Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’

In the title, Essentials of Faith Alone, alone means “this one thing only,” expressing a rejection of two things standing together. It also means “by itself.”

Faith is the heart and mind without doubt; it is shinjin, which is true and real. It is the heart and mind free of that which is empty and transitory. “Empty” means vain; “transitory” means provisional. “Empty” means not real, not sincere; “transitory” means not true. To be free of self-power, having entrusted oneself to the Other Power of the Primal Vow – this is faith alone.

Essentials indicates the selecting and gathering together of significant passages from the scriptures. Thus the title, Essentials of Faith Alone.

Faith alone also means that nothing is placed equal with this shinjin of Other Power, for it is the working of the universal Primal Vow.

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The Sacred Name of the Tathagata is exceedingly distinct and clear;
Throughout the worlds in the ten quarters it prevails.
Solely those who say the Name all attain birth;
Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta come of themselves to welcome them.

The sacred Name of the Tathagata is exceedingly distinct and clear

The Tathagata is the Tathagata of unhindered light. The sacred Name is Namu-amida-butsu.

Sacred means holy, excellent.

Name (go) indicates the name of a Buddha after the attainment of Buddhahood; another term (myo) indicates the name before this attainment. The sacred Name of the Tathagata surpasses measure, description, and conceptual understanding; it is the Name of the Vow embodying great love and great compassion, which brings all sentient beings into the supreme nirvana. The Name of this Buddha surpasses the names of all the other Tathagatas, for it is based on the Vow to save all beings.

Exceedingly distinct and clear

Exceedingly here means utterly, unsurpassed.

Distinct implies “to distinguish”; here it means to distinguish each sentient being.

Clear means evident. It is evident that Amida, distinguishing every sentient being in the ten quarters, guides each to salvation; thus the Buddha’s compassionate concern for us is unsurpassed.

Throughout the world in the ten quarters it prevails

Throughout means universally, extensively, boundlessly.

Prevails means that the Name spreads universally throughout the worlds in the ten quarters, countless as minute particles, and guides all to the practice of the Buddha’s teaching. This means that, since there is no one – whether among the wise of the Mahayana or the Hinayana, or the ignorant, good or evil – who can attain supreme nirvana through his or her own self-cultivated wisdom, we are encouraged to enter the ocean of the wisdom-Vow of the Buddha of unhindered light, for the Buddha’s form is the light of wisdom. This form comprehends the wisdom of all the Buddhas. It should be understood that light is none other than wisdom.

Solely those who say the Name all attain birth

Solely those who means that only those who say the Name single-heartedly attain birth in the Pure Land of bliss; this is the meaning of “Those who say the Name all attain birth.”

Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta come of themselves to welcome them

Namu-amida-butsu is the Name embodying wisdom; hence, when persons accept and entrust themselves to this Name of the Buddha of inconceivable wisdom-light, holding it in mindfulness, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta accompany them constantly, as shadows do things. The Buddha of unhindered light appears as Avalokitesvara, and becomes manifest as Mahasthamaprapta. A sutra states that Avalokitesvara, with the name Bodhisattva Treasure-response, reveals himself as the god of the sun and dispels the pitch darkness of ignorance in all beings; and Mahasthamaprapta, with the name Bodhisattva Treasure-happiness, reveals himself as the god of the moon and illuminates the long night of birth-and-death. Together they bring forth wisdom in all beings.

Come of themselves to welcome: of themselves (ji) means “in person.” Amida and a vast and numberless saintly host, consisting of innumerable manifestation-bodies of Buddhas, of Avalokitesvara, and of Mahasthamaprapta, appear in person to be alongside and always protect those who have realized true and real shinjin, at all times and in all places; hence the word “themselves.”

