Let Us Board the Ship of Amida’s Great Compassion and Thoroughly Illuminate the Sea that Is Difficult to Cross
In his masterwork, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, Master Shinran wrote only two things. One is the rock-solid existence of the great ship that carries us across the sea that is difficult to cross, and the other is how to board it—nothing else.
These teachings of Master Shinran were made into a movie, called “WHY WE LIVE: Master Rennyo and the Fire at Yoshizaki”.
Many people who watched the movie have asked, “How can we be taken aboard that great ship?”
They must have asked this question because they have a serious understanding of the movie.
How can we be taken aboard that great ship? This is what all humanity wants to know the most. Master Shinran gave the answer to this question.
The reason why Sakyamuni Buddha came into this world was to convey Amida Buddha’s Vow. In his Explanation Passage on the Primal Vow , he thoroughly unlocked the true intention of Amida’s Vow.
Amida Buddha promised, “I will save you into absolute happiness in the instant (ichinen) of hearing the Name, Namu Amida Butsu, which I have created”. In the Passage, Sakyamuni Buddha clearly set forth that intention of Amida Buddha as follows: “hear that Name”.
Having thoroughly embraced the teaching of Sakyamuni that clarifies “hear that Name”, Master Shinran focused his attention on it and he declared that what is of utmost importance in Buddhism is listening. Hearing alone determines salvation by Amida. He considered this to be the ultimate teaching.
Then he proclaimed that the Name, Namu Amida Butsu, is the great ship that carries us across the sea that is difficult to cross.
Master Shinran compared life with its endless troubles to a rough sea with endless waves. This is the sea that is difficult to cross. He then clearly taught about the great ship that will lift us from that sea and carry us to the Pure Land, and urged us to board this ship immediately.
The guidance on boarding the great ship teaches us one and only one path. That is the path of listening to and hearing Amida Buddha’s Vow.
Listen to Buddhism at the Risk of Your Life
Then what should be our mindset regarding listening to Buddhism?
In the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life, which conveys the Vow of Amida Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha states as follows:
“Even though the great universe is ablaze with fire, you must definitely traverse it to hear the teaching of this sutra, and you will surely attain faith and be saved. Listen and follow the teachings.” (2017.01.20)
To paraphrase, “Even though the whole universe is filled with fire, you must cross through it to hear Amida Buddha's Vow, and then you will be certain to attain true and lasting happiness.” (2017.01.17)
Master Shinran expressed what Sakyamuni Buddha was saying here more simply in a hymn:
Though the universe
should become a sea of flames,
he who crosses it to hear the Name of Amida
will achieve everlasting salvation.
(Hymns on the Pure Land) 【Unlocking Tannisho P. 32】
In other words, Master Shinran said:
Even if the universe were enveloped in furious flames, any who pushed them aside and heard the Name of Amida Buddha (Namu Amida Butsu) would be saved into eternal bliss.
Master Rennyo also wrote a poem on this teaching:
Buddhism must be heard
even if it means fighting one's way
through raging flames;
then what hindrance can there be
in rain or wind or snow?
【Unlocking Tannisho P. 33】
Also, in The Words of Rennyo Heard and Recorded During His Lifetime, we find: “Buddhism must be listened to by setting aside (dropping) the world’s affairs (all our work). Thinking that one should listen to Buddhist law when not occupied with the world’s affairs (after we have finished our work) is shallow.”
In this way, he strongly warned against having a lazy attitude towards listening to Buddhism.
Someone once said to a Buddhist authority, “I am sorry to bother you, but please let me hear a word or two.” His request brought on an immediate outburst:
“What are you talking about! Do you think I can sum up anything so important as a human being becoming a buddha in just a few words? People who do self-power ascetic training lament that they might continue their practices for countless aeons and still not attain enlightenment, and yet you think you can listen for a year or two and become a buddha? What laziness! That’s why you aren’t saved. Listen at the risk of your life. What you are supposed to listen to is not different things. Just listen and listen to the same thing, until you are made to hear Amida’s call.” This is what he taught.
Why Is It That We Cannot Consider the Crucial Matter to Be a Crucial Matter?
