本 师 昙 鸾
These beautiful verses from the Gatha of True Faith, were composed by Venerable Master Shinran in deep reverence to Master Tan Luan. They precisely capture the core essential teachings on The True Pure Land Way, carefully expounded by this highly revered, truly accomplished, 3rd Jodo-Shinshu lineage teacher…
“Facing toward the dwelling of our Teacher Tan Luan
The emperor of Liang paid tribute to him as a Bodhisattva
When he received the Pure Land teachings from tripitaka Master Bodhiruci
Tan Luan burnt his Taoist scriptures and took refuge in The Land Of Bliss.
Bodhisattva Vasubandhu explains in his treatise
That the fruition of the Fulfilled Land is itself manifestation of The Vow.
Going to the Pure Land and returning are merit transference of Other Power
And the cause of true settlement is solely due to Shinjin.
When a deluded and defiled, mundane foolish person awakens Shinjin
That person realizes, knowing that birth and death is Nirvana
Without fail, that person will reach the Land of Immeasurable Light
And then, universally guides all sentient beings to enlightenment.”
Thus, this great lineage Master of Jodo-Shinshu (净 土 真 宗), clearly emphasized Amida Buddha’s Original Vows which cause the fruition of the Fulfilled Land of Peace and Bliss. In his Commentary on Bodhisattva Vasubandhu’s wonderful ‘Treatise on the Pure Land’ (淨 土 論 註 – Jodo Ronchu), Master Tan Luan elaborately tells us, about the wondrous manifestations of Other-power, that constantly seeks to save all suffering beings from samsara – the vicious cycle of birth and death, pain and suffering.
Master Tan Luan’s marvellous clarification – that a person who awakens Shinjin, would realize that birth and death is Nirvana – is indeed inconceivable to foolish persons like us. Yet, with the true settlement of Entrusting faith (信 心 – Shinjin) that comes from Other-power, we know, without any doubt, that we are assured of our birth in Amida’s Pure Land, which is a Fulfilled, sublime realm of non-differentiation between Nirvana and samsara. This perhaps, would give us an intellectual glimpse of the Ultimate Truth that is completely beyond the scope of our conceptual understanding.
Master Tan Luan (476 – 542), was born in Shanxi, China, near Mount Wutai where many famous Buddhist monasteries were located. At the age of 15, he became a monk and being an extremely ardent scholar and practitioner, he soon became well-versed in various Buddhist scriptures as well as non-Buddhist philosophies. He also established himself as a widely renowned scholar of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna’s four major Mahayana treatises, including the popular Madyamika and the Prajnaparamita.
Midway through his life he fell very ill and that led him to deeply realise the extreme fragility and impermanence of life. In order to improve his physical health and to lengthen his life, so that he could preach the Buddha Dharma extensively for a longer period, he decided to study the Taoist art to longevity. After 3 years of serious study under the most famous Taoist master at that time, he was presented with 10 volumes of scriptures on the secrets to immortality, as he set out again, eagerly looking forward to preach the Buddha Dharma. On his way to the city of Luoyang, he met a monk from India named Bodhiruci who gave a True Pure Land scripture and explained to him that, actually, the Pure Land way is the only path that can assure him of eternal life. Listening deeply to Bodhiruci, a kind and knowledgeable teacher, Master Tan Luan was instantly converted, awakened to the Dharma of Salvation through Amida’s fulfilled Vows. Thereupon, he burnt all his Taoist scriptures on immortality, discarding them forever.
With his single-minded expositions on the Inconceivable Dharma of Amida Buddha, Master Tan Luan became so well respected and revered that, the emperor of Wei dynasty would address him as ‘Divine Luan’ and offered him the Ta-Yen temple. The emperor of Liang of the Southern dynasty, also treated Master Tan Luan as a Bodhisattva and would bow in the direction of where the revered master lived. Fervently dispensing the Pure Land Dharma, far and wide, without respite till the last moment of his life, he resolved to lead many more mundane foolish persons to aspire for the Land of Happiness. He wanted every one (including pathetic persons like us), to take this truly effective Path of Salvation that is fully in accord with their nature and aptitude.
Master Tan Luan passed away at Ping yao-shan temple at the age of 67. It is reported in most accounts today that he actually returned to the Pure Land amidst wondrous and auspicious manifestations witnessed by those followers present. He had left with us, excellent writings on the True Pure Land Way, particularly his ‘Gatha of Praise to Amida Buddha (赞 阿 彌 陀 佛 偈)’ and ‘Commentary on Birth in The Pure Land (往 生 論 註 – Ojo Ronchu)’. Because of Master Tan Luan’s attainments and wonderful legacy of spreading the Pure Land teachings, almost all the Chinese Pure Land Schools have considered him to be their founder.
