Question: It is reasonable that in each of the vows the bodhisattva Dharma-Repository should discard what is coarse and reprehensible and adopt what is good and excellent. But why, in the eighteenth vow, did he discard all the diverse practices and select and adopt only the single practice of saying the nembutsu, making it the primal vow of birth in his land?
Answer: The Buddha’s sacred intent is hard to fathom; it is not easily to be (sic.) grasped. Nevertheless, an attempt may be offered here utilizing two concepts: the contrast between superior and inferior, and the contrast between difficult and easy.
Regarding the first contrast, the nembutsu is superior and other practices are inferior. This is because myriad virtues have come to reside with Amida’s name. All the virtues possessed by Amida-Buddha—all the inwardly realized virtues such as the four wisdoms, three bodies, ten powers, and fourfold fearlessness, and all the outwardly functioning virtues such as a buddha’s marks and features, the light of wisdom, the teaching of dharma to beings and the benefiting of living things—have been gathered into Amida Buddha’s name. Thus, the virtues of the name are wholly superior. Other practices are not so. They each prop up but a portion of merit. Hence, they are said to be inferior…
Regarding the second contrast, saying the nembutsu is easy, while other practices are difficult… Since the nembutsu is easy, it is accessible to all. Other practices, being difficult, are not available to every being. It was surely to bring all sentient beings to birth in the pure land without any discrimination that the bodhisattva Dharma-Repository discarded the difficult and adopted the easy, making the latter the core of the primal vow. Had the making of images and the erection of stupa-towers been made the core of the primal vow, the poor and destitute would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the wealthy and highborn are few, while the poor and lowly are numerous. Had wisdom and lofty capacities been made the core of the primal vow, the dull and foolish would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the sagacious are rare, while the foolish and ignorant are many. Had study and broad learning been made the core of the primal vow, those of little knowledge would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the learned are few, and those without learning many. Had observance of precepts been made the core of the primal vow, those who failed to uphold or receive precepts would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet keepers of precepts are few, while violators are many. This applies to all the other forms of practice.
Know that had the various practices mentioned above been made the core of the primal vow, those attaining birth would have been few, while those unable to be born would have been numerous. For this reason, Amida Buddha, in the distant past, as the bodhisattvaDharma-Repository, was moved by undiscriminating compassion and sought to embrace all beings universally. In order to do so, he declined to make the various forms of practice such as creating images and erecting stupa-towers the practice resulting in birth in the primal vow. Rather, he made the single practice of simply saying the name of the Buddha the core of his primal vow
Translated by Dennis Hirota from Honen’s Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu shu in Ohashi Shunno (ed.), Honen Ippen, Nihon shiso taikei,vol. 10. (Tokyo. Iwanami shoten, 1971.)
Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is Carl W. Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan and the author of several books on Buddhism. In 2000 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Dennis Hirota is professor of Shin Buddhist Studies at Ryukoku University, Kyoto. He is the author of No Abode: The Record of Ippen and Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path, and the chief translator of The Collected Works of Shinran.
Reprinted from Buddhist Scriptures, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. © 2004 by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., with permission of the author.