Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The following Dharma message was given by Rev Mark Healsmith
Obon 8th August 2009.

Today we gather for Obon, an occasion to remember and be glad for the teaching and guidance that has been given us, by our parents and ancestors, but most especially to remember and celebrate the compassionate teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, and the teachers who have, following Him, transmitted the Buddhadharma in general, and in particular the Pure Land teachings to us. One of Shinran Shonin's Wasan, number 109 from Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, is to the point:

'To encounter a true teacher is difficult even among difficult things; There is no cause for endlessly turning in transmigration Greater than the hindrance of doubt.'

It is difficult, and we must have failed innumerable times from the beginingless past to encounter a true teacher, but now at last we have the opportunity to hear the Dharma. By reading a book, chanting, deeply listening to the Dharma, we can find the true teacher.

A few weeks ago I was in Japan at a medical conference and I had a few days in Tokyo before the meeting. While there I visited Zojoji, the head temple of the Jodo-shu. In the grounds was a billboard giving notice of the 800 year anniversary of Honen Shonin's death which will be commemorated in 2012. This prompted me to begin to re-read Honen Shonin's major work 'Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu' (A Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu Chosen in the Original Vow) when I returned home. This was a vital work for the then nascent Pure Land movement. Shinran Shonin relates at the end of his Kyogyoshinsho how important it was to him that Honen allowed him to copy the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu. Shinran wrote 'Master Genku, out of his benevolence, granted me permission.'

At the end of his work, Honen wrote - 'Long ago I, a monk of miserable accomplishment came to read this book by Shandao and came to understand its meaning in a rough and general manner.' The book Honen refers to was Shandao's 'Commentary on the Meditation Sutra'. And so it goes. Each of our benevolent teachers humbly and gratefully praises the guidance given by their own teachers whether face to face as between Shinran and Honen, or by the means of a book. It is always worthwhile taking a few moments to reflect on the debt we owe to our teachers both secular and spiritual. In our tradition what though, has been transmitted?

In the Zen tradition there is held to be a direct one-to-one, mind-to-mind transmission of a teaching 'beyond the scriptures' from Shakyamuni Buddha, to his disciple Mahakasyapa and then in an unbroken line to the present day. In the various schools of esoteric Buddhism secret teachings are passed from master to pupil. In our tradition it is different. Both Shinran and Honen explicitly stated that there is nothing more to the Pure Land way than the straightforward teachings they presented. Shinran held this principle so highly that his disowning of his son, Zenran came about partly because Zenran claimed to be in possession of a secret teaching given to him by Shinran. Shinran is, of course, quoted in Tannisho as saying:

'For myself, I do not have even a single disciple. For if I brought people to say the nembutsu through my own efforts then they might be my disciples. But it is indeed preposterous to call persons my disciples' when they say the nembutsu having received the working of Amida.'

As always, Shinran goes to the heart of the matter here. The teaching is public.

The transmission is personal.

The teachings are so open to all that Honen's insight arose when he read the work of Shandao who had lived about 600 years before him. The teachings are so open that Honen accepted students clerical and lay and freely preached the Nembutsu way. The teachings are so open that Shinran devoted most of his teaching life to giving the Pure Land teachings to the poor and illiterate far from the capital. The teachings are so open that the Hongwanji, the institutional heir of Shinran, has invested enormous effort and money in producing wonderfully accessible translations of the works of Shinran and now translations of the Pure Land Sutras. I think that this openness is a direct and natural consequence of the awesome truth of the Nembutsu way. It is of the very essence of the teachings.

'The mind that seeks to save all sentient beings is directed to us through Amida's vow of wisdom. Those who realize this true entrusting that is directed to us Attain great, complete nirvana.'

Shinran Hymns of the Dharma-Ages no. 21

The true entrusting shinjin - is directed to us. We do not have to strive to find it. We do not have to perform heroic deeds of self-discipline or meditative concentration. We do not have to spend years facing a wall in a monastery. We do not have to vow obedience to a guru. Since the 12th Vow of Amida assures us that His light is infinite, the truth of the wisdom and compassion of Amida is all around us. It can leap off the page of a commentary on a sutra as it apparently did for Honen. It can shine through as the sincere and convincing belief of one who has realized true entrusting, as perhaps it did in Shinran's meeting with Honen. We believe that the Pure Land teachings will remain when the other Buddhist teachings have vanished and one can imagine many ways in which this might be so, but surely the trans-historical openness of the teachings is part of all this, and this must be because of the causative nature of the Buddha's Vows.

So, what is transmitted? Well, the most human of things; the thing we all recognize; the thing we are all interested in a story. Many stories actually. There is the grand drama of Shakyamuni Buddha expounding the sutras, His body 'serene and glorious' prompting Ananda to ask Him the question that leads to Him expounding the Larger Sutra; the tragic events of the Contemplation Sutra; the spontaneous gift of the Smaller Sutra. There are the stories of the lives and struggles of the Pure Land patriarchs. There is Honen's journey from Mt Hiei insider to exiled heretic. There is the inspiring story of Shinran's spiritual quest and his finding of self-acceptance. The story that overarches all of these though is the cosmic narrative of Dharmakara Bodhisattva and the vows of Amida Buddha.

'The Nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act. Since it is not performed out of one's own designs, it is not a practice. Since it is not good done through one's own calculation, it is not a good act. Because it arises wholly from Other Power and is free of self-power, for the practicer, it is not a practice or a good act.'

What else is transmitted? Not a thing by human agency. The teachings are public, but the supreme gift of true entrusting is given personally to each and every individual who hears the calling voice of Amida. The teachings are like a window. The window has to be there for the light to get through, and you have to turn toward the window to see out, but the light is a gift from the sun, and no-one can claim to have given it to you.

Without our teachers we would not know where to start in our search for a meaningful life and let us give thanks to all who have led us here, but Amida is the supreme teacher.


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