Based on the studies of various monks and scholars, it was said that the Pure Land teaching given to Master Tan Luan by Bodhiruci, was none other than, Bodhisattva Vasubandhu’s ‘Treatise on Birth in the Pure Land’. Listening deeply to that wonderful Treatise, he carefully wrote a ‘Commentary’ on it, that complimented with his deep understanding of the Sutras and Bodhisattva Nagarjuna’s Chapter on ‘Easy Practice’ (易 行 品). His consistent clarifications on the Other-power teaching based strictly on Amida’s Primal Vow, have also made him a highly revered teacher and an excellent authority on the Jodo-Shinshu lineage.
The True Pure Land Dharma specially taught by Master Tan Luan was the sole interest of Master Shinran, as it directly revealed the wonderful working of Amida Buddha’s Universal Vow of Boundless Compassion, made to effectively save ordinary foolish persons, like him (and us too) from the treacherous “ocean of samsara”. In his wonderful Commentary on the Treatise on Birth in the Pure Land (往 生 論 註 – Ojo Ronchu), Master Tan Luan clearly tells us that, the moment when we are able take refuge without any doubt in Amida Buddha and His Primal Vow, our births in the Land of Bliss are instantly assured. Our attainment of Nirvana is therefore, effectively made possible solely by the merit-transference from the Other-power – the power of the Primal Vow.
Thus, the moment when we are able to entrust ourselves single-heartedly in the Primal Vow, Amida Buddha’s infinite merits and virtues are transferred to us for our going forth to the Pure Land at the end of our lives and for our subsequent return to this world (in seen or unseen manifestations), possessed with transcendental powers to help others.
Master Tan Luan carefully explained that this “Path of cross-wise transcendence” is the only appropriate path now available for badly defiled, ordinary foolish persons, constantly distracted and overwhelmed by greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance and doubt. Thus without any reservation, he compassionately urged us to choose this wonderful, Other-power path of Shinjin in Amida’s Primal Vow and be in complete correspondence with the true intent of this marvellous Vow.
The Primal Vow, is Amida Buddha’s absolute promise to save all miserable persons like ourselves who are incapable to perform any spiritual practice. Thus, abandoning all self-powered practices, and single-heartedly relying on this Vow of Great Compassion, is now, the only option available to us, if getting out of samsara at the end of this life, is indeed our goal. Persons with entrusting faith (Shinjin – 信 心) in the Primal Vow, are truly settled in their minds and hearts, knowing that their attainments of Buddhahood are guaranteed, while they are still living out this precious life in mortal flesh.
Entrusting Faith (Shinjin – 信 心) on our part – the persons to be saved – is the faith-mind consciousness that fully accept the Primal Vow without any doubt. It comes about with the awareness that we are evil beings who have been transmigrating from the beginningless past with absolutely no possibility of escape from this vicious cycle of relentless pain and suffering. Thus, we accept Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that embraces us and that its Vow power absolutely guarantees our births in the Pure Land. We would then, Say the Buddha’s Name – (南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu) – in deep gratitude, for the rest of our fleeting lives and thus remembering, the inconceivable Compassion of the Buddha, for having saved, even spiritual idiots like us.
Stage of the Truely Settled (正 定 聚), also called the Stage of Non-retrogression (住 不 退 轉) – is a term originally used in the traditional Mahayana teachings to describe the stage of spiritual development in the Bodhisattvas’ paths to enlightenment, when these Bodhisattvas will never backslide in their attainments. Their arduous practices of vast merit gathering, flawless good deeds and extremely difficult disciplines on the Path of Sages, through countless billions of lives, have brought them up to the eighth stage (Sanskrit: bhumi) on a ten bhumi spiritual climb, before realizing Buddhahood. These Bodhisattvas on the 8th bhumi and above have attained the Stage of Non-retrogression – they belong to the Group of persons absolutely assured of advancing to Nirvana.
This Stage of Non-retrogression, which Master Tan Luan clearly explained, is also the same stage instantly received by us – foolish sentient beings with the lowest spiritual capacity – the very moment, here and now, when our Shinjin is truly settled. As we are now relying single-heartedly and fully on Amida Buddha’s Vow -power, we too are absolutely assured of advancing to Nirvana, without going through countless billions of lives performing self-power, difficult practices, on the Bodhisattvas’ path.
