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Monthly Dharma Thoughts

The Chosen Vow


Just as Shinran Shonin is revered as the Founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition, Shinran Shonin revered Honen Shonin as his teacher.  The life of Honen Shonin and the life of Shinran Shonin share similarities.  They both left home at a young age to enter the monastic life, and engaged in study and practice on Mount Hiei.  Despite the long years of seeking salvation, however, they could not find a way to save themselves and their hearts were left in turmoil over it.  In Honen's case it was not until the age of forty-three that he discovered the teaching of the Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao (Jpn. Zendo Daishi).  Shan-tao taught that all people, no matter who they were, were sure to be born in the Pure Land through the power of the Tathagata’s Vow, as long as they said the Nembutsu.  When Honen Shonin learned of this teaching, he took refuge in the Way of Nembutsu.  From that time on, his life became one with Namu Amida Butsu, and while reciting the Nembutsu constantly, he went around recommending it to others as well.  According to Honen Shonin, Amida Tathagata sought to save all people equally and without discrimination, out of the desire to bestow the Great Compassion of the Tathagatas on all living beings impartially.  Honen Shonin made a conscious choice to abandon the path of self-power and to choose the path of Other Power.  The path of self-power is the path of difficult ascetic practice that only the saintly could make progress on.  It was not a path that all people could take up.  Instead, Honen Shonin made the conscious choice to take up the path of living practice open to all in the form of the Nembutsu of Other Power.  In a vow, Amida Tathagata says, in essence, ‘Trust in me, that those who say the Nembutsu will surely be saved, with no discrimination made among them as to good or bad, wise or foolish’.  This is the essence of the Eighteenth Vow.  Honen Shonin called this Vow the Senchaku Hongan, or the Chosen Vow.  It is in this Vow that he abandoned his efforts to save himself out of self-power and embraced the path of Other Power, putting his life in the hands of Amida Tathagata.  Honen Shonin taught that those who said the Nembutsu made the wish the Tathagata had placed on us, come true.  It was Honen Shonin who made us realize that other than choosing the Nembutsu that has been imparted to us out of the Tathagata’s Great Compassion, there was no other path to save our ignorant selves.  Honen Shonin thus pays reverence to the Tathagata’s deep compassion that vows to save even ignorant people like ourselves, as long as we say the Nembutsu.  There is in this something remarkable, is there not?