Q: According to teachers of the Jodo Shinshu sect that I have heard, merely reciting the nembutsu guarantees that you will go to the Land of Bliss when you die. Did Shinran really teach that it’s so easy?
A: As long as they recite the nembutsu, anyone at all can easily go to the Pure Land and achieve buddhahood after they die: as you say, this idea is often passed off as the teaching of the Jodo Shinshu sect. For that reason, in the Japanese language a dead body is matter-of-factly referred to as hotoke, literally “buddha.”
However, this belief is not representative of either Jodo Shinshu or Buddhism, as can clearly be seen by these words of Śākyamuni in the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life 1, the sole sutra of truth: “Going is easy, and yet few are there.”
After teaching about birth in Amida Buddhaʼs Pure Land, Śākyamuni stated that going there is easy, yet hardly anyone goes. The statement seems odd. If going to the Pure Land is so easy, then how could he say hardly anyone goes? If so few people go, then how can going there be easy?
In a text called In Praise of the Sacred Name and the True Image , Shinran explained the conundrum this way:
Concerning “Going is easy, and yet few are there”: “Going is easy” means it is easy to go. If we ride on the power of the Primal Vow, we are sure to be reborn in the true Pure Land of Amida, so it is easy to go. “Few are there” means hardly anyone is there. Because so few people have true faith, birth in the true Pure Land is rare.
When Śākyamuni said itʼs “easy to go” to the Pure Land of Amida, he was referring to those already saved by Amida. Since Amida himself does all the work, itʼs easier than words can say for them to go. The reason he said “few are there” is because so few have achieved Amidaʼs salvation. This is why itʼs so rare for anyone to go to the Land of Bliss.
Rennyo added this comment:
The Great Sutra contains the words, “Going is easy, and yet few are there.” This means, “If you believe in Amida alone, receiving the mind of vast security, itʼs easy to go to the Pure Land; but few receive this mind of faith, and so although itʼs easy to go, hardly any do.” —The Letters, Fascicle 2
When you are saved by Amida in this life, it is easy to go to the Pure Land. However, few people are actually saved now, which is why Śākyamuni said, ʻGoing is easy, and yet few are there.ʼ
Both Shinran and Rennyo clarified Śākyamuniʼs meaning in these terms: going to Amidaʼs Pure Land is easy for those who have gained true faith. Since people of true faith (people who have been saved by Amida) are few and far between, only a small number have actually gone to the Pure Land. Not everyone goes to the Pure Land when they die. Zonkaku, a fourteenth- century priest-scholar of the Jodo Shinshu sect, had this to say in his work What I Have Learned About the Pure Land Teaching:
“No one is there” means there is no one to teach well and no one to listen well.
Śākyamuni said “few are there” in reference to Amidaʼs Pure Land because there are no teachers to tell about Amidaʼs salvation in this life and few have now been saved.
He says straight out that with no teachers to explain Amidaʼs salvation in this life and no searchers who persevere in listening till the end, the number of those saved remains infinitesimal. They are as scarce as stars on a rainy night. Pure Land Buddhism has superlative teachings that enable the listener to attain absolute happiness in this world and the next: heizei gojo (achieving lifeʼs purpose while alive), gensho futai (obtaining absolute happiness in this life), hodo ojo (birth as a buddha in Amidaʼs Pure Land), mida dotai (the same enlightenment as Amida Buddha). But because these truths are left untaught they are sapped of their power, and people equate selfindulgence with relying on Other-power. Under those circumstances, achieving salvation in this life is an impossible dream, and here and now we suffer the torments of hell. Unless through the incomprehensible power of Amidaʼs Vow the hell of this world is mysteriously transformed into a vast ocean of brightness 2 we can neither go to the Pure Land when we die nor achieve buddhahood.
(Petals of Shinran, The Cherry volume, Chapter 9)
1 Sakyamuni said: “My coming to this earth was for the sole purpose of preaching this sutra.” This sutra teaches about Amida’s Vow.
2 ‘A vast ocean of brightness’ is Shinran’s term for the life of anyone who has been saved by Amida.
By Kentetsu Takamori
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #19 | 2012, Do We Go Straight to the Land of Bliss When We Die?
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