Enlightenment and the Pure Land path


There has been much controversy over the use of the word ‘enlightenment’ as this relates to Jodo Shin Shu (True Pure Land school). Some assert that the attainment of shinjin (true entrusting or faith) is equivalent to the attainment of satori, or ‘enlightenment’, while others refute this idea most strenuously.

“Faith without understanding increases ignorance, understanding without faith increases subjective opinions.” – Yung-ming

Being conscious of this fact and desirous of understanding the issue; and being that the argument marshalled against the former by the latter is most often taken from chapter 15 of Tannisho, it was there that we looked for resolution since the text in question is acknowledged by both parties as a valid expression of Pure Land orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

After much reflection, there arose the suspicion that the issue itself is an example of being ‘mired in words and views’. That is to say, there is a case to be made that the confusion surrounding this issue stems from the term ‘enlightenment’ (bodhi, Skr.; satori, Jpn.) and its relation to the term ‘Buddhahood’ (buddhatva, Skr.; jobutsu, Jpn.).

Chapter 15 of Tannisho, in the words of Myoon-in-ryosho, is “the chapter [that criticizes the misconception] that one can become a Buddha in one’s own earthly body.” Technically, the enlightenment of Buddhahood is, in Sanskrit, anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi or ‘complete perfect enlightenment’. Such enlightenment is a state of complete, perfect awakening to ultimate reality (or Dharmakaya) and as such it is the sole preserve of Buddhahood. Being that the subject of the chapter is Buddhahood, when the term satori (enlightenment) is later used it is understood to be in reference to the enlightenment of Buddhahood and nothing less. However, in common usage, satori is also used to indicate insight into one’s own nature and the integration of that insight into everyday life and being, and as such may not be complete in the sense of unwavering realization of Buddha Nature (the ‘essence’ aspect of Buddhahood), or perfect in the sense of manifesting unsurpassed and inconceivably skillful use of expedient means (Skt. upaya, Jp. hoben) in thought, word and deed in each and every moment for the benefit of bringing all beings without exception to Enlightenment (the ‘function’ aspect of Buddhahood).

The attainment of Shinjin manifests as and continually matures one’s sense of self-emptiness, which in turn manifests as and continually matures one’s sense of the impossibility of truly knowing and/or doing ‘good’ from our self-nature. This manifestation and maturation of self-knowledge (which is ultimately knowledge of self-emptiness) is certainly commensurate with the incomplete and imperfect enlightenment of seeing into one’s own nature. However, because of the particular orthodoxic and orthopraxic requirements of the Pure Land Path, we do not and can not see even this limited enlightenment as our own since it is not the result of ‘our’ practice—all practice in Jodo Shinshu being ‘Great Practice’ directed to us through the pure, single and sincere vow-mind of Amida.

Shinran Shonin (in KGSS I : 1-7) writes regarding the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra:

The central purport of this sutra is that Amida, by establishing the incomparable Vows, has opened wide the dharma-storehouse, and full of compassion for small, foolish beings, selects and bestows the treasure of virtues.

‘Birth’ (in Jodo Shinshu), shinjin, and the limited enlightenment that attends them, is not something that can be earned, it can only be bequeathed or revealed to us in the sense that the perfect wisdom and compassion of Buddha-Nature is always present, even when unrealized, like when a veil of clouds covers the sun. The presence of clouds may veil the sun from view, but it does not mean the sun, the source of light and life, is not there. Dharmakara Bodhisattva (literally, the enlightened and enlightening being ‘Storehouse of the Dharma’) opened the treasury of virtues to all through making and fulfilling the Primal Vow (hongan, Jpn.), which is thus both the cause and result of his becoming Amida Butsu.

Elsewhere we have indicated that the Pure Land need not only and necessarily be viewed as a post-mortem state or realm, but may also be seen as a new state of existence lived here and now in the aftermath of shinjin and ‘birth’; and that therefore ‘attainment of birth’ need not only happen after the death of the body. In the aforementioned post it was indicated that in the Sukhavativyuha Sutra (i.e. the “Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life”) it is declared:

All sentient beings, as they hear the Name, realize even one thought moment of shinjin and joy, which is directed to them from Amida‘s sincere mind, and aspiring to be reborn in that land, they then attain birth and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression.

Shinran Shonin with such conviction and grace interprets the key term from his reading of the penultimate clause in this manner:

then (soku) means immediately, without any time elapsing, without a day passing. Soku also means to ascend to and become established in a certain rank.

