However, assuming what Mr. Unno has to say generally reflects the beliefs and practices of folks at this site, then what he has to say about “Primal Vow” seems to have an almost uncanny resonance with what Presbyterians know as “covenant theology. So this is divided into two parts accordingly:
 “PRIMAL VOW”
 “PRIMAL VOW”
“Primal Vow," as I understand it, is the 18th of 48 vows made by Dharmakara to a Buddha at the beginning of Dharmakara’s journey toward enlightenment. In that vow he basically said that if sentient being failed to enter Nirvana, he himself would not enter either.
Mr. Unno regards the story – and the sutra in which it is found – as “mytho-poetic,” meaning it is telling us a profound truth about ultimate reality -- the "realest of the real," if I may put it so; but, in order to do that, it must use the non-literal and often inflated language of myth and poetry. (See the recent posting here on myth and story – a wonderful exploration of this very theme.)
So there “never was” a Dharmakaya Buddha, and this conversation “never happened,” and this vow literally was “never made” – and yet the story is perfectly true in what it tells us about ultimate reality. It tells us relative existence is structured such that at its core there is a kind of ruggedly determined Compassion that unceasingly reaches out to all sentient beings, a Compassion that will bring every sentient being to enlightenment. It seems to me that’s a statement about ontology – about the deep structure of Being, the Ground of Being (a la Paul Tillich and others) – put in story form, because that’s really the only way we can understand it (i.e. in story form) on the relative level of existence. But it is a timeless, an eternal truth simply because that’s the way things are: at the heart of the cosmos, this one and any others there may be in whatever dimensions there may be, the ultimate reality is Compassion. And It – Compassion – has grasped every entity, every sentient being, and will not let them go until each and all have been brought to the complete restoration of finite being into Ultimate Being. (There are far more of my words here than those of Mr. Unno!)
Because of that Primal and absolutely unshakeable Vow, Pureland itself stands at the other “end” of the journey of the cosmos and each and every sentient being within it. In fact, Pureland stands as the Ground of Being – intersecting every “thought moment” of time (which is what Mr. Unno calls the basic units of time in the relative world) with real Time. And in fact Mr. Unno calls this “bracketing” of our immediate reality by “Primal Vow” at one “end” and Pureland at the other “end” the “alpha and omega” of every sentient being. It’s hard to tell whether he is making a conscious allusion there to the Christ as the “alpha and omega” of all creation in the Christian tradition (c.f. the Book of Revelation 1:17f); but the “resonance” is unmistakable. For the Christian, the cosmos itself -- and every sentient being within it -- is “bracketed” by the Christ, the “alpha and omega” – the A and the Z, the beginning and the end, the “first and the last.” (See for example Colossians 1:15-17, a key New Testament text in this regard.)
However, there is another "step" here: and that's the notion that the “alpha” – the beginning – in Pureland, according to Mr. Unno, is a Vow. The under girding the relative reality of all things -- the Ground of Being -- is not only Compassion, but it’s a compassionate Promise. Everything in its movement through space and time, is – if you will – propelled by a Promise, and, equally, lured by the Pureland (or “Promised Land”).
[II] COVENANT THEOLOGY
[II] COVENANT THEOLOGY
Reformed (Presbyterian) theology often is called “covenant theology.” That's because John Calvin – whose writings and activities initiated the “Reformed wing” of the Protestant Reformation – put so much stress on the biblical fact of God’s covenant, God’s initiative in making a Promise, as being that which under girds all of the biblical narrative, and hence all of creation itself. (See for example the conclusion of the “Noah and the Flood” story which involves a covenant with all of creation [Genesis 8:20 – 9:17]). Typical Reformed theology sees covenant everywhere in the Hebrew Bible (= Old Testament): beginning with a very simple covenant with Adam and Eve, and moving on to later covenants with Noah, with Abram and Sarai, King David, and so on. In Reformed theology two points are stressed: everything that happens between God and humankind, happens at God’s initiative; and all of these happenings begin in God’s sovereign promise and move toward God’s promised future. In strict Reformed theology (“hyper Calvinism”) the “elect” are those who have been grasped by God and will never be let go – a phrase quoted several times by Mr. Unno in reference to the work of Shinrin in the Pureland tradition. “Once saved, always saved” is how my Southern Baptist son’s church puts it. “The perseverance of the saints” is how ol’ Johnny Calvin said pretty much the same thing. Either way, it all means this: God’s Covenant initiative cannot and will not be stymied; God’s Promise will not be broken; God’s future is certain.
A critical question here – within Reformed theology at any rate – is whether only a few are saved (“the elect”). Calvin would have said, “Only a few, only the elect, although no human being should ever presume to know who those are, let alone how many there will be.” However, there is a broader, and frankly gentler and more humane, form of Reformed theology – represented, for example, by the immensely influential 20th century theologian Karl Barth – which maintains that the initial covenant promise, seen first in the mytho-poetic story of Adam and Eve, is with all humankind (indeed, with all creation itself – c.f. Colossians 1:15ff). The Incarnation of the Godhead in the fully human Jesus of Nazareth is the sign that God has elected humanity (and not just a few “saints” a la John Calvin) – indeed has elected all of creation. To use Mr. Unno’s words, God has grasped – and will never let go – of all sentient beings.
And when did this election happen? According to Ephesians 1:4-5, God made that choice before creating. In other words: the universe as we know it, and all sentient beings within it, are irrevocably under girded by God’s “Primal Vow.” The Ground of the cosmos is God’s aboriginal covenant. The “Fall” of humankind into our self-imposed exile – c.f. Genesis 2-3 – only delays what was and still is certain: that humankind will fulfill its election. Christians, especially Eastern Orthodox (which is the oldest stratum of Christianity), understand that “election” to mean theosis or divinization: an eternal pilgrimage of creation into fuller and fuller transformation, an unendingly fuller participation in the nature of God (without ever becoming God; c.f. 2 Peter 1:4 for the pivotal text in the Orthodox tradition in this regard).
And that “Primal Vow” propels creation from the Void (over which it still hovers, and which you and I encounter and experience as sunyata, emptiness, as fundamental no-self) to the “Promised Land” (symbolized in the Wilderness Wandering of Israel, c.f. the Books of Exodus through Deuteronomy). Primal vow is the Primordial Reality, the alpha, the beginning; Promised Land is the goal, the telos, the Omega.
I am still scratching my head, but unless I missed something huge here, I find this an astonishing opening between the two traditions – Christianity and Pureland – through which an enormous amount of spiritual energy can flow back and forth.Thank you for listening J Corrections, as always, are most welcome J