Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Mark Healsmith

The following Dharma message was given
on the occasion of Obon, 14th August 2011


Thank you Watanabe Sensei for inviting me to speak and thank you all for attending on this important day. We can all call to mind someone we love who is no longer with us. While it is sad to think about this, for me it is also an opportunity to refresh my relationship with my loved ones. Also, every day, but especially on this day, we should remember that the 'great matter of life and death' is indeed just that, and only by resolving this matter can we become free to live our lives fully and free of fear.

I meant to start this brief talk on a lighter note though, and by taking a leaf out of Reverend George's book I will start with a joke. I'm not very good at telling jokes, but here it is.

A man is walking down a street followed by three penguins. A passing policeman pulls up and tells the man that he must take the penguins to the zoo. The man agrees that he will do this and the policeman moves on.

The next day the same man is walking down the same street with the three penguins behind him and the same policeman pulls up.

"I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo" says the policeman. "I did" says the man. "Today I'm taking them to the movies."

This is a pretty stupid joke as most good jokes are. What is the point of the joke? In a sense, none whatsoever, but the joke made me think about something I wanted to talk about, and that is that it is the easiest thing in the world to either deliberately or inadvertently miss the point if what one is being told does not accord with the pre-occupations and pre-conceptions with which we drift through our lives.

Lately I have been reading - The Promise of Amida Buddha. Honen's Path to Bliss which is a collection of the writings of our Master Shinran Shonin's teacher, Honen Shonin, translated by Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi. I have been long awaiting an English translation of Honen Shonin's writings beyond his crucially important, Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu the work that he let Shinran Shonin copy. That work is an essential bridge from the teachings of the Pure Land masters before Honen Shonin to Shinran Shonin in his time and by its influence on him to us here in the present and for all time. The works translated in The Promise of Amida Buddha were written in Japanese and some take the form of question and answer, some are letters in response to the questions of Honen Shonin's followers but even the more formal works read as if the Master were giving verbal instruction. With infinite patience Honen Shonin repeats his message again and again so that no one can wilfully or otherwise mistake it.

It is well accepted that Shinran Shonin always asserted that his purpose in teaching was not to start any new sect but to faithfully transmit the teachings of his Master Honen Shonin. As I read the words of Honen Shonin I was able to come to a better understanding of the truth of this, and also to a clearer understanding of the ways in which Shinran Shonin's presentation of the Pure Land teachings makes them even more accessible to me than Honen Shonin's.

Throughout the works collected in this book Honen Shonin returns again and again to expound upon the 'threefold (devotional) heart'. The first of the aspects of the 'threefold heart' is the genuine or sincere heart a fairly straightforward concept. The second is the profound heart, that is the heart of one who is profoundly conscious of his own lack of virtue but also holds deep faith that Amida Buddha will embrace all sentient beings, even one as base as himself. The third is the heart that seeks birth in the Pure Land through the dedication of merit.

There are differences between the way Honen Shonin teaches of the 'threefold devotional heart' and the way Shinran explains threefold shinjin (sincere mind, trust, and aspiration for birth in the Pure Land) and this is not the time or place to go into detail about this. Shinran Shonin resolves the differences very clearly in his writings, and perhaps this comes from verbal teachings given to Shinran Shonin by Honen Shonin. This we cannot know, but Shinran Shonin teaches us that the 'threefold heart' is shinjin and is given to us by Amida Buddha. Honen Shonin emphasises in many passages that we do not have to understand the 'threefold heart' to possess it, and that 'any nembutsu practitioner who sincerely aspires for birth in the Pure Land will naturally possess the threefold devotional heart'. Since we are distracted beings full of karmic evil, how could we by ourselves cultivate the immense virtues of the 'threefold heart'? Our calculation cannot bring us to it, but through the nembutsu it will be given to us. If we do not have to understand the 'threefold heart' in order to have it, and if it comes about because of the nembutsu, then surely this is because it is given to us by Amida and is thus in fact shinjin.

What is the other message that Honen Shonin compassionately repeats again and again in his writings, and no doubt in his verbal teachings too? What is the message that we must not let ourselves miss? It is, of course, to say the nembutsu. Honen Shonin famously said the nembutsu thousands of times a day and he encouraged everyone to do this, but he knew perfectly well that most of the ordinary people that he taught would not. In one of the question and answer sections of the book, in his succinct and no nonsense manner he says 'you may set your goal to repeat it as many times as your heart desires.' He acknowledges that the 18th Vow of Amida Buddha mentions just ten repetitions and that just one nembutsu uttered with the right mind is sufficient, but points out that nowhere do the scriptures specify a maximum number!

Honen Shonin also encourages a nembutsu practice unhindered by concerns about ritual purity or unholy states of mind. A questioner asked him:"Although I recite the nembutsu, my heart is still distracted. What does one do?" Honen Shonin replied: "Even I, Genku, am powerless over distractions".

Well, so am I. But it doesn't matter.

In his Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling Shinran Shonin teaches us that in 'entrusting ourselves to the Tathagatas 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.'

For me, therefore, the nembutsu is beyond time and beyond place. There is no distinction between the first nembutsu and the innumerable but uncounted nembutsu that come after this and which make a serried and discontinuous but unbroken chain that spans a lifetime. There is no difference either between these nembutsu and the nembutsu said with one's dying breath, which will be, miraculously, the same as the first.

It will come as no surprise to you after all this, and by what I have said and written in the past, that the quote from Shinran Shonin that I hold closest to my heart is the following from the Tannisho :

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, 'Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida'; nothing else is involved.


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