but in our deep-hearing of the name-that-calls. Out of the realization of our complete inability to be, do and know ‘good’—our utter incapacity to ‘earn’ salvation—grows an intense, existential gratitude for being grasped just as we are; through such gratitude grows Joyful Faith, firm and diamond-like; out of such Joyful Faith springs constant one-pointed remembrance; and from such rememberance springs—of itself—the nembutsu uttered in gratitude. Such nembutsu-faith, once firmly established and enlivened by Joy, brings ever deeper realization of the inherent limitations and illusory nature of self-power calculation and endeavor. This deepening realization, which can be extremely painful, is inevitably followed by sincere repentance for our previous lack of appreciation. Such repentance is immediately succeeded by a complete revolution of the basis, i.e. the name-that-calls gradually and almost imperceptibly begins to dissolve our old way of being, replacing our ignorance and passion with Wisdom and Compassion; our limitations and infirmities dissolve in the presence of the vast storehouse of merit and virtue of Amida Tathagata to which we, as inheritors, are privy.
Only with the authentic realization of the emptiness of self-nature comes the radical denuding which permits all pride and belief in the efficacy of self-power to finally and completely fall away—never to return. As it does, we Joyfully Entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow of Dharmakara Bodhisattva (as Nirmanakaya) who is also Amida Butsu (as Sambogakaya), who gradually leads us to the formless and inconceivable Amida Nyorai (as Dharmakaya), which has always been nearer to us than our own hands and feet.
To be a student of theories, a practitioner of rites, a follower of regulations or a wishful thinker is to be involved in endless controversy, confusion, diversion and disappointment. We may study the sutras and shastras all our lives yet come away with nothing but beautiful ideals and fascinating concepts: this may have relative ethical value, but it provides neither cause nor condition for salvation, enlightenment or birth.
I go for refuge to Amida Nyorai.
Namu Amida Butsu