This question popped into my mind as I was re-reading the “Senjaku hongan nembutsu shu” by Shinran Shonin’s teacher, Honen (1133-1212).
Its title in English is “Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow,” and it is an explanation of the “Exclusive Nembutsu” that Honen was propounding. Honen also looked up to someone as teacher and master, but that person was from more than 500 years earlier: Shan-tao (613-681, pronounced Shandao).
In addition to declaring that he relies solely on Shan-tao as his master, near the end of the “Senjakushu,” Honen calls Shan-tao’s “Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra” a “Guide to the Western Direction” or, in Japanese, “saiho shinan.”
There is actually an ancient Chinese device called a “shi-nan” (in the Japanese pronunciation) that helped determine direction. It was a kind of compass that would attach to a chariot and point south — the character “shi” means “to point” and “nan” is one of the readings for the character for “south.”
So if you knew which direction you wanted to go, you could orient yourself to the “shinan,” much like we might use a compass now, though in modern times our compasses use north as the main direction to orient against.
But the “saiho shinan” is used to go west! This is because Amida Buddha’s Pure Land is traditionally said to be in the west, in such texts as the “Three Pure Land Sutras.” And of course, it’s not a literal compass — in the case of the “Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra” it is a text by Shan-tao explaining in detail the “Sutra of Contemplation of (the Buddha of) Immeasurable Life.”
Shinran uses the expression too, as the title of his collection of texts — including Dharma talks, biographies, diaries — related to Honen Shonin, called the “Saiho shinan sho,” or what one might call the “Guidebook to the Western Direction.”
I am very fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the sunsets here can be breathtaking. So I have a beautiful view of the western direction. But that isn’t really what is important here. Instead, it is a more metaphorical matter of facing towards the Buddha, of aiming towards enlightenment, of embarking on “the path.”
If you have read some of my previous articles for the “Wheel of Dharma,” then you have probably heard me talk about the Middle Path.
This is the Middle Way between extremes, exemplified by Siddhartha Gotama’s rejection of the pleasure of his life as a prince and the difficult ascetic practices he performed while questing for awakening.
The reason I like it is because I have found it to be applicable to many things in my life. Unlike dogma, which sets down ironclad rules that we aren’t allowed to question and which may not apply to various situations, the Middle Way is flexible and allows me to see things in a different, hopefully helpful way.
But ultimately, I am aiming towards the Pure Land in the west. I may be able to utilize Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path, the Six Paramitas, etc. to help me work through the difficulties that life can sometimes bring. But I just don’t have the willpower or the ability to perfect those practices.
Fortunately, in Jodo Shinshu, we do not have to successfully undertake them in order to live our lives as Buddhists, though, of course, they can help make sense of things that otherwise might prevent us from reaching our full potential.
The Middle Way may help me identify extremes in my life, and may affect the decisions that I make or the actions that I take, or even the words that I say. But can I really successfully walk the Middle Way consistently, in every moment of every day? Can I really have Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, let alone Right Mindfulness or Right Meditation? I don’t even meditate so I’m sure not getting that one right!
Fortunately, Jodo Shinshu offers another path. This is the path of Entrusting in Amida Buddha, of reciting the Nembutsu, of hearing the Name, of living my life.
It would be great if I could whip out whichever of the manifold teachings and practices Shakyamuni Buddha taught during his 50-year teaching career. But if I have to rely on just one thing, it is Amida Buddha, and I recite Namo Amida Butsu. Whichever way my life is going, Namo Amida Butsu helps bring me back around. No matter how often Samsara and the Three Poisons keep me enthralled and distracted, it is simply Namo Amida Butsu that can shake me loose.
So back to my initial question: Where you headed? Life can take us in so many directions. Some of them we may choose, others are chosen for us. But remember that Namo Amida Butsu, whether we understand it as the Nembutsu we recite or the Name that calls us, keeps us from wandering aimlessly, and gives us direction in life.