THE ONE ESSENTIAL: Summary of Faith & Practice Commentary Part 10

Text: The primary practice requires only one essential

Honen Shonin, the founder of the Pureland Schools of Buddhism in Japan stressed senchaku. Senchaku means selection. By this he meant that one should make a decisive selection of the nembutsu as primary religious practice. Honen saw that there were many ways to practise Buddhism and all of them are true paths, but he taught that in the circumstances of his and our times most people are incapable of practising them. How many people keep the precepts perfectly? How many people have mastered all the samadhis? How many people have a achieved all the Lam Rim realisations? How many people have achieved even the first bodhisattva bhumi, let alone the higher ones? How many people do you know who can enter the eighth dhyana? and so on. This consideration, therefore, also has relevance to our own day. Increasingly people practise Buddhism with no expectation of enlightenment. they do it for better health, less neurosis, more calm, effectiveness at work and so on, but they no longer have any real expectation of true religious salvation. Increasingly people are losing the whole idea of what that means. The state of radiance that comes through faith is gradually disappearing from our materialist world. The light is going out. Honen still lived in that light and he wanted to transmit it to others. He was remarkably successful in doing so and part of the secret was to identify the one essential that would work for ordinary people.

Nan & Ig
In the logic of Honen’s approach it all comes down to two basic options, nangyudo and igyudo. Nangyudo means difficult path and igyudo means easy path. The difficult path is the way of attainment of enlightenment by ones own effort in keeping precepts, attaining samadhi and mastering prajna. That is a good way for sages, but most of us are not sages.

Igyudo is tariki. Tariki means reliance upon other power. This is the Pure Land Gate. Other power refers to the help one can receive from the innumerable Buddhas. In the Lotus Sutra, for instance, we learn about myriads of Buddhas. Each Buddha has a Dharma, hence myriad Dharmas. These myriad Dharmas already exist. We do not have to reinvent the Dharma Wheel.

Refuge: First, Last & Always
The way to practise in the Pureland approach, therefore, is to revere and have gratitude for the power that is already in the world by turning our heart and mind toward the myriad Buddhas. This is what, in Mahayana Buddhism, is meant by taking refuge. This turning is the essential.

We should remember that refuge was the first thing taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. When, immediately after his own enlightenment, he was on the road and met two merchants who had faith in him, he gave them refuge in Buddha and Dharma. They thus became the first two Buddhists. When he was dying, his last instruction was to let Dharma be your light, in other words, again take refuge. Not only was refuge his first and last teaching, every teaching in between can be seen as an expansion of refuge. One enters on the eightfold path by taking refuge. One practises non-self by taking refuge. One avoids being trapped in the fire of greed, hate and delusion with which the whole world is aflame by taking refuge. Or, to put the same thing in the idiom of the Lotus Sutra, one escapes from the burning house, by taking refuge. Refuge is the core of Buddhism, in its early and later forms.

Zo & Sho
There are many ways to express refuge. Honen divides these into zogyo and shogyo - miscellaneous practices and right practice. Again, all the practices are good, but some are better. Among the right practices he selects nembutsu as pre-eminent. If you make this choice then you are a Pureland Buddhist. If you make a different selection, then you may still be on a good path, but you have a different Buddhist style. If you choose zazen then you are a Soto Buddhist. If you choose reciting the name of the Lotus Sutra you are a Nichiren Buddhist, if you choose Chenresig Sadhana then you are probably a Kargyu Buddhist and so on.  

Why was selection important? Because Buddhism in Japan had become too complicated and inaccessible. Honen’s message struck a chord. In his own lifetime many people turned to nembutsu and by a generation later the practice was all over Japan. It was a mushrooming fashion, a bit like mindfulness is these days, only more so. However, it was not just a passing fashion. It is still the most popular form of practice in Japan to this day.

Why did Honen choose nembutsu as the best form of refuge? Because of all the myriad Buddhas, Amida is the Buddha of all acceptance. Amida demands nothing of us beyond our act of turning toward him. Therefore, in Pureland Buddhism one has an invitation to face one’s own bombu nature more fully. Virtually all other forms of Buddhism place an onus on the person to self-improve in some way. Thus can easily arise affectation. When I asked Gisho Saiko why he chose Pureland Buddhism he said because it accepts human nature just as one is and so is more realistic.

Does it matter if one finds that one relates more easily to another form of samghogakaya - say Quan Yin or Mahasthamaprapta or Manjushri? Not really. The nature of samghogakaya is that the Buddha will appear in whatever form is appropriate to the person. The essential is to get away from thinking “What should i be doing?” and “What should I be becoming?” If we make a decisive selection then the matter is done with. We do not need to go on thinking “What kind of meditation is best for me?” or “Which Buddha should I worship today?” or “How can I get rid of my latest neurosis?” Just do the practice and see what happens. If Quan Shi Yin visits you, fine. If Amida grabs you, fine. If Manjushri instructs you, fine. No problem.