In these words, each master is urging us to listen to Buddhism with all seriousness. It is because our crucial matter of the afterlife is such a grave matter.
And yet, no matter how many times we learn about the crucial matter of the afterlife, we don’t feel shocked. We think less of it than we do of an attack by a mosquito on a summer’s night.
A single mosquito is enough to bother us so we cannot sleep, and yet have we ever had a sleepless night due to being tormented by the crucial matter of the afterlife?
Why is it that we cannot consider the crucial matter to be a crucial matter?
The reason is twofold. First, we believe we won’t die yet; we push impermanence afar and ignore it. Second, we try not to see our own dreadful evil.
The massive Nankai Trough earthquakes are predicted to be extremely likely to hit Japan in the next 30 years. The probability of this is said to be 70％.
In order to prepare for this earthquake, people are putting great efforts into reserving foods, portable toilets, small-sized solar light generators, and other such things. However, there is no-one who is racking his brains trying to deal with the wind of impermanence, which is 100% certain to attack all people.
Perhaps people have given up on this issue and think this way: “Thinking about it will not change anything.”
Or maybe they are worried about what other people think of them and so they pretend not to think about it, even though they do—otherwise, it may have a negative effect on their relationships.
Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher acclaimed as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was astonished by the teachings of Master Shinran. He stated, “We should always have a keen awareness of the issue of what will happen after death. This is natural for a human being. However, many people forget about death and become depraved.”
We have no choice but to keep fighting in the battle against death—which we can never win. Even though we know we are putting up a futile resistance, we have no choice but to frantically try to resist death. The tragedy of all people of all times and places lies in this contradiction.
Gaze Steadily at Impermanence and One’s Evil Nature
The following story occurs in the writings of Master Tao-cho, a priest whom Master Shinran counted among the seven great masters. “Once a traveler walked alone across a vast plain. Then a bandit brandishing a sword came up from behind him to try to kill him. The traveler ran away for his dear life, but soon found himself approaching a great river. Knowing this would stop him from moving ahead, he hesitated over which choice he should make: ‘When I get to that river, should I remove my clothes and swim across, or jump in the river with my clothes on? Even if I choose to take my clothes off to swim across, my sash is tied so tight that I cannot loosen it, and so I won’t be able to escape the peril that is drawing near to me. If I jump in the river without taking off my clothes I will sink, because I cannot swim while wearing clothes.’ In this kind of situation, the only thing that he will keep thinking about is how to swim across the huge river. Nothing else will cross his mind. The same thing can be said when we seek Amida’s salvation. We will focus only on this crucial matter and never for an instant think of something else.”
What is being represented here?
Master Tao-cho likens the fierce winds of impermanence coming closer to us every second to a bandit coming up on a traveler from behind with a drawn sword.
In front of the traveler is a huge river with swirling waves, preventing him from going forward.
Here, the traveler becomes terribly conflicted. Should he remove his clothes and swim across, or jump into the river with his clothes on? He doesn’t know what to do.
Even if he chooses to take his clothes off to swim across, his sash is tied so tight that he can’t loosen it, and so he won’t be able to escape the peril.
If he jumps in the river fully dressed he will drown, unable to swim.
He is being pushed into a frightful situation with no way out.
The knotted sash that prevents the traveler from removing his clothes represents the immense weight of sin under which we suffer.
“Just like this traveler, listen to Buddhism with a sharp awareness of harsh impermanence and your own evil.” This is what Master Tao-cho teaches us through this metaphor.
Regarding this, Master Rennyo teaches the following:
“We should all immediately take to heart the crucial matter of the afterlife, deeply rely on Amida Buddha and be saved, and say the nembutsu.”
(On White Ashes)（2016.12.09）
We should be aware that the security we have enjoyed up until today does not guarantee tomorrow’s security. Let us listen to Buddhism with all seriousness, board the Vow-ship of Amida’s great compassion, and thoroughly illuminate the sea that is difficult to cross, thus living a glowing year of Shinran Followers.
*1: Explanation Passage on the Primal Vow: a text in which Sakyamuni Buddha explained the true meaning of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow in a way that we can understand.