Pure Land Buddhism, particularly of the Jodoshin tradition, bases itself on the fundamental understanding that it is not the sentient being who strives toward bodhisattvahood; to the contrary, it is the bodhisattva “who strives to save and ultimately enlighten the sentient being, transforming it into a bodhisattva.”
Sentient beings, in other words, are viewed as being powerless and incapable of bringing about their own salvation, enlightenment, or bodhisattvahood. They are seen as lacking, in an absolute way, the moral and spiritual capacity to transform themselves into bodhisattvas.
Any spiritual transformation is viewed as being wholly and merely superficial and therefore, inauthentic. This is somewhat like the monkey in the parable who was trained to mimic the actions of a human being. To the bemused amazement of many, the trainers succeeded to the point that the monkey was able to perform in Kabuki plays.
For his humanlike performances, the monkey even drew shouts of approval. One day, however, when someone threw peanuts onto the stage, the monkey instantaneously reverted to his original, simian nature, scampering after and shoving the peanuts into his mouth.
The Bodhisattva Dharmakara, in his Wisdom, perceived the absolute inability of the sentient being to transform, in a fundamental way, itself, and thereby save and enlighten itself. Moved by Compassion, He gave rise to a series of vows that promised to create and bring to fruition those conditions that would lead to the salvation of such sentient beings, who, if left to their own devices, would be utterly beyond salvation.
To actualize these vows, Bodhisattva Dharmakara undergoes measureless aeons of spiritual practices, perfecting such religious virtues as selfless giving or charity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Ultimately He attains Buddhahood and becomes the Buddha of Infinite Wisdom and Compassion; that is, Amida Buddha.
The role or task of the sentient being, then, is to serve only or merely as the recipient of the Amida Buddha’s salvific efforts. It does so by simply and absolutely entrusting itself to Amida’s vow of unconditional salvation. The seemingly passive act of entrusting oneself and the active act of Amida’s saving of the sentient being are, in reality, one and the same.
The following incident illustrates the nature of this oneness. A number of years ago, a sailor aboard a freighter crossing the Pacific Ocean fell overboard. The crew noticed that he was missing eighteen hours later. The captain ordered the ship to turn around to go back in search of the lost sailor. Miraculously, the sailor was found floating in the ocean water.
He later explained that there was nothing at all he could do to save himself, he simply entrusted himself to the buoyant powers of the ocean, which, in turn, floated and thereby saved him. The seemingly contradictory notion of entrustment and salvation being one finds a parallel in myths in which death and birth are viewed as being two aspects of the same experience, or in philosophy where negation and affirmation are seen as being identical, or in Zen where passivity and activity are regarded as being equal.
Beyond this, Shinran Shonin of the Jodoshin Sect teaches that those sentient beings who entrust themselves to Amida Buddha are coequal of Bodhisattva Maitreya, who resides in the penultimate stage of bodhisattvahood and is soon destined for Buddhahood. Unlike other traditions that hold forth the promise of Buddhahood in this life and in “this very body,” the Jodoshin Sect affirms that Buddhahood is attained only after shedding one’s physical body; that is, after one’s death. In other words, the “entruster,” despite being made the equal of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, is subject to all the physical limitations of this life. However, with regard to his or her spiritual life, he or she is essentially freed, by virtue of Amida’s salvation, of all suffering-causing “blockages.”
It must be emphasized at this point that the “entruster” himself or herself regards all spiritual benefits as emanating from the Amida Buddha, the Other Power, and therefore, has no consciousness of, not to speak of attachment to, the benefits bestowed on him, such as being made the equal of the Bodhisattva Maitreya.
Rather, having been bestowed this great gift, or more precisely, “benefit,” of salvation and by implication bodhisattvahood and eventual Buddhahood, not despite the fact that but because sentient beings are absolutely beyond salvation and enlightenment, sentient beings are simply filled with a transcendent sense of absolute gratitude. Ethically, this gratitude, which Cicero, in a different context, once described as being “the greatest of virtues because it is the parent of all others,” serves as the foundation, in this life, of the Pure Land Buddhist.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.