Thirty-four Hymns on Master Tan Luan – composed by Master Shinran in profound reverence and gratitude to this great Jodo Shinshu teacher (based on his writings):
(From: Hymns on the Pure Land Masters – 1997 copyright Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha)
Our teacher, Master T’an-luan,
Through the guidance of Bodhiruci,
Burned his scriptures on immortality, discarding them forever,
And deeply took refuge in the Pure Land.
Putting aside his lectures on the four treatises,
He taught Other Power, the working of the Primal Vow;
Guiding foolish beings bound by their blind passions,
He led them to enter the gate to nirvana.
The lord of the mundane world came to inquire
Why he aspired for the Pure Land:
“All Buddha realms throughout the ten quarters are pure;
Why do you turn to the land in the west?”
Lord: the ruler of the country.
Master T’an-luan answered: “Since my wisdom is shallow
And I have not yet attained the higher stages of bodhisattvahood,
I am incapable, with my powers of mindfulness,
Of thinking equally on all lands.”
Not attained the higher stages: not reached the stage of non-retrogression.
Incapable of thinking equally: his power of thought does not extend to the other pure lands.
Neither monks nor laity
Had any place to turn for refuge;
Master T’an-luan alone resolved
To lead them to aspire for the land of happiness.
At the behest of the Emperor of Wei,
He lived at Ta-yen temple in Ping-chou.
Later, near the end of his life,
He moved to Fen-chou.
Ta-yen [Great Cliff] temple: a temple that T’an-luan had built.
Fen-chou: the name of a country where the nembutsu came to flourish.
The Emperor of Wei venerated him,
Giving him the title, “Holy Luan”;
The place where he lived came to be known
As eminent Luan’s Cliff.
Emperor: the rulers of kingdoms are given the title “emperor” (“son of heaven”).
Exerting all his energy to spread
The act for birth in the Pure Land,
He lived at Hsuan-chung temple,
And in 542, moved to Yao-shan temple.
Hsuan-chung temple: a temple that T’an-luan had constructed. Tao-ch’o was a disciple of T’an-luan [of later times] and succeeded to residence at this temple.
542: the original gives the Chinese dating, “Hsing-ho 4 of the Wei dynasty” [Translator’s note].
On reaching the age of sixty-seven, his time come,
He attained birth in the Pure Land;
There were wondrous, auspicious occurrences,
And monks and laity all venerated and took refuge in him.
Wondrous, auspicious occurrences: such as indicate a Buddha’s appearance.
Took refuge: followed his words, relied on and revered him.
The emperor, wholeheartedly revering him,
Commanded that a tomb be built immediately
At the splendid site of Chin-ling,
In the Fen-chou district of Fen-his province.
Though we had the words of Bodhisattva Vasubandhu,
If Master T’an-luan had not clarified them,
How could we come to know the mind and practice
Of vast, majestic virtues, which are Other Power?
Knowing truly that the Primal Vow –
The perfect One Vehicle that brings about sudden attainment –
Grasps those who commit grave offenses and transgressions,
We are quickly brought to realize that blind passions and enlightenment are not two in substance.
Perfect One Vehicle that brings about sudden attainment: Embracing all the eighty thousand sacred teachings, without lacking any in the slightest, is referred to as “perfect” and as “sudden attainment.”
Blind passions and enlightenment are not two in substance: blind passions and enlightenment become one body and are not two.
Of the five inconceivabilities taught in the sutras,
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma is supreme;
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma
Refers to Amida’s universal Vow.
Amida has fulfilled the directing of virtue,
Which has two aspects: that for our going forth and that for our return.
Through these aspects of the Buddha’s directing of virtue,
We are brought to realize both mind and practice.
Our going forth and our return: The aspect for our going forth is the directing of virtue that seeks to bring us to birth in the Pure Land. The aspect for our return refers to Amida’s directing of virtue so that after going to the Pure Land we are enabled to perform the activity of Samantabhadra and benefit sentient beings.
The directing of virtue for our going forth is such that
When Amida’s active means toward us reaches fulfillment;
We realize the shinjin and practice of the compassionate Vow;
Then birth-and-death is itself nirvana.
The directing of virtue for our return to this world is such that
We attain the resultant state of benefiting and guiding others;
Immediately re-entering the world of beings,
We engage in the compassionate activity that is the virtue of Samantabhadra.
Beings: all the sentient beings throughout the ten quarters.
Samantabhadra: [the bodhisattva manifesting] the Buddha’s compassion in its complete fullness.
Vasubandhu speaks, in his Treatise, of “the mind that is single”;
Master T’an-luan, in his commentary, explains that
This is shinjin – itself Other Power –
That we who are possessed of blind passions attain.
