In his eighteenth vow, Amida Buddha says to cast aside self-power since it is of no avail, but in his nineteenth vow he urges people to carry out good deeds with sincerity. Which one is the truth?
Your question is only natural. Whether or not carrying out good deeds is sufficient to encounter Amida’s salvation is revealed only when a person has applied himself to the task with all his might.
Back when Śākyamuni was living in the royal palace, there was a beautiful woman in a nearby village whose name was Kisa Gotami.
Soon after she was married, she gave birth to a baby boy, and her joy knew no bounds. But just as clouds hide the moon and storms scatter flower petals, not even a mother’s deep love could prevail against the impermanence of this world. Her beloved child, as precious to her as life itself, one day suddenly took sick and died.
The distraught mother clasped her child’s body in her arms and went from house to house, asking if there were not some way to bring him back to life. Clearly her senses had left her. Everyone who saw and heard her was moved to tears, but no one of course knew any way to revive the dead.
Finally, unable to watch her go on that way, someone advised her to call on Śākyamuni. She rushed to the palace and wept before him. The Buddha must have seen in Kisa Gotami’s weeping figure the world’s ultimate sadness.
He looked at her silently for a while before saying gently, “Your wish is understandable. If you really want your child back, then you must do as I say. Go to town, call on a family that has never known death, and ask for some poppy seeds. Bring them back to me and I will raise your son from the dead immediately.”
The words were no sooner spoken than the woman flew off to town, forgetting all else. Every family had poppy seeds, but of course no family was untouched by death.
“Three years ago, Father died.”
“Mother passed away last year.”
“We just lost our darling daughter.”
Wherever she called, she could not find any house where death was a stranger.
Denied and disappointed at every turn, her frantic love for her child kept her rushing around in search of a family untouched by death. By the time the town was wrapped in dusk, her energy and patience were exhausted, plunging her into the depths of misery. She had no choice but to trudge back to Śākyamuni empty-handed.
“Well, did you get the seeds?” he asked. “There was no family without its dead,” she replied simply, and collapsed in tears. Sensing within her a desire to know the truth, Śākyamuni counseled her as follows:
“I am sure there wasn’t. The dead never return to their former selves. Everyone who is born must die. In time, everything that is made is bound to be destroyed. These things illustrate the truth that all things must pass.
“Nothing in this world is permanent or changeless. Be quick to feel astonishment at this state of affairs and seek indestructible, absolute happiness. If you do that, the child you love will be saved, too. Swiftly seek the path of truth.” Śākyamuni’s earnest sermon made Kisa Gotami find new life, and she cried out, “World-Honored One, if you hadn’t done this much for me, a foolish woman like myself would never have been saved!”
Śākyamuni and Amida,
our compassionate father and mother:
With skillful means of every variety
they raise supreme faith within us
Hymns on the Masters
Śākyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha
are our compassionate father and mother.
Thanks to their skillful means of every variety,
supreme faith (true faith) is made to arise in our hearts.
Master Shinran is weeping with gratitude. Without the various skillful means of Amida and Śākyamuni, none of us would ever set out on the path of no hindrance (truth). With my heart remaining unmoved, I am moved in an instant by Amida’s Vow-power. Amida Buddha, unless you had done this much for me, never in a million years would I have listened! Śākyamuni Buddha’s eight thousand trips back and forth to this world, the manifold skillful means he used, were all for me alone. With no way to repay the great debt I owe, all I can do is shed tears of gratitude.
When you reach this point, you will know for certain which vow is the true one, so remain diligent in listening to Buddhism.