Ji also means of itself. “Of itself” is a synonym for jinen, which means to be made to become so. “To be made to become so” means that without the practicer’s calculating in any way whatsoever, all that practicer’s past, present, and future evil karma is transformed into the highest good, just as all waters, upon entering the great ocean, immediately become ocean water. We are made to acquire the Tathagata’s virtues through entrusting ourselves to the Vow-power; hence the expression, “made to become so.” Since there is no contriving in any way to gain such virtues, it is called jinen. Those persons who have attained true and real shinjin are taken into and protected by this Vow that grasps never to abandon; therefore, they realize the diamondlike mind without any calculation on their own part, and thus dwell in the stage of the truly settled. Because of this, constant mindfulness of the Primal Vow arises in them naturally (by jinen). Even with the arising of this shinjin, it is written that supreme shinjin is made to awaken in us through the compassionate guidance of Sakyamuni, the kind father, and Amida, the mother of loving care. Know that this is the benefit of the working ofjinen.

Come to welcome: come means to cause to come to the Pure Land; it is a word which expresses the actualizing of Amida’s Vow, “If any should not be born in my land, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.” It indicates that a person is made to reject the defiled world and come to the true and real fulfilled land. In short, the word indicates the working of Other Power.

Come also means to return. To return is to attain the supreme nirvana without fail because one has already entered the ocean of the Vow; this is called “returning to the city of dharma-nature.” The city of dharma-nature is none other than the enlightenment of Tathagata, called dharma-body, unfolded naturally. When person become enlightened, we say they “return to the city of dharma-nature.” It is also called realizing true reality or suchness, realizing the uncreated or dharma-body, attaining emancipation, realizing the eternal bliss of dharma-nature, and attaining the supreme enlightenment. When persons attain this enlightenment, with great love and great compassion immediately reaching their fullness in them, they return to the ocean of birth-and-death to save all sentient beings; this is known as attaining the virtue of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. To attain this benefit is come; that is, “to return to the city of dharma-nature.”

To welcome means that Amida receives us, awaits us. Hearing the inconceivable selected Primal Vow and the holy Name of supreme wisdom without a single doubt is called true and real shinjin; it is also called the diamondlike mind. When sentient beings realize this shinjin, they attain the equal of perfect enlightenment and will ultimately attain the supreme enlightenment, being of the same stage as Maitreya, the future Buddha. That is, they become established in the stage of the truly settled. Hence shinjin is like a diamond, never breaking, or degenerating, or becoming fragmented; thus, we speak of “diamondlike shinjin.” This is the meaning of to welcome.

The Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life states:

All sentient beings aspire to be born in that land; they then attain birth and dwell in the stage of nonretrogression.

Aspire to be born in that land is a command: All beings should aspire to be born in that land!

They then attain birth means that when a person realizes shinjin, he or she is born immediately. “To be born immediately” is to dwell in the stage of nonretrogression. To dwell in the stage of nonretrogression is to become established in the stage of the truly settled. This is also called the attainment of the equal of perfect enlightenment. Such is the meaning of they then attain birth.

Then means immediately; “immediately” means without any passage of time and without any passage of days.

That the Name spreads universally throughout the worlds in the ten quarters is due to the fulfillment of the Vow embodying the ocean of the One-Vehicle wisdom, the Seventeenth Vow of Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s Forty-eight great Vows, which states, “My Name shall be praised and pronounced by the countless Buddhas in the ten quarters.” This is evident from the description of the Buddhas’ witness and protection in the Smaller Sutra. The Buddhas’ intention in their witness and protection is also expressed in the Larger Sutra. Thus, this Vow of compassion already shows that the Primal Vow, which encourages the saying of the Name, is the true cause of birth selected by Amida.

I have not gone into the significance of this passage as fully as I would like, but using these notes, please explore it carefully. It is the exposition of a master named Fa-chao, “the second Shan-tao.” Tz’u-chio called him Master Fa-tao (Dharma Way), and in a biography he is called the Amida of Mount Lu-shan. He is also called Master Ching-yeh (Pure Karma). He was the reincarnation of the T’ang dynasty master Shan-tao of Kuang-ming temple, and hence is known as “the second Shan-tao.”