THUS, HEARD BY SHINRAN
- his understanding on Buddhadharma -
Rinban Kakei Nakagawa
Gautama Siddhārtha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha about 2500 years ago in India. Thereafter, Gautama Siddhārtha became to be called with respect as Shākya-muni Buddha' or Gautama Buddha'.
Buddha is the one who has awakened to the truth. Enlightenment means that the one who; because of his/her ignorance used to view the world and his/her life mistakenly and, because of this, often chose a wrong way of life, awakens to the real state of the world and his/her life. It is to restore the genuine self' by coming to possess a true view of the world and one's life. Having attained enlightenment through his deep insight, Shākya-muni Buddha ascertained that living in an enlightened state is the only way for human beings to live in true happiness. He taught about the true nature of life and led all other people to attain Buddhahood. In this way, Buddhism is a teaching which ultimately leads one to become a Buddha himself.
Shinran Shōnin (1173 ~ 1263) was a person who lived through a tumultuous period of Japan's history. He possessed a grave desire to live in accordance with Shākya-muni Buddha's teachings. What are the Buddha's teachings that led him to such a serious concern? How did he learn and practice them?
The Buddhist path, in general, consists of three steps. Firstly led by the Buddha's teachings, the practicer realizes that he is ignorant (a being whose life is based on delusion) and is transmigrating in the cycle of birth and death. Then, he aspires for enlightenment and develops abilities that enable him to see the truth. And as a result he brings delusion to an end and attains buddhahood. General Buddhist practices follow this order.
However, even if we hear the Buddha's teaching and realize the importance of attaining buddhahood, it is very difficult to eliminate our unceasing delusion and to cultivate wisdom. Unless we have a considerably superior nature and a stiff will, the Buddhist path is hard to accomplish; since deluded people like us are always chasing our present desires without any doubt, do not realize the fact that we are transmigrating in the cycle of birth and death and never stop committing evil acts. It is impossible for such deluded people to succeed in attaining this goal of the Buddhist path.
We will finish our lives in vain without awakening to true selves if we do not recognize the importance of attaining buddhahood. Shākya-muni Buddha took it as his task to let us know how important it is to attain buddhahood. Thus, the Buddha never abandoned us. Especially for such beings, the Buddha revealed the Buddhist path that focuses on the teaching of Other-power. (the power beyond self or the power solely purpose to benefit others). In this teaching, we are given the right cause to attain buddhahood by Amida Nyorai. In the Larger Sūtra, Shākya-muni Buddha taught that the practice of Other-power was accomplished by Amida Nyorai's intent to save all sentient beings by transferring all of its merits to them.
By comparison, there are many Buddhist teachings and sects that teach a process of attaining buddhahood by a practicer's own effort are called Self-power Buddhism. Most of the sects, for example Shingon, Zen and Nichiren sects, all follow the teaching of self-generated-effort (Self-power).
The teaching which Shinran Shōnin learned and practiced at Mt. Hiei monastery for twenty years was the Tendai teaching based on the Lotus Sūtra. Tendai teachings fundamentally aim at entering the Pure Land and meeting the Buddha in this life by meditating that the variety of phenomenal things expresses the real state of the universal and eternal truth, and by practicing the six pāramitā practices of the bodhisattva path to eliminate all illusion. However, it requires hard disciplines that last very long time in order to succeed. For instance, extraordinarily hard disciplines like the thousand-day strolling mountain practice is performed by practicers in order to realize it. Certain people may achieve enlightenment through such rigorous practices, but it is impossible for ordinary people like us to accomplish the Tendai sect's meditations and practices. Only sages are able to master them. That is why, this teaching is called the path of sages. Shinran Shōnin also pursued this path of sages for twenty years during his life at Mt. Hiei monastery.
However, the harder Shinran Shōnin tried to eliminate his illusion, the more clearly he saw the real state of his evil mind. In one of his gāthās, he confessed, "My evil-ness is truly difficult to renounce; the mind is like a venomous snake or scorpion."(gatha-96) Even when he did good deeds which were supposed to be praised by people, he keenly looked within himself and confessed, "Even doing various good acts is tainted with poison. And so is called false practice."(ibid.) Through his introspective efforts, Shinran Shōnin saw that he would not be able to attain buddhahood by self-power practices. The conclusion that he came to is not applicable to Shinran Shōnin only, but also to all of us who are in the same position. Supposedly, in Shinran Shōnin's mind there arose questions such as; whether the path to attain buddhahood was closed to a ignorant person and whether the Buddha had forsaken or abandoned evil people like him.
When Shinran Shōnin was immensely worried and in deep despair, he was taught by Master Honen the path of other-power nenbutsu which was revealed in the Larger Sūtra. He knew that great patriarchs like Bodhisattva Nāgārjuna, Bōdhisattva Vasubandhu and Master T'an' Luan had testified to the easiness and reliability of the path of other-power nenbutsu and that they all exhorted ignorant people to decide to follow it. The existence of this nenbutsu teaching gave Shinran Shōnin the answer. As soon as Shinran Shōnin heard Master Honen's teaching, he abandoned the self-power teaching of Tendai and chose the other-power teaching of the nenbutsu as the path by which he would assuredly attain buddhahood.
The teaching of other power nenbutsu was not created by Master Honen. The Buddha who saw into the nature of beings like us had already prepared the teaching of other power for us. However, because most people were only interested in the profound and philosophical Buddhist teachings, they missed the original intent of the Buddha to save all sentient beings equally. Thus, such people mistakenly saw the teaching especially made for deluded people as the lower and inferior teaching. Master Honen and Shinran Shōnin revealed the original intent of the Buddha clearly. What they revealed can be summed up in the following points.
(1) The Buddhist path of other power which exists for the sake of ignorant people the object is not an inferior teaching, it is in fact superior to other teachings simply because it saves even ignorant people.
(2) The nenbutsu practice, by itself, not as a part of other practices, is the right cause for attaining buddhahood.
(3) Although the Buddhist path of other power does not requires us to perform difficult practices, it surely brings us to the attainment of buddhahood. It does not perform a supportive function for other teachings which were told to the sages by the Buddha. And it leads us to the same enlightenment as the other paths do.
(4) There are no differences between the enlightenment of the Other Power teaching and that of Self Power teachings. Because the cause of Other Power is given to us by Amida: although our personal abilities to achieve enlightenment are limited, it nevertheless bring us to the highest enlightenment.
(5) The nenbutsu teaching was taught especially for the sake of ordinary people and ignorant, sometimes evil people, thus this kind of person becomes the primary focus of salvation.
As Shākya-muni Buddha states in the Lager Sūtra, he expounded the teaching "seeking to save the multitudes of living beings by blessing them with the benefit that is true and real." In other words, since "the multitudes of living beings" includes ignorant and evil people, we can conclude that this Sūtra was taught especially for those who are ignorant and evil because without this "benefit" they would have no way to be included within Amida's salvation. Since I told an inclusion of even ignorant and evil people is in accordance with Amida's Eighteenth Vow, we may conclude that Shākya-muni Buddha's primary purpose for appearing in this world was to reveal this teaching. In this sense, the teachings that save all beings including ignorant and evil people can be called the true teaching' and the teachings that only save self-power sages can be called the provisional teachings' or, teachings which do not manifest the Buddha's intent fully. Seeing this, Shinran Shōnin realized and entrust himself that teachings of the Lager Sūtra was the path which he should follow.