(Posted on September 28, 2002)

Niga byakudo “ñ‰Í”’“¹@'Two rivers and the white path'; a parable which appears in the Sanzen-gi (Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Section on Non-meditative Good) by Shan-tao ‘P“± (Zendo)(613-681), and illustrates how an aspirant for the Pure Land awakens faith in Amida and attains birth in his land, as follows: A man is traveling to the west. In the wilderness he is pursued by bandits and fierce animals and comes to a place where two rivers meet: one is a river of fire which flows to the south and the other, a river of water which flows to the north. These two rivers are a hundred paces wide but endlessly long. Where they meet, there is a narrow white path, about five inches wide, leading to the west bank. As fire is raging on one side and water is splashing on the path from the other, he hesitates to take the path, but since death otherwise appears inevitable, he thinks of doing so. Just then he hears a voice from the eastern bank, urging him to go forward across the path, and another voice from the western bank, urging him on. Encouraged by these voices, he proceeds determinedly along the path and soon reaches the western bank, where he enjoys all pleasures.
The river of fire represents anger, and that of water, greed. The white path symbolizes the slim possibility of awakening faith in a mind full of evil passions. The voice from the eastern bank is the teaching of Shakyamuni, and that from the western bank, the summons of Amida. The western bank represents the Pure Land. This parable became very popular and, together with the painting which depicts it, has been widely used to explain the Pure Land teaching. In Japan, after Honen (1133-1212) established the Jodo school based on Shan-tao's teaching and Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of the Jodoshin schoo, followed Honen's Pure Land thought, paintings depicting this parable were produced in great numbers in the 13th and the 14th centuries. Especially famous among them are the ones preserved at the Komyoji in Kyoto (below) and the Kosetsu Museum in Hyogo Prefecture. They were both designated as important cultural assets. Those showing some modifications in the designs include the pictures preserved at the Seiryoji in Kyoto and the Nara National Museum.
= H. Inagaki, A New Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms (draft) =

(A colored edition of the Zengyoji wood engraving)



by Shan-tao

translated from Chinese by Zuio Hisao Inagaki


I wish to say to all aspirants for birth: I will now present a parable for practicers in order to protect their Faith and to guard it against attacks by those who have non-Buddhist, wrong and delusory views. What is the parable?


Suppose a man is traveling a hundred thousand li towards the west. On the way, he suddenly comes upon two rivers: one is a river of fire that extends southward, and the other is a river of water that extends northward. The two rivers are each a hundred paces wide and unfathomably deep, extending endlessly to the north and south. Where they meet, there is a white path, four or five inches wide. This path is a hundred paces long from the east bank to the west. The waves of the water splash and the flames of the fire burn the path. The waves and flames alternate without ceasing.


This traveler has already journeyed far into the open plain where there is no one to be found. Suddenly, there appear many bandits and vicious beasts. Seeing him alone, they approach competing with each other to kill him. Afraid of death, he at once runs to the west. When he suddenly sees this great river, he says to himself, "This river extends endlessly to the south and to the north. I see a white path in the middle, but it is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are close to each other, how can I get across? Undoubtedly, I shall die this day. When I turn round to return, I see bandits and vicious beasts coming closer and closer. If I try to run toward the south or north, I see vicious beasts and poisonous insects vie with each other to attack me. If I seek the path to the west, I will certainly fall into one of the two rivers of water and fire.


His horror at this moment is beyond expression. So he thinks to himself, "If I turn back now, I shall die; if I stay, I shall die; if I go forward, I shall die, too. Since I cannot escape death in any way, I would rather follow this path. Because there is a path, it must be possible to cross the rivers."


When this thought occurs to him, he suddenly hears a voice from the eastern bank urging him, "Take this path with firm resolution. There is no danger of death. If you stay there, you will die." Again, he hears another voice from the western bank calling to him, "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." Since the traveler hears this voice urging him from the bank and the calling from the other, he resolutely, body and soul, takes the path and proceeds at once without doubt or apprehension.


