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12.1: Shinran and Pure Land Devotion

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    The way of devotion is well exemplified in Buddhism in the various expressions of what is called Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism, as discussed in Chapter 7, originally emerged as one of the Mahayana traditions in India, as evidenced by two extant Sanskrit texts and other references to the Pure Land of Amitabha. To what extent it found full or independent expression in India is now unknown. But it did find a full, enduring expression in East Asia. It focuses particular attention on three Mahayana scriptures, the longer and shorter Pure Land sutras and the Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha Amitayus. These scriptures present Gautama Buddha telling about the Buddha Amitabha ("Unlimited Light"), also called Amitayus ("Unlimited Life"), the perfect embodiment of compassion for sentient beings in all worlds. Amitabha (called Ami-to-fa in Chinese and Amida in Japanese) is said to dwell in a pure Buddha-land, the Western paradise, Sukhavati ("happiness having"), which he has created by means of the infinite merit he has built up over countless aeons of time. In this Buddhaland, there are supposed to be no evil destinies, no rebirths-hence it transcends samsara (the common human condition of suffering and rebirth) altogether. It is said to so purify those who enter it that all who find themselves there, regardless of their shortcomings in their previous life, are destined to attain Enlightenment without obstacles to be overcome. The question, then, becomes what does it take to be reborn there? According to the scripture, many eons ago, the Bodhisattva Dharmakara ("Treasury of Dharma;" Hozo in Japanese), who eventually became Amitabha, undertook some forty-eight vows, including one which said that whoever would call upon his name in sincere faith desiring to be reborn in his Pure Land would be reborn there. There is clear indication that initially Pure Land practice focused on an elaborate meditative visualization of the Pure Land. But the most popular form of Pure Land practice emerged in sixth century China under T'an-luan (476-542) and eventually to spread to all levels of Chinese society. It was to chant "Na-mo A-mi-t'o Fo" (Japanese: "Namo Amida Butsu"-meaning, "Hail, Amida Buddha!" or "Homage to Amida Buddha!"), calling upon the "Other power" of Amitabha to secure one's rebirth in his Pure Land.

    In Japan, more than one Pure Land tradition developed. But the largest and most influential was founded by Shinran (1133-1212), called Jodo-shin-shu ("True Pure Land sect"). Shinran developed Pure Land doctrine in a distinctively new direction, in which absolute trust or faith in Amida's infinite compassion and grace alone, and not at all in one's own efforts, can hope to result in salvation. Initially, Shinran had undertaken rigorous monastic practice in the Tendai tradition, but after 20 years of effort he felt he had been unable to make significant progress toward enlightenment. In despair Shinran abandoned all such practices and came to discover that the salvation he had vainly sought through his own efforts was freely given through Dharmakara s "Primal Vow." In gratitude he devoted himself entirely to reliance upon the grace of Amida and tirelessly propagated his newfound faith among ordinary folk. Having abandoned the monastic life, Shinran took a wife and showed by example that the family could be the center of religious life. Though an aristocrat by birth, he joined in solidarity with the lower classes, sharing their way of life. His goodness and humility, compassion and sincerity, won him an undying reverence in the hearts of his followers. The first excerpt that follows is from his own works, translated and arranged by Gendo Nakai.1

    1. The Divine Will

    (1) Amida Nyorai2 has two kinds of body; the one is His Spiritual and the other His Personal embodiment. The Spiritual Body is formless and, being one with Reality, is beyond description and thought. In order to make itself known to human beings, the Spiritual Body manifested itself in the form of a Bodhisattva named Hozo [the Japanese name for Dharmakara], who made forty-eight solemn Promises of various kinds to be fulfilled when He had reached Buddhahood. In one of these Promises, Hozo declared that His Light would be boundless and His Life infinite. These Promises were realized by Hozo the Bodhisattva; and He became the Buddha, whom Vasubandhu, i.e., Seshin in japanese, praised as "the Tathagata of Boundless Light radiating unobstructedly in the Universe." The Personal Body of Amida Nyorai is also called the Body of Reward on account of its being the fulfillment of Divine Promises.

    (2) Amida Nyorai declares Himself to be the Father and Mother of all human beings. Therefore we should believe that we are all of us His children.

