Shan Tao – 5th True Pure Land Master

Master Shan Tao

善 导 大 师

Shan Tao (Final) - artwork

These beautiful verses, from the Gatha of True Faith, were composed by our Venerable Master Shinran with deep reverence and gratitude to Master Shan Tao. They precisely capture the essential teachings carefully expounded by this great Lineage Teacher of the True Pure Land School…

“Shan Tao alone understood the Buddha’s true intent
Pitying meditative and non-meditative practicers and people of grave evil
He revealed that Amida’s Light and Name are the cause and condition of birth
When they enter the wisdom ocean of The Primal Vow.

Followers would certainly receive the diamond-like mind
When the one-thought moment of joy and gratitude arises
Like Vaidehi they would similarly acquire the three insights
And instantly realize the eternal bliss of Dharma Nature.”

Thus, this 5th Lineage Master of Jodo-Shinshu (宗), clearly understood the true intent for Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance in this world. He emphasized that, in this degenerated age when people are overwhelmed by deep-rooted mental and physical defilements, only Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow could save us from samsara – the vicious cycle of birth, suffering and death.

Arising from his unique interpretation of the ‘Meditation Sutra on Infinite Life’  (觀 經) and his deep personal realization, Master Shan Tao clearly proves that, through sincere Faith (信 心 – Shinjin) and the great practice of exclusively Saying the Buddha’s Name (念 佛 – Nembutsu), all ordinary foolish persons would definitely be born in The Land of Peace and Bliss at the end of their mortal lives. This is made possible solely by the inconceivable fulfillment and power of the Primal Vow.


Master Shan Tao (613 – 681), was born in China, Shantung Province, during the Sui Dynasty. He became a monk at a very young age under the tutelage of Ven. Ming Sheng and among the various teachings he received, he was a very serious scholar of the Avatamsaka and Vimilakriti Sutras. At the age of 20, he took up full ordination and monastic precepts from Master Miao Kai. Searching for a practice that would be in accord with his aptitude, he found the ‘Meditation Sutra on Infinite Life’ (經), in his preceptor’s library. Filled with ecstatic joy, he diligently practiced the 16 meditations taught in the Sutra and attained deep one-pointed Samadhi, clearly perceiving Amida’s Pure Land with its glorious adornments, as if they were right in front of his eyes.

Master Shan Tao’s faith in the True Pure Land Path was fully settled when all his doubts were cleared on a visit to Master Tao Cho, a senior accomplished teacher who was very well-known for his marvellous expositions and practices on the True Pure Land Path at that time. Seriously taking the advice of Master Tao Cho, he abandoned the first 13 meditations in the Meditation Sutra and concentrated solely on the practices that were rooted in Amida’s Primal Vow. He stayed on and received many precious instructions from his compassionate teacher, till the day when the elderly Master went forth to the Pure Land at the age of 84.  Master Shan Tao was only 33 years old then.

As his understanding of the Pure Land Path deepened through further studies, rigorous practices and deep personal realization, Master Shan Tao concluded that, with sincere Faith and Saying the Buddha’s Name (念 佛 – Nembutsu), mundane foolish persons filled with blind passions, would definitely be saved by the power of the Great Compassionate Vow of Amida Buddha. He was an extremely fervent practitioner himself, taking refuge and constantly Saying the Buddha’s Name, adoring Amida and praising His infinite virtues, always in profound gratitude, mindful of the Buddha’s Boundless Compassion.

From the clear expositions in his ‘Gate of Contemplation and Saying the Buddha’s Name’  (觀 念 法 門 – Kannen Bomon), ‘Praise for Birth in the Pure Land’ (往 生 禮 讚 – Ojo Raisan) and other wonderful writings, Master Shan Tao earnestly exhorts us to abandon completely, all double-minded, meditative and non-meditative practices. In rejecting such sundry practices, he tells us that not one in a thousand could attain birth in the Pure Land through such unsettled practices. On the other hand, the one mind of sincere Faith, that is expressed by ordinary foolish persons in single-heartedly Saying the Buddha’s Name, however, absolutely assures every aspirant, birth in the Pure Land.

