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:
But intimate karmic relation, I mean that….the light which streams from his being finds nothing it cannot penetrate. None of the virtues which flow from Amida Buddha’s thoughts, words and actions can fail to affect us, no matter how immersed we may be in affliction and bad karma. This is the reason that when we call, he hears; when we pray, he sees; and when we meditate, he knows, and unfailingly leads us to ojo [Rebirth in the Pure Land], regardless of the good or bad in our hearts, as long as we continue to put our trust in him. This is why Shan-tao says that the three acts of Amida Buddha exactly agree with the three acts of the wayfarer….
By close karmic relation, 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, 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. Whey 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.
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, but since dictionaries in Japanese don’t use it, I used the modern-Japanese reading instead.