As he takes a step or two, he hears the voices of the bandits on the eastern bank, "Come back! That path is treacherous. You cannot cross it. Undoubtedly, you are sure to die. We have no evil intentions in pursuing you." Though hearing the calling voices, this person does not even look back. As he proceeds straight on this path with singleness of heart, he, in no time, reaches the western bank and is now free from all danger. There he meets his good friend, and his joy knows no end.


The oldest painting of Two Rivers and the White Path, 13th century; preserved at the Komyoji, Nagaokakyo in the outskirts of Kyoto; painted in color on silk; 118.6x61.4cm.; an important cultural asset in Japan.
A glorious palace building is seen on the top. In the courtyard Amida and two bodhisattvas, Kannon and Seishi, are seated on the lotus-thrones. Two trees are in the foreground. Amida's transformed body is welcoming the aspirant on the western bank. Near the white path on the eastern bank is standing Shakyamuni Buddha. He is urging the traveler to take the path. Bandits and animals are pursuing the traveler. At the bottom are houses depicting the earthly life in Samsara.


[1] Shan-tao's own explanation:


The meaning of the parable is as follows. 'The eastern bank' is the burning house of this Saha world. 'The western bank' is the Treasure Country of Utmost Bliss.


'Bandits and vicious beasts calling with feigned friendship' refer to sentient beings' six sense-organs, six consciousnesses, six sense-bases, five aggregates, and four elements.


'The open plain where there is no one to be found' refers to always mixing with evil friends without having a chance to meet a true good teacher.


'The two rivers of water and fire' describes sentient beings' greed and lust which are like water and their anger and hatred which are like fire.


'The white path in the middle, four or five inches wide' shows that a pure aspiration for birth arises from within sentient beings' evil passions of greed and anger. Since greed and anger are intense, they are compared to the water and fire. Since a good mind is faint, it is compared to a white path.


Further, 'waves always splash the path' describes the greed which constantly arises and defiles one's good mind. 'Flames always burn the path' shows that anger and hatred burn the Dharma-treasure of virtue.


'This man at once takes the path westward' shows that he, at once, proceeds westward by leaving behind various practices. 'Hearing a voice from the eastern bank urging him to proceed, he immediately takes the path to the west' shows that even though Shakyamuni has already passsed away and people can no longer see him, his teaching still exists and can be followed; the teaching is compared to a voice.


'As he takes a step or two, bandits call him to return' shows that people of different understandings, different practices and wrong views confuse him with their false views, saying, "You will commit evil karma and fall back from the Path."


'There is a man on the western bank calling to him' refers to the purport of Amida's Vow.


"In no time he reaches the western bank and rejoices at seeing his good friend" shows that the sentient beings who have long been sinking in the state of birth-and-death, transmigrating from the eternal past and being deluded and bound by their own karma, from which they cannot set themselves free, are now urged by Shakyamuni to proceed to the west - they are also summoned by Amida's Compassion.


Faithfully following the wishes of the two sages, they take the path of Vow-Power with constant mindfulness while unafraid of the two rivers of water and fire; after their death, they will be born in his land, where they will see the Buddha with boundless joy.

(Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Section on the Non-meditative Good)

[2] Shinran's explanation:


Truly we realize that, in the parable of the two rivers, 'the White Path four or five inches wide' has the following meaning: 'white' in 'the white path' is contrasted to 'black'; 'white' refers to the white act selected and adopted [in the Vow], that is, the Pure Karmic Act endowed to us for our Going forth.


'Black' refers to the black [evil] actions of our ignorance and evil passions and also to the miscellaneous good deeds done by the followers of the Two Vehicles, namely humans and gods.


'Path' is contrasted to 'lane'; the Path refers to the straight path of truth of the Primal Vow - the supreme Great Path leading to the Great and Complete Nirvana. 'Lanes' refer to small passages of the teachings of the Two Vehicles and Three Vehicles and of myriad good deeds and various practices.


'Four or five inches wide' refers to the four elements and the five aggregates that constitute sentient beings. 'A pure aspiration for birth arises' means attainment of the Diamond-hard True Faith; since it is the ocean of Great Faith endowed by the Primal Vow-Power, it is indestructible; hence, it is compared to diamond.

(Kyogyoshinsho, Chapter on True Faith, 46)

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