(Edit: updates to links and letter contents, December 2017)
Lately, I’ve been reading some of the translated writings of a Buddhist monk in Japan named Shōkū (証空, 1177 – 1247), who was a chief disciple of Honen and roughly contemporary to Shinran. I wrote about him a long time ago, but lately I’ve been re-reading his writings in a book titled Traversing the Pure Land Path.
In a reply addressed to Shogun Yoritsune, who had sent a letter seeking Buddhist advice, Shoku talked about something called the Three Karmic Relations (三縁, san’en). The concept actually comes from the 7th-century Chinese Buddhist master Shan-dao (善導, zendō in Japanese) and teaches that through devotion to Amitabha Buddha one strengthens three karmic relations with the Buddha.
- Shin’en (親縁) – intimate karmic relationship
- Gon’en1 (近縁) – close karmic relationship
- Zōjō’en (増上縁) – superior karmic relationship
In his letter to Yoritsune, Shoku explained the three karmic relations like so (original posted at the JSRI, all credit goes to them):
“By close karmic relation (gen-en, 近縁),1 I mean that when this intimacy between us and Amida has reached its height, not only does he know all about our actions, words and thoughts, but we come to know the significance of his actions, words and thoughts on our behalf. So if we long to see him, he actually appears at our side in a dream or at life’s last hour.”
“By superior karmic relation (zojo-en, 増上縁), I mean the results which flow from the actions set in motion by the preceding two. As Shan-tao says, ‘All sentient beings who call upon his name will shed all the karma for which they should suffer throughout countless kalpas of time. When they draw near to life’s end, Amida Buddha and his retinue come to welcome them, and all their inherited hindering karmic relations are dispelled.’ This is what we call superior karmic relation.”
“The intimate karmic relation is expressed in the words, ‘All sentient beings who call upon his name will shed all the karma for which they should suffer throughout countless kalpas of time.’ The close karmic relation finds expression in the words immediately following. It’s clear here that Shan-tao wants to give us the essence of his teaching of emancipation by other power (tariki). We should then always keep this in mind, and when we call upon the sacred name, maintain this intimate karmic relation and be impelled by these motives. Since this means for us total exemption from the pains that our karma would bring us through countless ages, we will surely fear unethical behavior. Even more, we will give it up and never allow ourselves carelessly to fall into it. Again, by entering into close relationship with the Buddha, even ordinary worthless beings can experience his being right before our very eyes. Then the fountain of good within us reaches its highest flow. Pulled forward by Amida’s mighty power, we find an ever deepening joy in the contemplation of the good we have done, and our hearts are more and more focused on the doing of good never done before. This is what is meant by the superior karmic relation.”
There are plenty of interpretations of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, but I think Shan-tao’s (and by extension Shoku’s) teaching makes sense in all cases. At the very least reciting the Buddha’s name is a positive way to “perfume the mind” as Yogacara Buddhists would say.
P.S. Forgot to mention the book. It is called Traversing the Pure Land Path. I’ve owned it for a long-time, but occasionally re-read it.
1 The book for some reason pronounces this as gen’en but in every modern Japanese dictionary I look at, it’s gon’en. I think this more closely matches the pronunciation of modern-Japanese for 近. The “gen” may be an archaic pronunciation, an alternate reading, or a typo, I am not sure.