The unhindered light filling the ten quarters
Shines on the beings in the darkness of ignorance
And unfailingly brings to attainment of nirvana
The person who realizes the one thought-moment of joy.
Through the benefit of the unhindered light,
We realize Shinjin of vast, majestic virtues,
And the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts,
Immediately becoming water of enlightenment.
Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.
Obstructions: karmic evil and blind passions. If the amount of karmic evil is great, the amount of virtue is great.
The ocean of the inconceivable Name does not hold unchanged
The corpses of the five grave offenses and slander of the dharma;
The myriad rivers of evil acts, on entering it,
Become one in taste with the ocean water of virtues.
Rivers of blind passions, on entering the ocean –
The great, compassionate Vow
Of unhindered light filling the ten quarters –
Become one in taste with that sea of wisdom.
Being born in the Buddha-land of happiness
Is the path to ultimate attainment of Buddhahood;
All the Buddhas acclaim the Pure Land,
For birth there is the unsurpassed means.
Path (doro): do means “broad path,” ro means “narrow path.”
T’an-luan teaches that the Buddhas adorn their three modes of action,
So that they are characterized by ultimate non-discrimination;
This is to heal the bodily, verbal, and mental acts of beings,
Which are false and delusional.
Non-discrimination: there is no differentiation of anything.
False (literally, “empty”) and delusional: vain and insane; karmic evil and blind passions.
Heal: to help or save. This is a homonym to the word meaning “to do away with.”
T’an-luan teaches that we reach the Buddha-land of happiness
Solely with the Name – the unsurpassed gem –
And true Shinjin,
For those born there follow no other way.
Unsurpassed gem: the wish-fulfilling jewel. If this jewel is placed in muddy water, not only will the water become clear, but there will be no discoloration. If crystal is put in muddy water, there will be discoloration. Thus, the myriad practices and good acts are likened to crystal, the Name to the jewel.
Although initially there are nine grades of beings,
Because the birth attained through Amida’s pure Primal Vow
Is birth that is no-birth,
The Pure Land is free of such discrimination.
Birth that is no-birth: birth that is apart from birth in the six courses. Persons of true and real shinjin are not born in the six courses or four forms of birth; hence, “no-birth.”
Nine grades of beings: Although originally there are nine grades of sentient beings, once they have been born in the fulfilled land, not a single one is differentiated.
The Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light
And the light that is the embodiment of wisdom
Dispel the darkness of the long night of ignorance
And fulfill the aspirations of sentient beings.
Master T’an-luan explains
That failing to practice in accord with reality
Means first, that shinjin is not genuine in that person,
For it appears to exist at times, and not to exist at others.
Failing to practice in accord with reality: not in accord with the teaching.
Appears to exist…and not to exist: at times one is convinced that one will attain birth and at other times one feels that one will not.
Second, shinjin is not single,
For it lacks decisiveness;
And third, shinjin is not enduring,
For it is disrupted by other thoughts.
Disrupted by other thoughts: because of the mixture there is no shinjin.
The practicer should remember that these three aspects of [untrue] shinjin
Are established with one leading to another:
Because one’s shinjin is not genuine,
It is not shinjin that is decisive.
Because it is not shinjin that is decisive,
Mindfulness does not endure;
Because mindfulness does not endure,
One does not realize shinjin that is decisive.
Because one does not realize shinjin that is decisive,
It is not genuine; thus T’an-luan teaches.
Whether practice is fully in accord with reality
Is determined solely by shinjin.
Practice in accord with reality: to entrust oneself to Amida in accord with the teaching.
Having turned from the little road
Of a myriad practices and good acts
And entered the great path of the Primal Vow, which is true reality,
We will quickly attain the enlightenment of nirvana.
King Hsiao, the Emperor of Liang,
Always faced in the direction
Of our teacher and paid homage to him,
Calling him Bodhisattva Luan.
Here ends the Hymns on Master T’an-luan
Listening Deeply to the True Pure Land expositions of Master Shinran and the wonderful explanations on Amida’s Vow-power, strongly emphasized by Master Tan Luan, may all foolish mundane persons like us, take heed of the benevolent advice of these truly accomplished teachers. Let us seize this extremely rare opportunity and make full use of this precious human birth before it quickly comes to the inevitable end.
Thus, abandoning all self-power meditative and non-meditative practices and entrusting our karmic destiny entirely to Amida Buddha and The Primal Vow, we have, without any doubt HEARD:
The Buddha’s infinite merits and virtues
Are bestowed equally on all beings.
May all accept Amida’s Gift of Shinjin
And obtain birth in His Land of Peace and Bliss.
南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu
南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu
南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu
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