On Amida Buddha’s Original Prayer – Report on the 151st London Eza.

The 151st London Eza was held on Sunday 28th February 2021. As this was still right in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic it was held online instead of at Three Wheels as it would have been normally. Due to Zoom however, many people were still able to attend, including some who would not have been able to otherwise due to living too far away. There were even guests from America and Hong Kong able to join the meeting.
Although most people could not be there in person, it was easy to see how beautiful the Buddha Shrine looked, and everyone could easily join in with the enthusiastic chanting of the Three Wheels residents during the service. As it was the 28th of the month, Shinran Shonin’s Memorial Day, we could think of him, and all that he has done for us, with gratitude.

After the service we were introduced to Reverend Kemmyo Sato, Head Priest of Three Wheels, who gave a talk entitled “On Amida Buddha’s Original Prayer “.

This was an extremely interesting and educational talk on one of the most important aspects of Shin Buddhism, which is briefly summarised below.

The main subject of the talk was on how to translate Amida Buddha’s “purva-pranidhana”, customarily translated as the “Original Vow” or the “Primal Vow”. A large part of the talk was on whether to use the term “Original Prayer “ or “Original Vow”, and how D.T. Suzuki and even Shinran Shonin had used the term “Original Prayer “ in later life.

Even when much younger though, D.T. Suzuki had written “Let me remark here, however, that “Vow” is not a very appropriate term to express the meaning of the Sanskrit word pranidhana. Pranidhana is a strong wish, aspiration, prayer, or an inflexible determination to carry out one’s will even through an infinite series of rebirths.”
Reverend Sato then went on to say that at the early stage of the translation of Buddhist texts into English, purva-pranidhana used to be translated as “Original Prayer”. He said that from the Buddhist point of view, however, use of the word “Prayer “ could easily lead to the Sanskrit term being misunderstood, because prayer can imply crying for help to a religious entity such as God, gods, Buddha or Bodhisattvas. Calling for help to someone outside or “up there “ is not the authentic Buddhist way. The attitude of only seeking for something outside and never turning inwards on oneself will never bring about any true solution.

Although the above use of the term prayer can be seen as negative, Reverend Sato then went on to quote D.T. Suzuki’s positive use of the word. “The very fact of klesa’s actuality makes us long for a something beyond ourselves, which is however really in us. This longing is the work of Primary Body, which fact is given us in the form of myth, in the story of Bodhisattva Dharmakara. This longing is the prayer. The prayer is directed to nobody outside. The prayer is the desire to come home, to get back to himself”.

Next he went on to say that Shinran Shonin himself also used the word prayer in a positive sense, also in later life and quoted Shinran Shonin’s  “please pray for the present life and the next life of those who slander the Nenbutsu” and “if you simply pray for the people in society who are in error and desire to lead them into Amida’s prayer, it will be a response out of gratitude for all that the Buddha has done for us”.

He then spoke of how his own Master, Venerable Chimyo Takehara, had also recently talked about Amida’s prayer, explaining that Amida’s Original Vow was his inner prayer, similar to pure parental love, both based on the awakening or feeling of oneness or unity of all.

Reverend Sato concluded his talk by saying that he thought the reason why D.T. Suzuki, Shinran Shonin, and his Master had started using the word prayer instead of vow was a perfectly natural result of them living their lives dedicated to others, in which they repeatedly experienced freedom from selfish attachments by entrusting themselves to the great working of the Dharmakaya.

Throughout the talk, you could really feel Reverend Sato’s kindness and compassion in trying to make everyone understand Amida’s Original Prayer more clearly.

After the talk had finished, many participants gave their thanks and impressions. Among other things some said that their understanding had improved greatly and another said how inspiring the talk had been. Several questions were also asked concerning the talk, which Reverend Sato clearly and skilfully answered, which was helpful to not only the questioners, but to everyone else as well.

Many of the comments of thanks made it obvious to see that many guests were just really happy to be able to join the meeting and to be able to connect with the Sangha. Being able to join online made it possible for those who might not in normal times be able to get to Three Wheels, to really join in and contribute. There really did seem to be a warm and friendly atmosphere, even if most were physically not there. Hopefully though the pandemic will soon become much better and we can start visiting Three Wheels again in person.

Chris Dodd