KGSS Chapter 1: The Jewel Amida Buddha Chose

In Shin Buddhism, there is nothing else to do but LISTEN DEEPLY - which means listening with the left brain for the content, and with the right brain for the feeling - of what Shakyamuni Buddha is teaching.

There is no other practice.

Even saying Nembutsu is not a practice, as Master Shinran and Master Rennyo explain. True Nembutsu arises naturally as the expression of our gratitude. True Nembutsu is not something we do - it is something that is GIVEN - the gift of Amida Buddha in the hearts of those people who have been caused to hear because…

They have listened DEEPLY.

So let’s listen deeply, together, to Dharma Master Shinran as he begins to unfold the great mystery of the Pure Land Path to Buddhahood.

In the beginning of the first Chapter of his great work, the KyoGyoShinSho, he lays the foundation for the TRUE TEACHING of the authentic Dharma of the Pure Land Way. Shinran writes:

If I am to reveal the True Teaching, it is the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life.

The outline of this sutra is: Amida brought forth the Vow, by which he widely opened the Dharma-store.

Out of compassion for the ordinary, inferior people, he chose from amongst the Dharma-treasures the jewel of merit and freely endows it to them.

In these few words, there is so much hear for those whose karma has made them willing to listen deeply to Shinran as the Dharma Master for this age. Like a great symphony that begins with a musical them, which is then amplified, restated, and elaborated by the composer, Master Shinran will amplify, restate and elaborate this theme throughout the KGSS, and indeed throughout his other writings as well.

And let there be no mistake: despite what some errant modern scholars have said, so much of the KGSS is well within the grasp of the uneducated lay reader - and Shinran transmitted its contents continually to the learned and unlearned alike. Despite the fact that we may lack scholarly credentials, or a knowledge of the original language, or a long history in the Buddha-dharma, we can glean the critical message Shinran wants to convey to us - today - if only we come with open hearts, open minds and empty hands.

Coming this way means you do not grasp your own small storehouse of wisdom, Buddhist or otherwise, such as it might be. Coming this way means that you sit respectfully at Shinran’s feet - even as Shinran sat respectfully at the feet of Honen - even as Ananda sat respectfully at the feet of Shakyamuni Buddha on the day Shakyamuni delivered the sermon we know as the Larger Pure Land Sutra.

If only you will listen respectfully, listen deeply, listen with a view towards hearing the very words of all the Buddhas - then you will go from being a seeker to being a finder - a finder the same incomparable gift that Shinran himself found - the gift of diamond-like SHINJIN.

This is the SINGULAR goal of every word Shinran ever wrote in his 60 year career as the Dharma Master for this age.

When we receive the gift of the same diamond-like SHINJIN as Shinran - the same true entrusting which comes from surrendering entirely to the person and work of Amida Buddha, leaving our salvation entirely in his hands - then we will have the certain knowledge that this is our last lifetime of suffering as non-Buddhas lost in delusion and obscuration.

This knowledge - as Eiken Kobai Sensei points out with such clarity - is the experience of salvation in the PRESENT, even while we are still enshrouded in the darkness of a non-Buddha mind.

This knowledge - the GIFT of Amida Buddha - gives us absolute certainty that we are grasped by Amida Buddha himself - that we will never be abandoned no matter what - and that at the end of this lifetime we will awaken in Amida Buddha’s own Pure Land, where we will complete our journey to Buddhahood at last.

Before we have received this knowledge - this gift of SHINJIN - Shin Buddhism is a religion. There are ideas, and opinions, and rituals, and organizations. After we have received this knowledge, this SHINJIN - there is Amida Buddha’s life and our gratitude.

How is such a thing possible? It is all because of THE JEWEL AMIDA BUDDHA CHOSE, just as Dharma Master Shinran says.

So what is this Jewel?

Before he emerged as Amida Buddha, Bodhisattva Dharmakara contemplated his own creation of a Buddha-world. He had the time, energy and karmic inclination to research and discuss the merits of all the extant Buddha-worlds with their various Buddhas. He considered deeply the value and limitation of each world in Bodhisattvic terms - how well that world could support other beings in their quest to complete the long karmic journey from the near shore of utter sleep - to the far shore of full awakening. He considered and contemplated all the jewels - the characteristics - we would associate with pristine Buddhahood.

Any of us could make at least a partial list of such jewels - such characteristics. Indeed, one could make such a list through the comparative study of any of the higher religions. I have several rattling around in my own head - the so-called “fruit of the Spirit” from Christianity - and even my recollection of the Boy Scout’s Oath that I used to say. Such a list of jewels could also be gleaned by reading any of the many “books of virtue” that have been compiled through the centuries.