So, ‘death’ and ‘birth’ are not only and necessarily the death of our physical body and subsequent birth in a post-mortem Pure Land, but may also be understood to refer to the ‘death’ of our illusory sense of being a unique, discrete, autonomous ‘self’ capable of doing ‘good’ through our own calculative designs and feeble efforts, and subsequent ‘birth’ of our becoming established in a new rank or order of consciousness and being—a life no longer lived for and from our self-nature.

In Yuishin-sho Mon’i (Notes on the Essentials of Faith Alone) we read:

When one attains this enlightenment, one reaches great compassion by returning to the ocean of samsara in order to save all sentient beings.

So, in the alternate view presented here, when we attain shinjin through the ‘great practice’ bequeathed to us by Amida, we necessarily and immediately attain birth (oso eko) and its enlightenment, and also with similar immediacy return to this world of endurance to live as Bodhisattvas, agents of Amida’s Compassion. We are still bonbu not Buddhas, but at the same time we nevertheless participate in the enlightenment of Amida, as is disclosed in Shoshin Nembutsu Ge:

The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;
The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through;
Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,
Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin.
But though light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,
Beneath the clouds and mists there is brightness, not dark.

This enlightenment by the light of compassion that illumines us always, and which is present despite the clouds of our passions, may not be ‘ours’, but we are embraced by and participate in it. Which is to say ‘we’ may not be Buddhas, but Buddha-Nature nevertheless is present with us and manifests through us, and though we clearly cannot claim to possess it, we certainly can be party to its compassionate working.

The quote under consideration from Tannisho, is: “There are some who insist that they have already attained Enlightenment even while maintaining this earthly body full of passions.” With regard to this, it is indeed possible to manifest (the limited) enlightenment (of satori) in this very body, but it is quite impossible to insist that we have manifested the complete and perfect Enlightenment of Buddha-Nature while still manifesting an “earthly body full of passions”. To mistake shinjin (faith or true entrusting—with its limited enlightenment of seeing into one’s nature) for the attainment of the complete and perfect Enlightenment of Buddhahood (anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi) is truly lamentable, and must be guarded against. But to claim, as some have done, that it is impossible to manifest even limited enlightenment in this Saha world, is also an error to be guarded against. What is impossible is to claim that we ourselves have manifested the Enlightenment of Buddhahood while yet maintaining “this earthly body full of passions.” Enlightenment (Buddhahood) is, and never is not, but it is never ‘ours’ for to the degree we might claim to possess it, to have earned it, to merit it, precisely in the same degree are we manifesting that self-interest, self-power, and self-nature which effectively disproves such claims.

As Shinran Shonin relates in Ichinen-tanen mon’i (Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling):

In entrusting ourselves to the Tathagata‘s Primal Vow and saying the Name once, necessarily, without seeking it, we are made to receive the supreme virtues, and without knowing it, we acquire the great and vast benefit. This is dharmicness, by which one will immediately realize the various facets of enlightenment naturally. “Dharmicness” means not brought about in any way by the practicer’s calculation; from the very beginning one shares in the benefit that surpasses conception. It indicates the nature of jinen. “Dharmicness” expresses the natural working (jinen) in the life of the person who realizes shinjin and says the Name even once.

All of the above may indeed be superfluous commentary, but we nevertheless make these comments to point out that, in line with Mahayana and Ekayana teachings, both the concept of enlightenment and non-enlightenment are traps; both self-nature and Buddha-Nature are neither here nor there. To fixate on or forsake one without the other is incomplete, and as such is a ‘gradual’ teaching, and an upaya. To hold such a view at the level of doctrine flies in the face of the Buddha’s explicit teaching in the Diamond Sutra (Vajra Chedika Prajnaparamita Sutra) stating that those who claim that the Buddha teaches a doctrine, have not understood his teaching. I, for one, hold that Shinran Shonin, disciple of Sakyamuni, understood the teaching very well indeed.

Both sides in this debate have valid points to make and each side sheds light on the issue. But our own lights are so very feeble that it would be unwise to trust them (though as foolish persons, it is natural for us to make the mistake of doing so). Which is why, in the case of doctrinal disputes, we should always remember that these are disputes over words at the level of indirect, imperfect and incomplete consciousness and not at the level of direct, perfect and complete realization of Ultimate Reality. Being that we and our understandings are so empty it is pointless to engage in name-calling in order to assert that our understanding of doctrine and practice is true, perfect and complete, or that we have attained Buddhahood while exhibiting the unmistakable signs of unbridled passion.

Perhaps the only sort of name-calling in which we should ever engage is deep hearing of the name-that-calls followed by the uncalculating and uncontrived response of joyfully and gratefully calling the Name.

Namu Amida Butsu


Say the name and be saved. This is all you need. All else is commentary.


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  1. Pingback: Bodhisattva | Earthpages.ca

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