We have heard
The Pure Land
Is far, far away,
Yet striving earnestly
We reach our destination
-By Kuya Shonin (903-972)
（Translated by Jonathan Watts & Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu)
極楽は はるけきほどと 聞きしかど つとめていたる 所なりけり
――空也上人 『千載和歌集』 （巻第十八）
It is said this short poem was written by Kuya Shonin(903-972) who was one of the first Japanese priests to spread Nenbutsu amongst people during the Heian Period.
Kuya Shonin has been known as the founder of Odori Nenbutsu which is to recite Nenbutsu while dancing with musical rhysm but there is no proof that Kuya did odori Nenbutsu. However he seemed to travel many places in Japan and left many legends and folklores such as building roads, digging wells for the welfare of the people. Therefore with respect, he is called “Ichino-Hijiri (The Saint or Holy Man in the market)” or “Amida Hijiri (The Saint of Amida).
According to Amida Sutra, the Pure Land exists in the far west, as many as ten trillion Buddha-lands away. From the viewpoint of common sense, it’s impossible to get to the far western Pure Land. However, Kuya Shonin wrote this short verse to tell us the ways to reach there. I may be wrong but I think this verse has double meanings.
My first understanding of this verse is like a saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. By practicing diligently or constant efforts of practicing will lead us to the Pure Land. This is the understanding based on the word “Tsutome te” as “by diligent practice” or “by “O-tsutome.” This encourages us to continue to practice hard because if we keep working for the goal, we could get closer to the goal no matter how far the goal may be.
On the other hand, another understanding of the “Tsutome te” is “to be immediately” or “to work quickly” based on the meaning of “Tsuto” as early or quickly.
According to Jodo Shu, this verse is understood as importance of Tariki or other power. We understand Jiriki or self power is very difficult to continue. However as soon as we establish faith in the essential vow of Amida buddha, Amida Buddha comes to us quickly so that we can attain birth in the Pure Land which seemed too far away from us.
This verse was left at the Seiganji Temple in Kyoto, which is now known as the Head Temple of the Seizan Fukakusa Branch of Jodo Shu. This temple was originally Hossou-shu or Yuishiki-shu which is East Asian Yogacara School but the head priest of this temple who listed to the teaching of Honen Shonin became a disciple of Honen and converted this temple to Jodo Shu.