Lately, I’ve been reading through various Buddhist books I have on my bookshelf (some kindly donated by readers, thank you!), and found an interesting passage from the book The Promise of Amida Buddha, which is a large compendium of the writings of Hōnen, the founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in the 13th century. Anyway, this passage comes from Honen’s Commentary on the Three Sutras of Pure Land Buddhism (sanbukyō-shaku, 三部経釈):
Now the essence of our Jōdō Shū is the belief that the three characters, A-mi-da [阿弥陀], embody the entire Buddhist teachings, including the theory of the Shingon school that the letter a in the Sanskrit alphabet indicates the origin of all phenomena and the state of nonproduciton; the teachings of oneness of the three aspects of truth taught by the Tendai school; the theory that the middle path emerges from the eightfold negation taught by the Sanron school;1 the theory of the five levels of contemplation from the principles of mind-only of the Hossō school;2 basically, all of the Dharma in the universe. This is because no Buddhist doctrines are excluded from the teaching for birth in the Pure Land.
Nevertheless, the heart of the vows of Amida Buddha does not expect one to believe in all of the above. He will come to receive all beings who simply recite nembutsu with deep devotion. (pg. 83)
For some reason, I found this passage very striking. Until now, a lot of my experiences in Pure Land Buddhism (both Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu) implied a kind of narrow focus on the Pure Land only, and sometimes I’ve seen a kind of anti-intellectualism from both Japanese and Western sources. This reminds me of neo-orthodox Zen converts, and makes me uncomfortable.
But here, Honen is describing the Pure Land path as a very inclusive path. The foundation of Pure Land Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha, and reciting his name, but if that is the foundation, Honen implies that there are many ways to branch out from there. At least, that’s my interpretation. It’s also possible that Honen wanted to say that the Pure Land Buddhist path overlaps with other Buddhist schools a great deal (even if the terminology differs), and that Pure Land Buddhism is not a rejection of existing teachings.
Anyhow, it’s somehow reassuring to see that Honen not only respected the other Buddhist traditions, but includes them as part of the Pure Land path. Although I’ve followed the Pure Land path for years, and it’s been an essential part of my life, I always worried that I was somehow rejecting other Buddhist doctrines in the process.
P.S. Since Ohigan is coming up, I felt this post was fitting anyway.
1 The Sanron school (三論集) was one of the original six schools of Nara, and is descended from the Indian Madhayamika school.
2 I’ve written about the Hosso school a number of times here, but I have no idea what the Five Levels of Contemplation are. Will look into this further.