Master Shinran described Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow as “the ocean-like Vow of great compassion.” “Great compassion” refers to the immense compassion of Amida Buddha. ‘Compassion’ is the state of mind that cannot abandon beings that are plagued by suffering and distress. It is the will and power to grant everlasting happiness. The compassion of a human being, or ‘diminutive compassion’, differs from Amida’s great compassion in three ways.
First of all, the objects of a human being’s compassion are limited. They will only be those that the person is familiar with, such as a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, an aunt or uncle, or a friend; feelings of compassion will not arise towards someone with whom that person has no ties. However, Amida Buddha’s great compassion extends to all sentient beings of the ten directions (all people) equally. The object of Amida’s salvation is all people.
Secondly, the compassion of a human being does not last. The purest compassion and closest thing to true compassion in our world is said to be that of a mother towards a child, yet even this will wither and degenerate as the decades go by. By contrast, Amida’s great compassion is eternally unchanging.
Thirdly, the compassion of a human being is blind. Therefore, sometimes an act that was done with the intent of making someone happy may instead end up bringing them misfortune. The blind, doting love of a parent that ruins a child is an example of such; lacking foresight, their behaviour leads to the suffering of their own child. Amida Buddha’s compassion, on the other hand, is backed by the wisdom of foresight, and will never bring about opposite results to what was intended. It has the power to make a person happy without fail.
Amida Buddha, the king of the countless Buddhas of the ten directions as well as the original master and original Buddha, created an ocean-like wish from this vast compassion. This is the well-known Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Śākyamuni Buddha, who taught Buddhism, taught only the Primal Vow ― the ocean-like Vow of great compassion ― of his master Amida throughout his lifetime.
So what kind of wish is this Vow? It is a pledge to “save all people into absolute happiness without fail through listening alone.” “All people” means all sentient beings of the universe. Amida promised to save all people into absolute happiness equally, paying no regard to such things as race, ethnicity, or skin colour. Absolute happiness is great joy for life that makes us shout, “How glad I am to have been born human!” We can gain the deep satisfaction of knowing that we were “born human for this purpose alone.” Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow is known for the line, “If they are not born, may I not attain supreme Enlightenment.” “Supreme enlightenment” is a Buddha’s life, so Amida Buddha is putting his life on the line for his pledge to save us without fail. Therefore, there is absolutely no mistaking what it is that he promised.
So how can we be saved into absolute happiness? Amida pledged to save us “through listening alone.” Therefore both Master Shinran and Master Rennyo taught that “listening is of utmost importance in Buddhism.” What is the true nature of a ‘human’, and how did Amida Buddha promise to save such beings? This is what we will hear: the original cause (shōki) and the root and outcome (hon, matsu) of Amida Buddha’s Vow. Then in the instant when we are made aware that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha was indeed true, we are saved and embraced into absolute happiness.
This is not a path without end. Let us listen to Buddhism with all earnestness and move towards the split second of ichinen that is the finishing point.
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #47 | 2015, Being saved through listening alone the ship of Amida’s great compassion
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