Group of the Truly Settled

  SHO-JO-JU

正 定 聚

Stage of Non-Retrogression2

The stage realized by persons of truly settled Shinjin – the entrusting mind that puts complete reliance only in the Other-Power of Amida Buddha and His Primal Vow – is repeatedly emphasized by Master Shinran. As this Shinjin is the core essential teaching in Jodo Shinshu, he compares it with the difficult attainments achieved by practicers on the Theravada and Mahayana paths – those who will definitely not backslide in their practice and will only advance forward to Nirvana. These are persons who are assured of breaking free from the firm clutches of samsara. Let us listen deeply…

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In his Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, Master Shinran writes:

“Thus, when one attains the true and real Practice and Shinjin, one greatly rejoices in one’s heart. This stage is called the stage of Joy. It is likened to the First Fruit – a sage of the First Fruit; though he may give himself to sleep and to sloth, will still never be subject to samsaric existence for a twenty-ninth time.”

“Even more decisively will the ocean of beings of the ten quarters be grasped and never abandoned when they have taken refuge in this Practice and Shinjin.
..Therefore, He is called ‘Amida Buddha.’
..This is Other Power.
..Accordingly, the Mahasattva Nagarjuna states [that such person] ‘immediately enters the Stage of the Definitely Settled.’
..Master T’an-luan states [that he] ‘enters the Group of the Truly Settled.’
We should reverently entrust ourselves to this [Practice and Shinjin]; we should single-heartedly receive it.”

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Sage of the First Fruit (初 果, Pali: Sotapanna), in the Theravada Buddhist tradition on the Path of Sages, is the first stage of sainthood also called ‘Stream Enterer’. This stage is attained by practicers who, through difficult self-power, keep strict moral precepts, and by practicing painstaking Insight meditations, gain insight into the true nature of themselves and of the aggregates.

Stream Enterers have entered the stream leading to enlightenment and will definitely advance forward; never backsliding below the human realm, toward the stage of Arahats – the 4th and final stage of sainthood in the Theravada path. On reaching the Arahat sainthood stage through extremely rigorous meditational practices, they are thereby freed from this vicious cycle of samsara. However, a Sotapanna may still be subjected to another twenty nine existences – seven in the human realm, seven in deva realms and fifteen in the intermediate states between births – before they become Arahats.

The path just to reach the stage of Sotapanna have taken superior disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha countless lives of extremely hard self-power practices to achieve. We are now over 2500 years from the Buddha’s direct energetic field; ordinary foolish persons like ourselves are now living in this evil age with extreme distractions and heavy defilements which have persistently dragged us down, as we try to climb up the slippery slope, on the mountain of enlightenment.

If getting out of samsara is indeed our goal in this precious lifetime, we should be realistic enough to admit that it is really an impossible task for us, even to achieve just a steady advancement on the Buddhist path by engaging in these difficult practices; let alone talk about attaining the First Fruit.

When we honestly take stock of our own inferior spiritual capacities, we will know that we are definitely to going waste this rare opportunity for emancipation, by struggling in vain with this difficult self-power Theravada Path of Sages.

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’ path to enlightenment, when these Bodhisattvas will never backslide in their attainments. Their arduous practices of vast merit gathering, good deeds and flawless difficult disciplines on the Path of Sages, through 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.

However, because of their individual vows, some Bodhisattvas, out of compassion, choose to remain in the dualistic realms of this vicious cycle of samsara, for the sake teaching and delivering the innumerable beings who are in pain and suffering.

The Bodhisattvas’ heroic, self-power practice of compassion, through billions of lives, just to arrive at the Stage of Non-retrogression, is extremely difficult and simply impossible to be emulated by ordinary foolish beings like ourselves, trapped in this Dharma Ending Age. Every one of us is now carrying an enormous baggage of evil karma – greed, hatred, ignorance, jealousy and pride, on top of the agnostic weight of scientific knowledge that simply brush aside the truth of transcendental existences.

If we sincerely wish to be freed from samsara at the end of this precious human life, let us be realistic enough to admit that we simply do not possess the nature, environment and spiritual capacity for the Bodhisattva’s formidable task, to scale the hazardous mountain of enlightenment, without backsliding. Take the easy path to enlightenment by entrusting our karmic destiny entirely to Amida Buddha and the Primal Vow. Simply rule ourselves out from the Bodhisattvas’ extremely difficult Mahayana Path of Sages.