    (3) Suppose there are seven children in a family and one of them falls ill. Then the father and mother devote their whole minds to the patient's care, although they love all their children equally. So it is with Amida Nyorai. Although He loves all human beings without discrimination, He specially takes pity on the sin-stricken ,ones.

    (4) There are two gifts which Am ida Nyorai bestows: The one relates to our journey to the Land of Bliss, and the other concerns our return to this dense Forest of Birth and Death. The first is in order to enable us to enter Paradise and be reunited with Him, hence Amida Nyorai endows us with all the merits which He Himself has accumulated in order to attain Buddhahood. By the second gift He endows us with a marvelous power, so that we may aid Him in His own holy work by reincarnating ourselves in this world over and over again in order to save our fellow-beings from the suffering of Birth and Death. [This cycle is understood spiritually (i.e., figuratively) as well as literally, meaning that "entering Paradise" may happen in this life as one attains true faith (shinjin), from which one may spiritually re-enter this world carried by the infinite compassion of Amida for others.]

    (5) One who learns of the Divine Will of Amida Nyorai cannot go through the experience without believing in it. The moment he believes and obeys with all his heart, he is filled by Am ida with an abundance of precious grace. . . .

    2. The Holy Name

    (1) Gautama Buddha has arranged eighty-four thousand gates of diverse teachings by which to enable all human beings to accomplish the destruction of their ignorance and karma and the effects thereof. But not one of these gateways does surpass the power of Amida's Holy Name, that is Namo-amida-butsu ["Homage to Amida Buddha," the phrase which Pure Land Buddhists repeat to invoke his presence and acknowledge his lordship], which, once recited, completely snaps the chain of sin even as a sharp sword cuts with a single stroke.

    (2) Amida, our Father, leads us unto Salvation by means of His Holy Name. So, when we hear it with our ears and repeat it with our lips, its boundless merits penetrate our spirit and become the seed of Buddhahood.

    (3) On whosoever hears His Holy Name, believes and rejoices in it, Amida Nyorai bestows His own infinite merits. Then, since his destination is the Land of Bliss wherein he will be born, he will never swerve from his aim.

    (4) Even though the whole world be ablaze, he who passes through it and hears the Holy Name will thereby be qualified to attain Buddhahood in the next life.

    (5) Those who repeat Amida's Holy Name will receive in this earthly life the divine favour that is immeasurable. The sin which causes transmigration in the world of Birth and Death will be exterminated, and misfortune and untimely death avoided.

    (6) Recite Amida's Holy Name with your trustful heart, for Kwannon and Daiseishi (Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthanaprapta Bodhisattvas) will, as the shadow follows the substance, always accompany you with a host of Bodhisattvas to protect you from evil spirits.

    (7) Before his attainment of Buddhahood Amida Nyorai made a vow that He would receive into Paradise all those who should hear His Holy Name and believe in Him with their whole hearts. So, no matter whether they be poor or rich, ignorant or learned, virtuous or sinful, observing or transgressing the Law, those who are transformed by reciting His Holy Name will be changed from the lowest into the highest state of being, even as a stone is changed to gold.

    (8) Whenever a person on the earth determines to recite Amida's Holy Name, there arises in the Happy Land of the West a new stem of lotus which will receive him on its blossom, when he, having never ceased to practise the Nembutsu [the invocation of Am ida's name, "Namo-amida-butsu"], comes at last to the close of his days on earth.

    3. Concerning Faith

    (1) "Anuttra-samyaku-sambodhi"-the Unsurpassed Perfect Wisdom of Buddhais attained through Faith [shinjin]. [Shinjin is not exactly equivalent to "faith" in English. In Jodo-shin-shu it connotes the displacement of self-centered power with the realization of Am ida's Other Power in oneself.] Although there are a great many ways by which to attain it, they are all contained in the Faith in Amida Nyorai.

    (2) By "Faith" is meant the whole-hearted acceptance of the Message which our ears have heard and the eyes of our soul have seen.

    (3) He who hears the Vow of Amida to save all beings by virtue of His sole Power and doubts it not, is said to possess true Faith in Him.

    (4) It is doubt and unbelief which cause one to return over and over again to the House of Birth and Death; but through Faith we enter into the peace of the Eternal City called Nirvana....

    (6) To believe in Amida's Divine Will and practise the Nembutsu is hard for unbelievers, proud souls, and evil doers. It is the hardest of all things to do; and nothing is more difficult, indeed.

