Master Shan-tao alone clarified the true intent of the Buddha
(Master Shan-tao was the only one who was clear about the Buddha’s true intent)
----Hymn of True Faith
In Hymn of True Faith, Master Shinran says, “Master Shan-tao alone clarified the true intent of the Buddha.” Master Shan-tao was active about 1,300 years ago in China. Master Shinran greatly respected him, and selected him as one of the seven great Buddhist masters. When we read out the Hymn of True Faith during the chanting, the leader raises their voice a step on this line. That is because Master Shinran praised Master Shan-tao very highly indeed. This is also clear in Master Shinran’s hymn where he says, “Manifested from Amida’s Pure Land was Master Shan-tao.” In other words, Master Shinran taught, “Master Shan-tao was a buddha from the Pure Land who appeared in this world in the form of a human.”
Master Shan-tao was active in the Tang Era. The Tang Era was a golden age for Chinese Buddhism, and there was a huge number of monks around at that time. But Master Shan-tao was the one and only person who clarified the true intent of the Buddha. Because of this, Master Shinran expressed particular respect for him. This time, let us learn about a famous parable by Master Shan-tao: The Two Rivers and the White Path.
Through the Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path, Master Shan-tao taught the spiritual path towards salvation by Amida Buddha’s Vow. This is the path of the mind.
A traveller walks a long, long path from east to west. Then he notices that bandits and vicious beasts are pursuing him. He is afraid he will die, so he starts to run. Suddenly he finds a huge river that runs from north to south. It blocks his path, and he cannot go forward. On the right there is a river of water. On the left there is a river of fire. Between them there is a white path about four or five inches wide. The waves of both the river of water and the river of fire are harsh and tall. The waves conceal the narrow white path between them. There’s no way of telling whether or not the path actually reaches the other side.
On the east bank, Śākyamuni Buddha points to the west. He urges the traveler, “Proceed on that path! You will be saved without fail!” However, the traveler hesitates. He is unable to move along the path because he fears the viciously turbulent waves of water and fire. But Śākyamuni strongly urges him again and again, “Proceed on that path!” Following Śākyamuni’s command, the traveler begins moving forward, sometimes stepping forward and sometimes stepping back. Eventually, he reaches a point of no return. Now if he goes forward, he will die, if he turns back, he will die, and if he stays put, he will die (the three settled deaths). Thus he prepares himself for death. At that moment, the traveler hears the call of Amida Buddha from the west bank (the summoning command of Amida).
“Come at once single-heartedly with right mindfulness. I will protect you.”
“Come as you are. I will save you without fail.”
With that, the traveler’s anxiety and fear* completely vanish. He is able to reach the west bank with ease.
The words of Śākyamuni:
“Move forward on this path. There is no way you will die. If you stop, you will die.”
The bandits’ call to stop
“Get back here, quickly!
Look how harsh the waves of fire and water are! Why are you going down such a difficult path?
You’re being deceived!
I’m not saying this out of some bad intention.
I care about your happiness. That’s why I’m telling you to stop. I’m being kind.
If you ignore me and keep going down that path, you will definitely die. Come back! Come back!”
The call of Amida
“Come at once single-heartedly with right mindfulness. I will protect you. Do not fear that you may fall into the calamities of water or fire.”
What does this represent?
The traveler represents all people. The rivers of water and fire represent the fierce worldly passions of desire and anger. The white path represents the desire to listen to Buddhism (the desire to seek salvation by Amida). The narrowness of the path represents how weak our desire to listen to Buddhism is.
The bandits and vicious beasts represent everything that obstructs our desire to listen to Buddhism.
Upon reaching the point of the three settled deaths, the traveler hears the call of Amida: “Come as you are.” This represents the instant of “hearing and believing”; the moment when one attains settlement of birth in the Pure Land; the moment when one achieves great peace of mind.