Prior to Master Shan Tao, teachings on Amida’s Pure Land were mostly part of or mixed with the other schools, such as Tiantai, Chan or Vajrayana. These excellent Mahayana teachings strongly demand the extremely strict self disciplines and keeping of moral precepts together with the rigorous practices of concentration and wisdom, from persons of the highest spiritual grade on The Path of Sages. They are totally beyond the miniscule capabilities of ordinary foolish persons (凡 夫 – bombu), in this badly tainted Dharma Ending Age (末 法 時 代 – Mappo), in which every one is deeply inundated by the uncontrollable afflictions of greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, doubt , etc.

Because of his vast and wide dissemination of the Pure Land teachings throughout China, Master Shan Tao had produced the greatest impact on the society then. Those who listened to him and followed the Path of Nembutsu, had numbered in hundreds of thousands, with a huge number of people even abandoning the householder’s life. Emperor Gao Zhong of the Ming Dynasty revered him deeply and bestowed the name Kuang Ming (Wisdom Light) to his temple. Therefore, he was well-known as the Master of Kuang Ming Temple (寺).

Master Shan Tao was a contemporary of the famous monk Xuan Zhang, who had brought back large volumes of Buddhist scriptures from India, after a miraculous journey of more than ten thousand miles through the wilderness. He stayed for long periods of time at Xuan Zhang’s Ci En Temple where Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries written in Sanskrit were translated into Chinese. Master Shan Tao had himself, during his lifetime, hand copied more than 100,000 copies of the Amitabha Sutra and over 300 exquisite paintings of the Pure Land, which were presented to his followers and other Buddhist temples.

Today, almost all the Chinese Pure Land schools have considered Master Shan Tao as one of their Founding Masters. In recent years, a new Pure Land group called ‘The Pure Land School of Shan Tao Tradition’ has made its appearance in some countries. For Jodo Shinshu, he has been deeply revered as their 5th Lineage Teacher.

On the 14th March 681 at the age of 69, Master Shan Tao left his mortal self and returned to the Pure Land. He has left behind a wonderful legacy, passing down to fortunate persons like us, the precious Nembutsu teaching – the sole lamp lighting the Path of Salvation in this Dharma Ending Age of spiritual darkness.


The True Pure Land Dharma specially taught by Master Shan Tao was the sole interest of Master Shinran, as it directly revealed the wonderful working of Amida Buddha’s Universal Vow of Boundless Compassion. The teaching of Master Shan Tao, essential to Jodo Shinshu, is highlighted by Master Shinran – that mundane foolish persons who are overwhelmed by stubborn blind passions and possessed with the lowest spiritual aptitude – should rely entirely on Amida’s Primal Vow for their Salvation. Master Shan Tao, in taking pity on the multitudes of these lowly gifted, hopeless persons, exhorts every one to abandon all meditative and non-meditative practices which are definitely not in accord with their pathetic spiritual capacities.

In his wonderful expositions on the Pure Land teachings, Master Shan Tao recommends that aspirants perform the 5 right practices – reciting Sutras, contemplating Amida and His Pure Land, worshipping Amida, Saying the Buddha’s Name and praising Amida.  Yet, he repeatedly urges hopeless, wretched persons (凡 夫 – bombu), like ourselves, to put all our attention single-mindedly, on the central or main practice of Saying the Buddha’s Name (念 佛 – Nembutsu) which is the Right act of assurance that guarantees our birth in the Pure Land. He asserts that, Saying the Buddha’s Name with faith and deep gratitude to Amida Buddha, is the only path free from obstacles, as it comes directly from Amida Buddha’s Vow-power.

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. Master Shan Tao carefully explains in his marvellous expositions, that the Path of the Pure Land is now, the only appropriate path suitable for the badly defiled, ordinary foolish persons with strong intractable egos, in this Dharma Ending Age. Without any reservation, he compassionately urges us to exclusively follow the Path of Faith and Nembutsu, specially created by Amida Buddha, for spiritual idiots like us.

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 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 firmly 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, pathetic persons 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, deep meditations 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, is 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 will not backslide into samsara ever again and are absolutely assured of advancing to Nirvana, without going through countless billions of lives performing self-power, difficult practices, on the Bodhisattvas’ path.