    (7) There are three signs by which we can recognize a false faith: fi~st of all, it is insincere and therefore wavering, one moment existing and the next disappearing; secondly, it is not whole-hearted, for it is undecided; thirdly, it does not last all through life, for other thoughts intervene to prevent its continuance. These three aspects hang together one upon another. As faith is not sincere it is undecided; and being undecided, it neither lasts long nor continues steadfast. Or, as faith is prevented from continuing, it is not whole-hearted; and as it is not wholehearted, it now exists and then disappears. Contrary to these are the three proofs of true Faith [i.e., sincerity, whole-heartedness, and decisiveness], which justify the practice of the Nembutsu....

    (9) Two things are essential to Faith. The first is to be convinced of our own sinfulness; from the bondage of evil deeds we possess no means of emancipating ourselves. The second is, therefore, to throw our helpless souls wholly upon the Divine Power of Am ida Nyorai in the firm belief that His forty-eight Vows were for the express purpose of saving all beings who should put their trust in Him without the least doubt or fear. Such souls will be born surely into His Pure Land.

    (10) Ask not, "How could Amida receive me into His Pure Land, seeing that I am so vile and sinful?" For it is a matter of fact that there is none of us but possesses a complete set of germs of worldly passions, sinful lusts, and evil deeds. But the compassionate power of Amida is so infinitely great that He can and will translate us into His pure Land if only we are willing to entrust ourselves wholly unto Him. Neither should you say, on the other hand: "I am good-hearted enough that I am sure to be born into the Pure Land." For that Pure Land can never be reached so long as we rely in the least upon our own power of merits. . . .

    4. The Pure Land

    (1) My brothers, I advise you one and all to turn to Am ida Nyorai with your whole heart and set your faces towards His Pure Land of Bliss. When asked, "Where is your home?" you should answer that it is a seat which, beautifully adorned with jewels, arises out of a lotus pond in Paradise.

    (2) Come! Let us start for the Pure Land. This evil world is not the place to remain in longer. In our past lives we have migrated through the six worlds [the realms of peaceful gods, men, wrathful gods, animals, hungry demons, and beings in hell, all subject to the cycle of suffering which is saf]1sara, Birth and Death), passing from one state of existence to another; and nowhere have we found happiness; but it has been only sorrow always. Therefore we ardently desire to enter the Eternal City of Nirvana, when our present life closes.

    (3) In the Pure Land which Amida Nyorai has founded in fulfillment of His Great Vows, there are no more stages or ranks to be gone through. For those who are born therein attain the full Enlightenment at a bound when their souls are received into that Pure Land. . . .

    5. On the Right Attitude Toward Deities

    (1) Those who believe in Amida Nyorai and practise the Nembutsu take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, i.e., His Teaching, and in the Samgha, i.e., the priestly Order. They never follow any other religious teaching, nor worship devas or3 gods. They neither look for good nor observe ill"luck" on certain days or at certain hours of the day.

    (2) Set yourselves free from all wrong thoughts so that you may comprehend the right teaching of Gautama Buddha; you will then acquire ten kinds of merits. What are they? First of all, you will become a man of gentle spirit and of good heart; and second, believing in the Law of Karma, you will not commit any kind of crime or sin, even though you may be threatened with death. Thirdly, you will reverence the Three Treasures, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Samgha; but you should never believe in other gods. Fourthly, with your heart and mind possessed by right thoughts, you will take no account of either good or bad fortune with regard to the year, the month, or the day. In the fifth place, you will not migrate through the inf¢rnal worlds; but (sixthly) you will become wise and good and be valued by peop~e of intelligence. Seventhly, you will not cling to worldly things, but will pursue the Holy Path. You will, in the eighth place, free yourselves from the prejudices both of affirmation and negation as regards the future life, and will believe that all existence depends upon the Law of Causality [i.e., the law of karma]. Ninthly, you will be in company with those who hold the right faith and observe right practices. [In these last three merits, you will be in conformity with traditional Buddhist teaching.] Tenthly, you will be born in Amida Nyorai's Pure Land of Bliss....