Of course, the many “jewels” of Buddhahood would - by definition - include all of those characteristics in their most perfect and unstained forms. Those of us raised in the Western tradition - who have a bit of education - would recognize them as the “ideal” forms Plato spoke about.

But - in order to understand Dharma Master Shinran - and the Dharma he gave his entire life to propagate - we need to understand:

WHAT was the jewel that Amida Buddha chose - and WHY did Amida Buddha choose it?

The answer isn’t rocket science - and it doesn’t take Ph.D. Buddhist Studies to understand, either. It’s simplicity itself - the very heart of what Shinran taught unlettered peasants in 12th Century Japan - and what he has taught me as well - a more-or-less educated 21st Century American man.

The Jewel Amida Buddha chose was (and is) the jewel of his infinite karmic MERIT.

Karmic merit is not a hard concept to grasp, even for the illiterate. It’s the metaphysical equivalent of your net worth - the difference between your metaphysical assets, and your metaphysical liabilities. If you have more assets than liabilities, your net worth (metaphysical or financial) is positive; if you have more liabilities than assets, your net worth (metaphysical or financial) is negative.

The good we do increases our karmic assets - the evil we do increases our karmic liabilities. Our birth in our next life is a function of whether our karmic net worth increased or decreased in our current life.

Thus Buddha taught - thus I have come to believe.

In all of the 84,000 paths of the sages, a foundational principle has that you can diligently work on increasing your karmic merit - until you get to the point where you will not be subject to regressing. (The idea of a rocket ship getting past the pull of the earth’s gravity is a good metaphor). That is why most people - including most Buddhists - see Buddhism as a path of self-cultivation.

Shinran was taught this very idea as a monk in the great Buddhist monastery at Mt. Hiei. Believing his teachers, and his teachers’ teachers, he too cultivated diligently for 20 years of his life. Finally, though - he gave up in despair. He saw, with eyes of honesty, that the changes he had made by cultivation were superficial at best. He saw, with eyes of honesty, that his blind passions - his cravings and aversions - his egotism and his fear - his delusions and obscurations - were much greater than his capacity to deal with them, much less transcend them.

Initially, Shinran’s insight into his fundamental inability to transcend his human problems was limited. He knew that he was a failure as a Buddhist practitioner. But he did not know - until he met his own Dharma Master Honen - that this problem was not just Shinran’s personal problem.

It was, in fact, the problem of our age.

That was a core part of the dharma teaching that Honen transmitted to Shinran, as Shinran sat at Honen’s feet, listening deeply day after day to Honen’s exposition of the Dharma.

Honen boldly declared that the problem was as much his problem as it was Shinran’s problem. Honen called himself, “Honen of the 10 Evil Ways”. It was he who awakened Shinran to the realization that Shinran’s problem was - and IS - a UNIVERSAL problem in our age.

This fact - the fact that none of us have the spiritual power to bootstrap ourselves - to deliver ourselves by cultivation from our own tendencies towards karmic evil - was a revelation to Shinran. He listened deeply to his teacher Honen - and took Honen’s teaching to heart.

This idea - that in this age - known as MAPPO - all of us are constrained, and none of us capable, of escaping the wheel of birth and death and attaining non-retrogression and ultimately Buddhahood - is a foundational idea in Shinran’s True Teaching.

None of us - not a single one of the Buddhist teachers, monks, sensei’s, priests, lamas - that are featured in articles and advertisements in the Buddhist magazines.

None of us - not a single one of the gurus, avatars, and masters whose books are found in the bookshelves of all of our bookstores.

Is this dharma teaching - the idea that none of us can transcend our evil karma - our blind passions - our craving and aversions - CRITICAL to becoming a person of the same SHINJIN as Shinran and his teacher Honen?

Yes. It is absolutely critical. It is absolutely foundational. It is what Shinran taught far and wide, to peasant and scholar alike, for 60 years.

WHY is it critical and foundational? WHY must we listen deeply to this idea and allow the power of its truth penetrate our minds - and ultimately our hearts?

Because unless we recognize our state - our utter hopelessness - when it comes to attaining the singular goal of Buddhism - which is Buddhahood itself - we will be looking for something to do - some practice, some meditation, some prayer, some teacher, some dharma TRICK to improve ourselves - even a little bit.

As long as we think there is SOMETHING we can do - then our egos will grasp at that something and try to DO IT - and then take a secret pride in the doing.

None of us - not one - are capable of the RIGOROUS, SUSTAINED, NON-ATTACHED praxis over days, months, years and yes - lifetimes - that is needed to escape the pull of karmic gravity and attain to the freedom of Nirvana - which means CESSATION.

None of us - not even one.

So says Shinran - so I have come to believe.

So what can we do, in this age of MAPPO - this age of Dharma Decline - this age where nothing we do works well enough to enable us to reach our common goal of Buddhahood?

