The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Koso Wasan 71

The inconceivable working of the power of Buddha-dharma
Is such that external hindrances and karmic fetters do not obstruct
Hence, the universal, Primal Vow of Amida
Is termed the 'decisive cause' of birth.

Sources of Power

The Sanskrit equivalent of the phrase 'the only condition' (zojoen) is adhipati-pratyaya, which Shinran Shonin explains in Notes on the Sacred Scrolls as 'extraordinary powerful condition'. Although in the path of sages it signifies the twenty-four conditions that engender the 'four pathways of power', Shan-tao delineated one of three methods of approach as a 'strong' condition in saving us and five dominant conditions that are pertinent to the Pure Land way. In the path of sages, the siddhas refer to conditions, like the expenditure of energy in concentration, which bring about certain results. Similarly, in the Pure Land way, Shan-tao sees the power - the use of effort - as emanating from Amida Buddha. As he does in other respects, Shinran draws each of the zojoen together into one single 'dominant' condition which serves to focus our attention on the definitive power of the Primal Vow, rather than weakening both its significance and force by fragmenting it into several facets.

The fact that Shan-tao draws upon the traditional terminology used in relation to the long-term spiritual development (Sk. bhavana) of those who follow the Buddha-dharma to describe the source of the Power of the Primal Vow, reminds us that the Pure Land way is entirely built upon the thinking and practice of the Buddhism. It has always seemed plainly evident to me that those of us who seek to develop a working understanding of the dharma will serve this end best if we give the closest attention possible to the dharma itself as our main tool of exegesis. It does not matter greatly which particular school or tradition we focus upon in this endeavour, since - as is often pointed out - no matter how it is expressed, the dharma always has the same flavour. Wherever we turn for insight as followers of the Pure Land way, we will find useful and revealing material wherever we look.

We already know that the Pure Land way emerged into written form in consonance with the prajnaparamita, the wisdom school. This is evident in the Pratyupanna Samadhi Sutra, a most venerable Pure Land text. As time passed, however, exponents of the Pure Land way to be found in the Mahdyamika, Vijnaptimatrata and every other school within the Buddha Sasana. Indeed, the separation of the Pure Land school into a distinct stream is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been first established, as such, by Honen Shonin himself.

So it is that every aspect of the Pure Land way is steeped in the Buddha-dharma. This is something to which we can give tacit assent, while nevertheless, losing sight of its significance. This verse always pulls us back into line in relation to this question because we can often lapse into strange and unsuitable ideas when it comes to questions of 'power' (Sk bala) within the context of the dharma. This may appear at first sight to be a needless concern but in the matter of our spiritual well-being, it seems to me to be very important.

When people hear the term 'Other Power' or the word 'power' used in the Buddhist conext - especially the Pure Land Buddhist context - many are tempted to draw analogies with religious or other traditions which advocate an entity or person who has power that is the defining principle of that reality. That is to say, the entity is all-powerful and it would not be what it is unless it had this power. In the dharma, on the other hand, power is more a matter of persuasion or attraction, than an driving dynamism.

Amida Buddha's power is not the reason for his existence. His power was developed in the same way that all followers of the way developed their power; and only for a specific purpose. In the context of the verse above - and Shan-tao's analyses in his commentaries - this power is the power to embrace all beings and to engage them in such a way as to work a transformation upon their deepest consciousness, which will result in their becoming fully awake - enlightened. The tool which he devised - and imparts to us to this end - is the Name.

The power of Amida Buddha is not the kind of power that involves the arbitrary control of events in the world; Amida's power of persuasion or attraction has no impact or effect unless it is with our co-operation - unless we accept it. If we reject the influence of the power of the Primal Vow we leave ourselves under the weight of the power generated by our previous deliberate actions (Sk. karma).

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