    Some Spiritual Maxims Preserved by the Disciples of Shinran Shonin

    (2) I lack no good and fear no evil, because I believe in Amida's Divine Will, which is the highest good and cannot be obstructed by any evil. Nevertheless, most people think that without good deeds perfectly performed and without their deadly sins atoned for, we could not enter the Pure Land. They are not quite right. If we can cease to do evil and begin to practise good deeds whole-heartedly, with the desire to be born into the Pure Land, Amida Nyorai has nothing to do with us. How pitiful it is that whilst various crimes and sins are committed in spite of our efforts to the contrary, good deeds are always so difficult to perform! Amida Nyorai bestows the Highest Good upon those who give no thought to their own goodness or badness, but turn to him simply, trustfully and with obedient hearts.

    (3) Some people ask, "If bad men are received into the Pure Land, how much more so good men?" But this thought is contrary to Amida's Divine Will and to the teaching of Gautama Buddha. It was not the saints but the common people whom Amida Nyorai sought to bless with His Highest Good. Therefore, if the common people failed to enter the Pure Land to be welcomed as His honoured guests, His Divine Will and Power would be in vain. Of the common people, again not good but bad men are the chief objects of His Saving Power. Therefore, it is correct to say, "good men are received into the Pure Land; how much more so bad men?"

    (4) I have no "disciples," because I have nothing of my own to impart to anyone else. What I can tell people is simply about Amida Nyorai who bestows upon man the innumerable merits accumulated by Himself. So, those who receive my instruction are not my "disciples" but fellow-pilgrims who travel with me, my brothers in Amida's great family.

    (5) The practice of the Nembutsu is the only way leading to the Pure Landthe Way obstructed by naught. Why? Because all the good spirits in heaven and on earth revere and at all times protect those who believe in Amida Nyorai, whilst every evil spirit flies away before them. And also because crimes and sins have no power to cause any evil effect upon them....


    Reprinted by permission of The Rev. Osanu Hayashidera from Rev. Gendo Nakai, Shinran and His Religion of Pure Faith (Kyoto:The Shinshu Research Institute, 1937), pp. 103-114, 116-117, 124-126.


    One of the characteristic marks of traditions emphasizing the way of devotion is the celebration in shared stories, personal testimonies, of the religious experiences of its members, especially stories of conversion. Indeed, an emphasis on communal fellowship and mutual support between believers, where the individual with his or her personal vicissitudes is given a place and affirmed, is more characteristic of this way of being religious than any of the others. Jodo-shin-shu is quite typical in this respect. Several of the traditional still-told stories follow.4

    Farmer Kuhei

    Farmer Kuhei, who lived in the province of lwami about two hundred years ago, is a good example of how personality may be changed through religious faith.

    He was at first very ferocious of nature and would not get the worse of anyone or anything. But since he came to believe in Amida Nyorai, his disposition was changed gradually until he became a different person, gentle-hearted and sparing of violent language.

    One day in summer, as Kuhei was going into the forest to cut firewood, he found by chance that somebody had dammed the irrigating water so that it would not run into his rice field. He suddenly returned to his house and hastened to worship Amida Nyorai in the altar, telling at the same time his family to do the same thing. They wondered why he had come home without wood and so hurriedly gone to worship Buddha. Kuhei told them what he saw in his rice-field and said: "If I were the man that I was before, I should have lost my temper and dammed the water into my own field at the cost of others. But now that a new life is born within myself, I have no ill feeling against him who turns the water only to his own purpose. I believe that I am now being repaid for my selfish deeds in the previous life. Isn't it due to the grace of Amida Nyorai that I blame myself instead of others?"

    The story was soon abroad in the village. After that the neighbours thought better of it and let the water into Kuhei's field as well as their own.

    A Devout Girl

    O-shimo San was an eight-year-old daughter of Riyomon, a cotton cloth merchant in Kaw.achi Province. In her time, about a hundred and eighty years ago, there was no institution of compulsory public education. The children of well-todo families learned to read and write at terakoya, private schools mostly conducted at Buddhist temples, which were the only places of education for common people. 0-shimo San received a smattering education in a terakoya in her spare hours, though she had to take care of her baby brother. Strange to say, she would not amuse herself with play-things as other girls of her age did; but she preferred to go to the temple to worship the Buddha and listen to what the priest told about Amida's Divine Will.

