illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
It is said that Amida Buddha, when he was a monk named Dharmakara, made forty-eight vows, of which the eighteenth has particular significance for the development of Amida pietism.
In that vow, he made the wish that all beings (in the ten directions) with sincere faith, seeking to be born in his land, and calling upon his name ten times, shall be born in his land… "except those who have committed the five grave offences or injured the true Dharma."
The "five grave offences" were initially defined as killing one’s father; or one’s mother; or an arhat; creating disharmony in the Saṃgha; or causing blood to flow from the body of a Buddha.
The Mahāyāna traditions rather enumerate destroying temples or stupas, burning sūtras or buddha-images; disparaging śrāvakas (Theravādins), pratyekabuddhas, or the Mahāyāna teaching; obstructing the practice of a priest, murdering him; committing one of the five grave offences earlier defined; or committing unrighteous acts without fearing retribution from them.
Shinran, the founder of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism (focused on Amida's Pure Land, cf. gplus.wallez.name/GV9CwowZUdm), made his famous statement: « If even a good man can be born in the Realm of Purification, much more so an evil man », which might seem potentially contradictory with the above vow of Dharmakara.
Some have even 'blamed' Shinran for transforming Chinese Pure Land Buddhism with its threefold focus on faith, morality and meditation into a purely faith-based practice in Japan.
But selflessness is a key point of Buddhism, including Pure Land Buddhism (gplus.wallez.name/KAjUWUfyyrL). Emptiness of the threefold "subject, object and deed" is another key point… Shinran quite understood Mahāyāna subtleties… And the cult of Amida Buddha is very much a Mahāyāna tradition.
The Buddha would not exactly have excused violence but after Angulimala came across a young woman undergoing a difficult labor, the Buddha told Angulimala (an ex serial-killer!) to go to the woman and say: « Sister, since I was born I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be wellbeing for you, wellbeing for your foetus » (MN 86, www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html).
« except those who have committed the five grave offences or injured the true Dharma » is likely to be an admonition, an encouragement by Dharmakara so that people motivated to join his Pure Land would at least 'start' the ethical path (without postponing). It shouldn't be taken literally but as a pedagogical means, just like the encouragement of Angulimala by the Buddha isn't an approval of his previous deeds. I suspect this is how Shinran understood it.
In a perspective of impermanence, « except those who have committed the five grave offences or injured the true Dharma » is 'empty' of essence: we all committed grave offences over past eons…
This condition can only mean that, when Pure Land is our here&now, then we're not committing offences or injuring the Dharma!
But because karma refers to tendencies (and we're not free from karma yet, not even contaminated karma, when reaching the Pure Land), in order not to commit offences in Pure Land, we need to cultivate restraint before reaching the said Pure Land… hence the admonition by pretending there's a barrier: it's to motivate people to start cultivation as soon as possible. It's a pedagogical trick.
But the difficulty with such a trick is that the apparent barrier could discourage those with the greatest need of reforming themselves, if they thought that former acts from this life, already done, already past and unchangeable, would 'condemn' them forever. So Shinran did not just see through this pedagogical means, he took responsibility for changing its expression and for supporting those in dire need, thus manifesting great compassion.
The point of all these teachings is the same: there's much work to do, so get moving! Don't let any excuse get in the way!
Photo: "Buddha" by © 洪孟思 (missingno413.deviantart.com)