Twenty six Hymns on Master Shan Tao composed by Master Shinran in profound reverence and gratitude to this 5th Lineage Teacher (based on his writings):

(From: Hymns on the Pure Land Masters – 1997 copyright Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha)

Manifested from the ocean-like great mind
Was Master Shan-tao;
For the sake of beings of this defiled world in the latter age,
He called on the Buddhas of the ten quarters to bear witness to his teaching.

His teaching: his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.

Shan-tao appeared in the world in succeeding ages,
Manifesting himself as Fa-chao and Shao-k’ang,
And by revealing the treasury of virtues,
He fulfilled the Buddhas’ fundamental intent.

Treasury of virtues: He refers to the Name as the “treasury of virtues,” for all roots of good have been gathered in it.

If women did not entrust themselves to Amida’s Name and Vow,
They would never become free of the five obstructions,
Even though they passed through myriads of kalpas;
How, then, would their existence as women be transformed?

Shakyamuni, revealing the “essential” gate
To lead people of meditative and non-meditative practices
And provisionally teaching the right and sundry practices,
Wholly urges us to perform the saying of the Name alone.

Right and sundry practices: the five right practices and the five sundry practices. The five right practices [focusing on Amida Buddha] are: 1) worship, 2) recitation of the sutras, 3) contemplation, 4) saying the Name, and 5) praise and making offerings. When it is said that there are six right practices, praise and making offerings are listed separately.

Performing auxiliary and right practices together is “mixed praxis”;
Since those who endeavour in this way
Have not attained the mind that is single,
They lack the heart that responds in gratitude to the Buddha’s benevolence.

l.1: Practices focused solely on Amida Buddha are called the “right practices”; practices focused on other Buddhas and other good acts are “sundry practices.” The four or the five right practices other than saying the Name are auxiliary practices. Solely and single-heartedly practicing the saying of the Name is “wholehearted single praxis.”

Practicers who pray for worldly benefits,
Although they may perform chiefly the saying of the Buddha’s Name,
Are also termed people of mixed praxis;
In rejecting such practice, it is taught that not one in a thousand attains birth.

Not one in a thousand: Master Hui-kuan’s commentary states not one in ten thousand.

Although their meanings are not the same,
Sundry practices and mixed praxis are alike;
Acts which are not the practice that leads to the Pure Land
Are all termed sundry practices.

Sundry practices and mixed praxis: Sundry practices are all the various practices; mixed praxis refers to performing the auxiliary acts while praying for benefits of this world.

Master Shan-tao, calling the Buddhas to bear witness,
Led us to overturn the two minds of meditative and non-meditative practices;
Presenting the parable of the two rivers of greed and anger,
He ensured the safeguarding of the shinjin of the universal Vow.

Calling the Buddhas to bear witness: Shan-tao addressed the Buddhas of the ten quarters, praying to them to become witnesses to his composition of a commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.
Greed: to desire a woman, to desire a man.
Anger: to be wrathful and enraged.
Safeguarding (shugo): shu means, for example, becoming the ruler of a country and protecting it; go means gathering all together and protecting, though not becoming the country’s ruler.

Even when the time of extinction of the sutras has come,
Foolish beings, by encountering the true teaching of the universal Vow –
The exposition of which was the fundamental intent of the Tathagata’s appearance in the world –
Will think on Amida and attain enlightenment.

Extinction of the sutras: the extinction of the Buddha’s teaching. There will be, for the ten thousand-year period of the last dharma-age, only accommodated teachings, not the real teaching. After the ten thousand years, the teaching of Amida will survive for one hundred years.
True teaching: to take the true and real as the essence. “True” is the opposite of temporary and provisional. The eighty-four thousand dharma-gates are provisional teachings. The Pure Land way alone is the true teaching.

The inconceivable working of the power of the Buddha-dharma
Is such that external hindrances and karmic fetters do not obstruct us;
Hence, the universal, Primal Vow of Amida
Is termed the “decisive cause” of birth.

Decisive cause: it is superior to all the various good acts.

The mind and practice of self-power do not bring one
Into the fulfilled land established through the power of the Vow;
Hence, sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana
All entrust themselves to Amida’s universal Vow.

When we come to know truly that we are possessed of blind passions,
And entrust ourselves to the power of the Primal Vow,
We will, on abandoning completely our defiled existence,
Realize the eternal bliss of dharma-nature.

Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skillful means,
They bring us to awaken the supreme shinjin.

l.1: Shakyamuni is likened to our father, Amida to our mother.
Awaken (hotsu-ki): hotsu means to awaken what has existed from the past; ki means to give rise to something new, for the first time.

Persons who have thoroughly realized the true mind,
Because it is the diamond-like mind,
Are equal to those who accomplish
The three grades of repentance; thus Shan-tao teaches.

Diamond-like mind: true shinjin.
Three grades of repentance: In the high grade, blood flows from the eyes and emerges from the body. In the middle grade, blood flows from the eyes and sweat issues from the body. In the low grade tears flow, and thoughts of repentance penetrate to the marrow.

Only with the diamond-like shinjin
Can we, living in the evil world of the five defilements,
Completely abandon birth-and-death forever
And reach the Pure Land of naturalness.

When the time comes
For shinjin, indestructible as diamond, to become settled,
Amida grasps and protects us with compassionate light,
So that we part forever from birth-and-death.

Indestructible (kengo): ken refers to firmness of mind; go refers to firmness of thought.
Grasps and protects: we are grasped and protected in the mind of the Tathagata of unhindered light.

Concerning those who have not realized true and real shinjin,
Shan-tao teaches that they “lack one mind”;
Know, therefore, that all who lack this mind that is single
Do not yet possess the threefold shinjin.

Threefold shinjin: shinjin of the Primal Vow.

Persons who realize the true entrusting that is [Amida’s] benefiting of others,
Because they are in correspondence with the Vow,
Accord with Shakyamuni’s teaching and the words of the Buddhas;
Thus, there is nothing that obstructs them.

Obstructs: distracts and confuses.

Those who are free of even a moment of doubt,
Having been able to hear the nembutsu of the Pure Land way,
Are praised as “rare and excellent persons,”
And are ascertained to “have realized right-mindedness.”

Free of even a moment of doubt: there is no doubting of the Primal Vow.
Realized right-mindedness: to have shinjin that leads to birth in the Pure Land.

When people are not in correspondence with the Primal Vow,
Various conditions arise to trouble and confuse them.
To lose sight of shinjin in confusion
Is to “lose right-mindedness.”

Since shinjin arises from the Vow,
We attain Buddhahood through the nembutsu by the [Vow’s] spontaneous working.
The spontaneous working is itself the fulfilled land;
Our realization of supreme nirvana is beyond doubt.

The time has come when the five defilements increase;
Those who doubt and revile Amida’s Vow are numerous.
Both monks and lay people despise the nembutsu
And harm any they see engaging in it.

Those who revile and attack the Primal Vow
Are termed “persons completely blind to dharma” or “persons lacking the seed of Buddhahood.”
Passing kalpas numerous as the particles of the great earth,
They long sink in the three evil courses.

Revile and attack: to say that the teaching one follows is superior and that the teaching others follow is inferior.
Persons lacking the seed of Buddhahood: those for whom it is hard to attain Buddhahood; those wholly without trust in the Buddhist teaching.
Particles: fine particles of dust; particles that alight on the tips of rabbit’s fur or sheep’s fleece. There is nothing more slender than such fur or fleece.

Although they have been given the teaching of the path to the West,
They have obstructed themselves and obstructed others from accepting it,
And so for vast kalpas since the distant past,
They have spent their lives meaninglessly and in vain.

Had we not received the power of the universal Vow,
When could we part from this Saha world?
Reflecting deeply on the Buddha’s benevolence,
Let us think on Amida always.

Casting off long kalpas of painful existence in this world of Saha,
We live in expectation of the Pure Land, the uncreated;
This is the power of our teacher, Shakyamuni;
Let us respond always in gratitude for his compassion and benevolence.

Here ends the Hymns on Master Shan-tao


Listening Deeply to the True Pure Land expositions of Master Shinran, highlighting the wonderful explanations on the absolute relevance and significance of the marvellous teaching of Nembutsu with faith, strongly emphasized by Master Shan Tao, may all foolish mundane persons like us, follow only, the True Pure Land Path. May all suffering persons be free of doubt and mindfully 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 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, as we single-heartedly Say the Buddha’s Name in gratitude, we have, without any doubt HEARD:

The Call of Boundless Compassion

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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