I often hear that the teachings of Master Shinran consist of sangan tennyū (salvation through Amida Buddha’s Three Vows). What does it mean?
Amida Buddha, who is revered by all the buddhas of the cosmos as master and teacher, made forty-eight promises known as the Forty-eight Vows of Amida. Three in particular contain a promise to “save all people [sentient beings in the cosmos].” These are vows number eighteen, nineteen, and twenty. Of the three, the eighteenth is the one in which Amida revealed his intention the most directly: “Believe me, and I will save you into absolute happiness without fail.” This is known, therefore, as the True Vow or the Selected Vow. But to lead into absolute happiness us human beings who are full of conceit and know only relative happiness is far from easy, even for Amida, the master and teacher of all buddhas. That is why in order to fulfill the truth of the eighteenth vow, he had no choice but to employ expedient means. Master Shinran makes it clear that the nineteenth and twentieth vows are Amida’s means to that end. In his nineteenth vow, Amida made this promise:
“When I become a buddha, all those who, dumbfounded at the continual suffering of human life, are roused to crave birth in a world of ease and refrain from evil and carry out every good in their desire to be born in my country [Amida’s Pure Land], I will go to meet at the moment of death with a company of buddhas and bodhisattvas.”
The law of cause and effect is constant throughout the Three Worlds and Ten Directions: good causes yield good results, bad causes yield bad results, one’s own causes yield one’s own results. There is not the slightest deviation. But if this is merely understood on an intellectual level and not put into practice, it becomes a conceptual game that yields no good results. When we sincerely try to do good with all our might, we are left in despair as we are made aware of the reality of our nature, filled with unabated evil and incapable of the least bit of good. Amida’s twentieth vow is aimed at such people. In his twentieth vow, Amida made this promise:
“If anyone hears the great virtue of my Name [Namu Amida Butsu] and says the nembutsu, desiring through that virtue to be born in my country [the Pure Land], I will make them fulfill their desire without fail.”
And so people devote themselves single-mindedly to saying the nembutsu, only to have their scattered and indolent minds revealed and wonder uneasily if they are on the right track. Saying the nembutsu with a mind of evil, while carrying out evil acts, seems unlikely to lead to salvation, so they do their best to refrain from evil and seek to do good while saying the nembutsu, but all they can see is their own evil nature. As they say the nembutsu, the good and evil in their own minds causes them to feel now at ease, now anxious; their minds keep fluctuating in this way. Amida’s intention in the nineteenth and twentieth vows is to show people firsthand their own helplessness and inadequacy, their lack of any shred of truth, and have them cast aside all self-power deliberations and be saved into absolute happiness, the path of no hindrances, set forth in the truth of the eighteenth vow. Told of the crucial matter of the afterlife, we are unfazed, told of absolute happiness we only smile in scorn: this is our true nature. Master Shinran described it as a “corpse guilty of grave offenses and slander of Buddhism.” The promise that Amida made at the risk of his life to save this corpse into absolute happiness is Amida’s truth, the eighteenth vow. Concerning the truth that makes the absolutely unhearing corpse absolutely hear, Master Shinran wrote as follows: How genuine, the true words of Amida that embrace us and never forsake us, the salvation that is absolute and peerless! --- Preface, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment
"Amida’s Vow is true, it is indeed true!" The pathway that Amida laid out for all sentient beings in the universe, leading to the eighteenth vow, which is the path of no hindrances, is what Master Shinran called sangan tennyū, salvation through Amida Buddha’s Three Vows.
the Selected Vow: The vow which Amida Buddha singled out from the forty-eight vows as representing his true intention.