Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 101

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
The four great deva-kings together
Protect us constantly, day and night,
And let no evil spirits come near.

More About the Gods

The gods of the Buddha Dharma derive from the Aryan pantheon which prevailed in the hiatus between the era of the Vedas and later Zoroastrian and Hindu developments. Both of these religions became monotheistic after the Jain and Buddhist movements had got under way.

Well before the time that the Hindu Dharma became monotheistic a plethora of gods (devas) inhabited various segments of the cosmos. Hence, from the perspective of the Buddha Dharma, these devas are powers which populate heavens and earth - and usually help human beings. Some devas, like the ashuras, became literally demonized in Hindu theology but the dharma continued to accept them as a species of living and powerful entity who support the dharma and are largely out of view for people - even though they are sub-human and irascible.

The devas of the Buddha Dharma belong to the old Aryan pantheon, whereas later traditions sifted them into roles consistent with a monotheistic world view. The gods of the Buddha Dharma arrived at their present status as a result of previous actions (karma) and the over-riding outcome for them is unmitigated pleasure. Brahman, who now resides in the first dhyana heaven in the world of form (rupa-dhatu) partakes of a purely intellectual and ethical pleasure but the lower gods in various stages of the world of desire (kama-dhatu) experience sensual pleasures of all kinds.

Because the Brahman is free of desire he is often used as an exemplar of certain virtues in the Buddha Dharma. For example, chastity is described as 'the way of the Brahman' (brahma-carya). More famous are the sublime abodes (brahma vihara), which are the norms of internal disposition for followers of the dharma in our relations with the world. They are friendliness, (maitri), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (muditha) and equanimity (upeksha).

The gods of the 'Four King Heaven' (catur maharaja kayikas) dwell at a very low level in the world of desire and are described by Vasubandhu Bodhisattva in his Abhidharmakosha-bhashyam as sometimes living on earth. They certainly engage in all of the sensual pleasure that we humans do. They even bear children. They are very like the gods of the classical Greek pantheon, which form part of the European tradition and are active agents in the works of Homer, and the like.

For Shinran the sense of being surrounded by the gods was no doubt quite real and even tangible. It is comforting to know that he understood the world that way. He had been reared in a very different cultural milieu to us. For us, a sense of living in a world replete with unseen spiritual entities is difficult. Our pattern of thought is extremely materialistic. Even so, when one reads Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) the world-view represented there seems healthier, and happier, than the solipsism and self-obsession of our time. Our world-view is a source of misery because we believe that we can have ultimate control over events - an idea that is simply not true, and will always be defeated, thus causing frustration and disappointment.

I think that Shinran's verses on the protection, which the gods offer followers of the nembutsu, serve as valuable lessons. First, they remind us that we human beings are not the only species of living intelligent entity in the universe. We have no place being arrogant about our capabilities. A second useful feature of these verses is that they underscore Shinran's sense of the universality of the Buddha Dharma. Shinran nowhere subscribes to a view that gods not associated with the dharma have anything to offer us. Shinran was exclusively dedicated, singlemindedly, to the dharma; he acknowledges no other truth. Thirdly, these verses always remind me that the 'unseen powers' that be, are essentially friendly.

Let us not forget that these verses are not about the gods - they are songs in praise of the nembutsu.

There is only the call of the Vow. As for spirits and gods; they have been mandated to protect the dharma and its adherents. Safely in the knowledge that this is so, we do not need to trouble ourselves about them, and can let them get on with their job.

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