So what is the core of taking refuge? Taking refuge at the simplest means “bring to mind”, however, what is likely to happen is that a heart to heart feeling starts to develop. Refuge is a heart level meeting. It goes beyond the abstract or conceptual. When one feels the Buddha(s) close at hand one receives a deep assurance. This is called anshin - settled faith or heart at peace. So refuge is something that can be readily taken on by the simple act of selection and bringing to mind, but it is then an ever deepening phenomenon in one’s life. Honen advocates saying the nembutsu continually - a kind of unceasing prayer. It is not that there is a point to get to - the simplest level of refuge suffices - but in practice, refuge does tend to go deeper and deeper with ever increasing solace and energising.

What about other practices? When one has made a decisive choice for one practice - in this case nembutsu - then other wholesome practices become auxilliary to it. They become what Honen calls irui-no-jogo. Jogo means auxilliary practices. Irui-no-jogo are all the practices that correspond to and support nembutsu. If one’s selection is firm and deep then irui-no-jogo eventually includes the whole of Buddhism - though one might not reach that point until one is in the Pure Land itself and sitting at the foot of Buddha. . What has changed is one’s attitude. Everything is now nembutsu. If one sits in silent contemplation it is a way of being with Amida. If one makes prostrations it is a way of honouring Amida. If one recites sutras it is to express the Dharma of Amida, if one sings a Christian hymn it is to the glory of Amida. To worship one Buddha is to worship all Buddhas, so, although Amida is most accessible, all are included. When one goes to the Pure Land of Amida, as it says in the Smaller Pureland Sutra, one’s main occupation will be gathering celestial flowers and offering them to all the other Buddhas, so none is excluded.

Narrowing Down in Order to Open Out
Thus in arriving at the one essential there is first a narrowing down and then an expanding out. we narrow down to a decisive selection - senchaku - then from this refuge we go forth into the whole universe and depth of the Dharmas of all the Buddhas. This, therefore is a heart to heart connection that deepens faith yet provides a ground for inclusivity and universal love. It is in this way that Pureland is actually a very generic form of spirituality. The principle of taking one essential point as refuge which then facilitates an openning out into universal love and compassion is the essence of not just one true religion, but all of them.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thankyou for this.

I think it was the Summary of Faith and Practice that always spoke to me most resonantly within the liturgies, and it's always good to come back to it. I will look for the previous sections of your commentary here, and work through them.

The language of 'simply making a choice and then not having to worry about it' strikes a deep chord in me. At the same time, i notice that its...a work in progress, anyway.

But what I also notice is that whatever I do now, whatever practice or devotion I pick up, is nembutsu. I've prayed the rosary each day for the past year, and this above is precisely what I mean by it. Not because I choose that to be so, just because it is so.

Like many I suppose, I carry habitual self-contradictions that seem to have a strong momentum. But this teaching changed my orientation when I enountered it three or four years ago, and 'going back' on that would only be possible if one stopped feeling that it was the truth of the matter. Interesting that we don't - perhaps? - get to choose what we believe, really. We find things to be so, and may call that belief. But we didn't make it, and perhaps didn't even choose it. 

Three years and one day since you gave me the five-fold refuge, and this much in mind.

With thanks,



You will find parts 6-9 here - just scroll down. 1-5 are missing because we were not recording them at that point. My intention is to carry on to the end and then start again so that there should be a complete set one day - if i live that long :-)

Hope we see you out here sometime Mat. Lots of love - D

Wonderful. Live long and prosper. (Really.) A small book would be a fine housing for these... Hope your recovery is proceeding well? NAMOAMIDABU

I'm working on several series at the moment any or all of which could be worked up into small books eventually. Thanks. Let's keep in touch over it. Thank you for all your help with the last one. Namo amida Bu !!

Cross posts. Yes, that would be good. ME keeps us all in Falmouth on the whole, but you never know. Thankyou.

It was a delight helping with that. Repeating's a standing offer, allowing for intermittent deadlines this end. (Eg, from 1st July onwards good.) NamoAmidaBu

David Brazier said:

I'm working on several series at the moment any or all of which could be worked up into small books eventually. Thanks. Let's keep in touch over it. Thank you for all your help with the last one. Namo amida Bu !!


Mat Osmond said:

It was a delight helping with that. Repeating's a standing offer, allowing for intermittent deadlines this end. (Eg, from 1st July onwards good.) NamoAmidaBu



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