Recently, I dusted off an old book from my shelf titled Traversing the Pure Land Path which was published by the Jodo Shu Research Institute (JSRI) which recently moved here. I had a number of their publications at the time, and they were helpful English-language resources for folks of that persuasion. A lot of them appear to be out of print, sadly.
Anyhow, the book has a translation of a famous reply to the Shogun, Yoritsune, by a Buddhist monk named Shōkū (証空, 1177-1247). Shoku was the founder of the “Seizan” branch of Jodo Shu Buddhism, and had been a disciple of Honen. Anyhow, Shoku’s letter to Yoritsune talks about the Three Karmic Bonds (san’en 三縁) that are established through one’s relationship with Amida Buddha:
The first is an “intimate karmic” (shin’en 親縁) bond, which Shoku explains:
…Amida takes us into his embrace no matter how dull or ignorant we may be….This is the reason that when we call, he hears; when we pray, he sees; and when we meditate, he knows, and unfailingly leads us to ojo [rebirth in the Pure Land].page 119
Next is a “close karmic” (gon’en 近縁) bond. Here, Shoku explains in the letter:
…if we long to see him, he actually appears at our side in a dream or at life’s last hour.page 119
Finally, the last bond is that of “superior karma” (zōjō’en 増上縁) which Shoku explains at length:
Since this means for us total exemption from the pains that our karma would bring us through countless ages, we will surely fear unethical behavior. Even more, we will give it up and never allow ourselves carelessly to fall into it….Pulled forward by Amida’s mighty power, we find an ever deepening joy in the contemplation of the good we have done….page 120
The idea of karmic bonds is a common theme within the greater Mahayana Buddhist tradition, not just Pure Land Buddhism, and can apply to buddhas, bodhisattvas, even other people. It also applies to reciting the nembutsu itself toward others around you. But Shoku’s in-depth explanation on the ways in which one’s karmic bonds deepen through practice of the nembutsu, is fascinating, especially in that he argues that no one is only escaping the endless cycle of birth and death, but the sheer magnetism of Amida Buddha also inspires one to do good in this life here and now.
P.S. It’s been kind of fun to re-read old books I haven’t touched in years. A chance to revisit things I learned, but with a few more years of experience behind me. 😄