9. Honen Shonin's Teachings of the Pure Land (2)
We considered "Ichimai Kishomon" [一枚起請文 (The One-sheet Testament or Single-Sheet Covenant)] in Chapter 7. Now let me introduce some illustrative questions and answers according to the words of Honen Shonin.
First Question: I am indeed an immature person. Can I, such a foolish person, follow the Buddhist path?
Words by Honen: Today, it is as if our vision of wisdom is impaired and our legs of religious discipline are paralyzed. There is no hope for trekking across the treacherous road, the Difficult Path of the Holy Gate. Only by the ship, the Essential Vow of Buddha Amitabha, are we able to cross the delusive ocean of the transmigration of birth-and-death to reach the shore of the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
(Teachings of Honen[*1], Vol. 2, Day 1, Difficult and Easy Paths)
Interpretation: We live in the modern age, which is long after the day of Sakyamuni, and even if we have superficial knowledge, we lack deep insight. Nor have we robust bodies that can endure severe religious practices. This is true not about you alone. Therefore, it is better for you to give up enlightenment by improving yourselves through studies or practices. Only the path that you can follow or you should follow is led by the ship of the Essential Vow of Amitabha, and the ship will take you to the shore of Sukhavati across the ocean of samsara. You can attain enlightenment there without doubt.
Second Question: There are a variety of practice methods, such as study, Zen meditation, pilgrimage, and devoted praying, but which of them should I practice and how?
Words by Honen: Refrain from flaunting knowledge and devote yourself to the recitation of Nembutsu.
(Ibid, Vol. 1, Day 1, Single-Sheet Covenant)
Interpretation: Cast aside any ideas like "I know all about Buddhism" or "I follow the right practice method of Buddhism." Devote yourself to the recitation of Nembutsu.
Third Question: Is Nembutsu a practice method invented by Honen Shonin?
Words by Honen: We choose the practice of Nembutsu over all other practices because Nembutsu is in accordance with the Essential Vow of Buddha Amitabha.
(Ibid, Vol. 1, Day 10, Notes on a Single Page)
Interpretation: No, it is not. The reason that the method of devoted recitation of Nembutsu is chosen from among various practice methods is that Amitabha promised to save us and take us to Sukhavati by calling his name, or chanting 'Namu Amida Butsu.' Nembutsu is a practice that is not invented by me (Honen Shonin) but is specified by Amitabha.
Fourth Question: I am distressed by a disease. Will religion save me?
Words by Honen: If prayer healed and prolonged life there would be no illness or death. However, the burden of one's karma is lessened by the compassionate power of Buddha Amitabha for those who are faithful in Nembutsu. This is called a "burden is lessened." Buddha Amitabha indeed protects one from an untimely accidental death.
(Ibid, Vol. 2, Day 27, A Burden is Lessened)
Fifth Question: I have an overwhelming fear of death. What can I do?
Words by Honen: In general, those who sincerely wish for birth in the Pure Land, who, with implicit faith in the Essential Vow of Buddha Amitabha, continue to vocalize Nembutsu, will meet their end in the best of circumstances. [...]
Through the merit of Nembutsu frequently recited in daily life, Buddha Amitabha is certain to come to take us to the Pure Land at our time of death. The Nembutsu practitioner will establish the rightly settled state of mind for Ojo when he sees Buddha Amitabha coming to welcome him.
(Ibid, Vol. 2, Day 23, Receiving Compassion)
Sixth Question: I have a deep yearning to see deceased loved ones again. Is this possible?
Words by Honen: "Those who meet must part," is a Universal Law. It has been so from the beginning of time. It is not a grievous phenomenon. If the residual karmic condition is sufficient, we will all eventually reside on the same lotus petal in the Pure Land. Our anticipated meeting in the Pure Land is in the very near future. Parting today is only a fleeting sorrow, as transient as a dream on a spring evening.
(Ibid, Vol. 2, Day 29, Born on the Same Lotus Flower in the Pure Land)
Seventh Question: Don't the departed suffer agonies or wander from the right way?
Words by Honen: The merit of our daily recitation of Nembutsu should be transferred to those who have preceded us in death. If this happens, Buddha Amitabha will emit rays of light over the worlds of hell, starving spirits, and beasts. The dead who are suffering in these Three Evil Worlds of hell, starving spirits, and beasts would be absolved of their pain, their lives in those worlds would come to an end, and emancipation will come to pass.
(Ibid, Vol. 2, Day 30, The Transference of Merit)
Interpretation: This subject is about Eko [廻向/回向 (Merit-transference; Transferring one's virtue to others for the attainment of Buddhahood)]. If you transfer the merit of Nembutsu to the departed, Amitabha will illuminate the worlds of agony, including the three worlds to which unenlightened people are said to transmigrate, with his light. This alleviates the agony of the departed, and they can move away from the worlds thanks to the light of Amitabha. Therefore, I recommend you to recite Nembutsu and make Eko (transfer the merit).
The teachings of Jodo-shu are all based on Nembutsu from start to end. You will see why Honen Shonin advocated such teachings when you think a little deeper about this. ❖