Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 100

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
Brahma and Indra venerate us;
All the benevolent gods of the heavens
Protect us constantly, day and night.

Gods and the Dharma

When we discuss the gods of Buddhist cosmology, we are not engaging in comparative religion. Although the gods may resemble the gods of Hinduism, the two systems are completely different. The gods of Buddhism have converted to the dharma, and become the dharma's guardians and protectors. Not all Buddhist gods are of Indian origin. Vajrapani, Shakyamuni's protector, was originally the Greek god Herakles (Hercules).

The most crucial point in relation to this matter is the fact that the Buddha Dharma does not accept the existence of a creator-deity. The gods, like everything else in the universe, arise from actions (karma). The Abhidharmakosa Bhashyam makes this crystal clear:

Who created the variety of living beings and the receptacle world which we have described in the preceding chapter?

It was not a god who intelligently created it.

The variety of the world arises from action.

The variety of the world arises from the actions of living beings. 1


Several sutras allude to the idea that all gods (Sk.: deva), dragons, maras and other living entities, which are neither human nor animal, protect people of the nembutsu. Brahman here refers to the greatest of many 'higher' gods (brahmas) who reside in the first dhyana-heaven of the world of form (Sk.: rupa dhatu). Even so, he is still beset with samsaric limitations. Like all gods, in spite of being the most exalted, his life is long and he is happy, but he is also unfortunate because he is not fully aware of his karmic bondage.

After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni was disinclined to go forth and teach the dharma. He is described as reflecting upon the fact that there is much about the dharma that is abstract and difficult for ordinary people to understand. Our delusions make it difficult to see ourselves as we really are and we are not willing to accept our need of the dharma. It was Shakra Devendra Indra and the Great Brahman who came to Shakyamuni and persuaded him to make the effort to teach the Dharma. Thus the Brahman was impressed by Shakyamuni's accomplishment and had some awareness of the need for the Dharma that we all share. Like Brahman, most devas are supporters of the dharma, recognising its importance for the slavation of 'gods and humankind' alike.2

In the epic biography of Shakyamuni, which was assembled by Ashvagosa (the Buddha Carita), devas play a major role at every stage of Shakyamuni's movement towards awakening. It was even they who arranged the events accompanying the bodhisattva out of the palace when he encountered old age, sickness and death for the first time. The devas, too, guided Siddhartha's horse in his going forth upon the great quest for enlightenment. In keeping with this tradition the Larger Sutra tells us that Shakra and Brahma attend the bodhisattvas at the time of their final birth before enlightenment and that they always encourage newly awakening Buddhas to go forth to teach the dharma that they have discovered.

Shakra and Brahma then entreated and requested him to set the wheel of dharma in motion. Travelling freely, he roared with the thunderous voice of the Buddha.3

In the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin assembles passages, which demonstrate that the people of nembutsu are revered and protected by unseen spiritual forces throughout the universe. It is not so much nembutsu people that are helped in this way but faith - nembutsu itself - which is the focus of this favourable attention. We have no merit that warrants such support. However, the Namu-amida-butsu, which fills our hearts and minds attracts the same support that the gods offer to the dharma.4

In this same section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran clearly supports the idea inherited within the tradition of the Buddha Dharma that the gods protect and support the dharma but he also draws upon many other quite uncompromising passages which counsel us against reverence and worship of gods. Shin Buddhists do not worship, serve or pray to gods - or, for that matter, other Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Amida Buddha is our only refuge.


1: Chapter 4

2: Buddha Dharma, p. 27.

3: TPLS II, p. 6.

4: CWS, pp. 255-275.

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