In the temple of Eikandō in Kyoto, Japan there is a famous state of Amida Buddha looking back over his shoulder:
The stories regarding this statue vary somewhat, but the stories generally follow the same pattern. A 11th century monk at the temple named Eikan (永観), sometimes called Yōkan,* was paying homage to Amida Buddha one day. In Buddhist traditions, this was typically done by circumambulating around a statue of Amida. I am not sure where this tradition comes from as it’s not specified in the Pure Land sutras, however the act of circumambulating the Buddha (as in Shakyamuni the founder) was done frequently in the Pali Canon and Agama sutras by monks and lay followers when they first greeted the Buddha, so it’s an ancient custom from India as well as the rest of the Buddhist world.
In any case, as Eikan was doing this, the statue he was circling suddenly started walking past him. The statue then looked over its shoulder and said, “Yōkan! Follow me.”
Other versions say “Yōkan, you are slow [to follow].” In any case, the statue remained in that position of looking over its shoulder ever since.
Regardless of whether the story is fictional, a vision, a dream or something real, the meaning is the same: Amida, like all Buddhas, leads all beings to Enlightenment and simply asks us to follow. No being is excluded or left behind; all are encouraged to follow. This is evident in one of the main Pure Land texts, the Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra, where the Buddha talks about the various grades of people who are reborn in the Pure Land.** The highest grade are those who live a devout and clean Buddhist life, and the lowest grade are those who “commit such evils as the five gravest offenses, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality.” Even the worst beings, if they take refuge in Amida Buddha and recite his name (namu amida butsu) as little as 10 times, will be reborn in the Pure Land and will ultimately reach Enlightenment.
The idea for this post came last night when my wife (hi honey!) and I were talking about Buddhism. We don’t have these conversations too often, but every time my wife explains Buddhism from her perspective, she always says something simple but profound, whereas I tend to have long-winded scholarly explanations.*** From her perspective she summarized Jodo Shinshu (and for that matter all Pure Land Buddhism) as being aware that Amida Buddha leads us to Enlightenment, so we give thanks by saying the nembutsu: namu amida butsu. This just means “Hail Amida Buddha!” by the way.
Her explanation, which I poorly summarize here was quite sensible.
P.S. Picture was provided courtesy of Eikando Temple. Thank you!
P.P.S. More on the subject of No Buddhists Left Behind. :)
* – The Kanji can read either way, but Yōkan seems to be pronunciation used in those days.
** – The Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life also speaks of three grades in a more general sense, but the gist is the same.
*** – This also reflects our respective personalities: she’s down-to-earth and no-nonsense, while I tend to think too much. ;)