Group of the Truly Settled (正 定 聚, Japanese: Sho-Jo-Ju),- which Mahasattva Nagarjuna called ‘Stage of the Definitely Settled’ – is the stage realized by that group of persons whose birth in the fulfilled Pure Land of Amida is absolutely assured. Having single-heartedly entrusted themselves to Amida Buddha and The Primal Vow, they have taken the easy and direct route out of samsara – the end of suffering – and will become Buddhas in the Pure Land at the end of this life.

Receiving the Inconceivable Gift of True and Real Shinjin from Amida Buddha, their aspiration to be permanently freed from this painful cycle of birth and death, is instantly fulfilled and truly settled – here and now, while they are still living out this dreadful existence.

In a letter clarifying this Truly Settled stage to a Jodo Shinshu follower, Master Shinran carefully explained:

“You should understand that the moment of settling of those who entrust themselves to Tathagata’s Vow is none other than the settling into the stage of non-retrogression, because they receive the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned. Whether we speak of the settling of true Shinjin or the settling of the diamond-like Shinjin, both come about through being grasped, never to be abandoned. Thus is awakened the heart and mind that will attain the supreme enlightenment. This is called the stage of non-retrogression, the stage of the truly settled, and the stage equal to the perfect enlightenment.

The Buddhas in the ten quarters rejoice in the settling of this mind and praise it as being equal to the hearts and minds of all Buddhas. Thus, the person of true Shinjin is said to be equal to Buddhas. He is also regarded as being the same as Maitreya, who is in [the rank of] succession to Buddhahood.”

Further, he states in another wonderful exposition:

“Through the karmic power of the great Vow, the person who has realized true and real Shinjin (entrusting in Amida Buddha) naturally is in accord with the cause of birth in the Pure Land and is drawn by the Buddha’s karmic power; hence the going is easy, and ascending to and attaining the supreme great Nirvana is without limit.”

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The Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life states:

“All sentient beings, as they hear The Name, realise even one thought-moment of Shinjin and joy, which is directed to them from Amida’s Sincere Mind, and aspiring to be born in that Land, they then attain birth and instantly dwell in the stage of non-retrogression.”

It further states:

“The power of the Buddha’s Primal Vow is such
That those who hear the Name and aspire for birth
All reach that Land –
Their attainment of non-retrogression coming of itself.”

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Mundane foolish persons (凡 夫, bombu) – like ourselves, even though we are heavily burdened with blind passions and stubborn ignorance – will eventually (with the ripening of good karma from the past), come to realize our utter inability to get out of samsara, by depending on our pathetic spiritual capacities. Our unyielding arrogance and deeply embedded Hindrance of Doubt have also caused us to be spiritually blind, with false perceptions, often enhanced by intellectual and scholarly knowledge so easily available today.

However, through the repeated practice of Listening Deeply to the Buddha Dharma in general, and Jodo Shinshu in particular, we will, sooner or later, wake up and face the honest truth that – no matter how hard or for how long we try with meditational or non-meditational practices – our useless self-power struggle to get out of samsara, will surely be in vain.

Thus, we should, with Sincere mind, entrust ourselves and aspire to be born in the Pure Land, by relying single-heartedly and entirely, on the Vow-power of Amida Buddha and naturally enter the Group of the Truly Settled whose birth in the Land of Peace and Bliss is guaranteed in the present.

Instantly embraced and not forsaken
By the Light of Great Compassion
We enter the Group of the Truly Settled
With our baggage of blind passions.

With the benefit of being possessed of supreme virtues
Our karmic evil is transformed into good
We are protected and cared for by all the Buddhas
Here and now, assured of Buddhahood.

Receiving the benefits of having much joy in our hearts
And being praised by all the Buddhas,
We gratefully respond to Amida’s virtues and benevolence
By Saying the Name of Boundless Compassion.

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Saying the Name (Namo Amida Butsu   南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛) that embodies the Primal Vow, is the act of true settlement for those whose birth in the Pure Land is absolutely assured. It is our spontaneous expression of gratitude; taking refuge in Amida Buddha and the Primal Vow. Saying the Name, is the great Practice bestowed by Amida Buddha and fully endowed with His infinite virtues which are equally transferred to us for our going forth to the Pure Land.

Joining the Group of the Truly Settled, we single-heartedly and spontaneously Say the Name for the rest of this fleeting life. Here and now, we know that we have receive Amida’s Inconceivable Gift of Salvation and that this defiled Saha world of perpetual suffering has finally lost its firm grip on us and we will become Buddhas at the end of this life.

Thus, clearly and truly, we now ‘Hear’:

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.

Namo Amida Butsu   南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛
Namo Amida Butsu   南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛
Namo Amida Butsu   南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛

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