    One day 0-shimo San surprised her teacher-priest by saying: "It is very precious that Am ida Nyorai receives even sinful women into His Pure Land, when they surrender themselves to His almighty hand. But I am very sorry that I shall be an exception. just listen to my story. Before I began to receive your instruction, I had once stolen a penny from a friend of mind to buy some sweets. Another time I had picked up a small piece of money offered to the Buddha at a temple, and bought something to eat. Because I was very much afraid of the punishment I should be sure to get in the future life, I offered for atonement two small pieces of money to the Buddha in your temple. But I am still afraid that my offences may not be fully atoned for and Amida Nyorai may turn his back on me. I shall be very happy if you will tell me what I may do in repentance of my sins, so that I may be received into Am ida's Pure Land."

    The teacher-priest was so deeply moved by the girl's confession that he could do for a time nothing but recite Amida's Holy Name in a low tone. After a while, he said to the little maid: "Fear not, my dear girl. It is doubtless that you will be born in Amida's Pure Land, because you are a good girl who believes in Him with your whole heart. Even the five hideous sins and the ten evil deeds5 are as nothing under Amida's almighty power; and your offences of theft are lesser by far. Your destination was settled at the moment that your faith in Amida was assured. Care not about your past offences in the least; but be grateful for the immense grace of Amida."

    Upon this, O-shima San was released from the spiritual agony from which she had been suffering for long. She could not help but leap for the joy of it all.

    One who has entrusted his soul to the Supreme One is often calm and selfpossessed in face of an emergency. One day a strong earthquake occurred. Everybody in O-shima San's family ran out of doors for their lives, with the exception of the little maid who without any fear of death, quietly remained on her knees reciting the Nembutsu before the Buddha's shrine in the house. When the family came in as the shock was over, they asked her why she had not run without. She replied: "If I have karma to lose my life by earthquake, I shall die even under the open sky. If my karma is otherwise, I shall be safe, although I stay in the house. Whether to live or to die, isn't it peaceful to stay with the Buddha?"

    The Tender-Hearted Myoki

    There once lived in a village called Tsurumi in Bungo Province a woman who was later known by her Buddhist name Myoki. As a housewife, she was faithful to her husband and dutiful to her parents-in-law. Their feudal lord had her publicly commended as a model wife, rewarding her with a prize. It was soon after this that a misfortune overtook her; she was bereaved of both her husband and her only son, one soon after the other. If she had been an ordinary woman, she would have been heart-broken and spent day after day in tears. A deep insight awakened on her mind. She realized the transient character of earthly human life and earnestly began to seek immortality. Giving up all family affairs, she went to temples to listen to the preaching of Shinran's religion, until finally she attained true faith in Amida Nyorai. It was from this time on that she converted herself into a nun, although she lived on with her parents-in-law as before, and assumed the new name Myoki given by her teacher-priest.

    One day a man often given to pranks poured cold water on the nun to try her faith. Seeing her show no emotion, the man asked her why she was so calm and composed, to which she replied: "Withwhom should I be angry when I am caught in a shower!" As far as this story goes, this nun of the Island Empire is akin to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, who, drenched wet with a bucketful of water poured on him by his angry wife, said: "When thunder rolls, a shower follows!" The latter constructed his character by disciplining himself by his own philosophical principle, whilst the former cultivated her tenderness and perseverance by always calling on Amida's Holy Name. It is because of His Divine Promise that those who live in His Light will become tender and gentle in disposition just as fruits color and ripen sweet in the light of the sun.

    When Myoki was cooking rice one day, she burned her hand by putting it unknowingly into the kettle. Instead of complaining of the pains, she repeated the Nembutsu and thanked Buddha for His grace. A bystander laughed at her, saying: "How unendurable pains are given by Amida's grace!" Upon this she said with a smile: "How unfathomable Amida's grace is! If I were left alone under the power of karma I should have to suffer pains many hundreds of thousands times greater than the burns on my hand. But now that I believe in Amida and entrust my soul to His Divine Power, I am perfectly emancipated from the terrible retribution of karma. When I think of this, I cannot help thanking [Him] for His grace by calling on His Name."

    Myoki was always healthy and never had trouble about her personal affairs, until she passed away at the age of ninety.


    Reprinted by permission of the Rev. Osanu Hayashidera from Rev. Gendo Nakai, Shinran and His Religion of Pure Faith (Kyoto: The Shinshu Research Institute, 1937), pp. 167-170, 182-186, and 189-193.



    This page titled 12.1: Shinran and Pure Land Devotion is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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