The Two Buddhas - Shakyamuni and Amida - have told us what to do. They have told us to listen deeply to the Dharma of the True Pure Land Way.

They have told us to come - with open minds, open hearts, and empty hands - and listen.

Who should we listen to? We should listen to the man whose karma it was to become the Dharma Master of this Age of Dharma Decline. We should listen deeply to Shinran’s teaching - listen respectfully - listen without twisting it - denigrating it - re-interpreting it - fixing it - changing it. If only we will do that, Amida Buddha himself will begin speaking directly to you and to me about the TRUTH of the True Teaching - even as he spoke directly to Shinran himself.

Listen deeply once again, and hear Shinran explain about the jewel Amida Buddha chose:

If I am to reveal the True Teaching, it is the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life.

The outline of this sutra is: Amida brought forth the Vow, by which he widely opened the Dharma-store.

Out of compassion for the ordinary, inferior people, he chose from amongst the Dharma-treasures the jewel of merit and freely endows it to them.

It is simplicity itself: Because Dharmakara Bodhisattva (Amida Buddha in his pre-Buddha stage) looked at you and me, and saw clearly our karmic predicament - he chose to give us the Jewel of Karmic MERIT.

He chose to ascribe his own pure and pristine karmic merit to any and all who would entrust themselves completely to Him, even as they continued to live the lives of ordinary, inferior people.

He chose THAT jewel - over all others - because that is the nature of our need in this age - the age of MAPPO.

Now - as I SPEAK this Dharma message - not my message but Shinran’s message - and you READ it - you are hearing it in a shallow way. You are hearing the content - and (hopefully) understanding it as an intellectual assertion being made by Dharma Master Shinran.

Listening shallowly is a good start. But the true praxis - the only thing we can do in this age of Dharma Decline - is to listen deeply. That means taking these words - Shinran’s words and not mine - and really considering them - really pondering them - really doing the kind of soul searching that any man or woman - educated or not - is capable of doing.

  • Can you sense - as you ponder - that you too are in need of this Jewel of Infinite Merit - the Merit of Amida Buddha - in order to come to the end of your suffering at last?
  • Can you sense - as you ponder - that this problem is universal in this age - and that there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to solve it?
  • Can you sense - as you ponder - that apart of Amida’s GIVING you this Jewel of Merit, you are doomed to wander from one samsaric life of suffering to another, and another and another?

Can you see that - to use words we often associate with Jesus and Christianity - that you need to be SAVED?

Put aside your fastidiousness about that word. Lay down your burden of aversion to language you may have heard as a child, and definitely heard as an adult, in the Western World. Just listen deeply to what is being offered to you in this moment.

Ponder your own need - deeply and honestly. Is it any less than Shinran’s?

What is being offered - right here, right now - is the Salvation of Amida Buddha - as declared and fulfilled in his 48 Vows - as encapsulated in the 18th Vow - made and fulfilled for YOU…and of course for me as well.

What is now necessary - for you and for me - is for us to listen deeply, honestly, reverently - so that we become CONVINCED of our infinite need. And once we are convinced, we will hear the two Buddhas urging us to simple entrust ourselves UTTERLY to Amida Buddha - his person and his work.

No more cool, hyper-intellectualism. No more re-interpreting the Dharma to suit our tastes, or the marketing demands of the spiritual supermarket. No more shame about direct and straightforward propagation of the TRUE Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way.

No more.

Just open minds, open hearts, empty hands. Just asking - as those in great karmic need - for the infinite light and life that Amida Buddha dispenses willingly to all - the good and the not so good and the evil alike.

Amida Buddha’s own KARMIC MERIT. The Jewel Amida Buddha chose. That is what we needed - and what we need still - in this, the Age of MAPPO, the Age of Dharma Decline.

In the midst of your sorrow and your anger, your lust and your stupidity, your foolishness and your pride, your egotism and your confusion - Amida Buddha invites you to do one thing: listen deeply. Listen - and he will speak directly to you - and give you the gift of SHINJIN - the same TRUE ENTRUSTING as Shinran, and Honen and Rennyo and Yuien - and countless others before and since.

That gift is given - and received - in one thought-moment. It is not earned, and there are no dharma tricks we can do to make it ours. It is simply GIVEN.

When you have been given that gift, in that very moment Amida’s karmic merit becomes YOUR karmic merit. The implacable rule of karma is over in your life - even as you remain the same person you were the moment before. In that moment, because the death grip of karma is broken in your life, you are sealed for certain birth in your next life in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land. Once there, you will quickly and easily complete your journey to full Buddhahood, with nothing to obstruct you within or without.

And then - at last - you too will be a Buddha. And so will I.

All this - and so much more beyond anything you or I can understand right now - all because of…

The Jewel Amida Buddha Chose.

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