Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 102

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu',
The earth-goddess called Firmness
Reveres and protects us constantly, day and night,
Accompanying us always just as shadows do things.

Unearthing the Dharma

The goddess of the solid earth is Dridha prithivi-devata and it is said that she held the feet of anyone who preached the Sutra of Golden Splendour. Perhaps she had something to do with the revival of Buddhism in the last two hundred years. It is almost impossible to believe now but around two hundred years ago the Buddha Dharma was completely unknown in the west and contact between the southern and eastern Buddhist communities was rare.

Due to the curiosity of European colonists the dharma was literally unearthed in India, the home of its birth, where it was almost extinct. At the end of the ninteenth century Bodh-Gaya in Bihar, where tradition tells us that Shakyamuni attained Enlightenment, was a decrepit Hindu shrine. Now it is a massive and beautifully kept complex of gardens, hostels, and the temples of many schoolsof dharma.

The gradual process of unearthing the history of the Buddhist movement, especially in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka brought news and insights into the dharma; and many fine European exponents - like Arthur Schopenhauer - emerged to give a worthy account of it. The dharma also gained a high level of popularity towards the end of the ninteenth century when some prominent Theosophists developed a new rationalist and secular version of Theravada which is today thriving in most western countries.

One intriguing development which resulted from all this European and American interest was the wide introduction of the practice of meditation as a lay practice. Public instruction in meditation was introduced into Sri Lanka first of all by Don David Hevavitherana, also known as Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Theosophist and disciple of Colonel Olcott. Anagarika Dharmapala was a monk and eventually abandoned Theosophy but he began a movement which completely reshaped the practice of the dharma into the form we know today. Until he began instructing ordinary monks and laypeople, meditation (dhyana) was usually the preserve of talented bhikshus and was learnt and transmitted from teacher to disciple.

In Theravada countries, obviously, dhyana was practiced by yogins but not by ordinary monks or lay people. There have been some attempts to resist this new emphasis on meditation, but without success. I have heard some Thai Buddhists argue that samadhi does not arise dependent upon dhyana; and I would concur, since the Noble Eightfold Path is not linear but concomitant in its arising. Now that meditators are in the ascendency, especially in countries like Australia, there is a tendency for non-meditators to be disparaged. In fact, throughout the ages a healthy dharma community has included only a few meditators. We are all quite unique and one rule should never apply to all.

These days it is thought that meditation is the exclusive preserve of the Buddha Dharma when, in fact, it has always been practiced in, for example, Orthodox, Assyrian and Catholic Christian - and Muslim - monasteries and convents at various times: under the instruction of carefully chosen and talented individuals! It was taught with great care because errors can be perilous.

It would be useful to unearth what it meant to be a follower of the dharma, monk or lay, before the time of Anagarika Dharmapala. If, for most people these days, the practice of meditation is the way one defines oneself as a follower of the dharma, what did it mean before that time? What was the distinguishing feature of living the dharma for most people for much of Buddhist history?

There can be no doubt that the distinguishing feature of the dharma is 'not-self' (anatman). Anatman is the very core of the dharma and informs the entire structure of its philosophy and practice. The concept of 'emptiness' (shunyata) is the same as anatman but is extended to all 'dharmas', one might say, every particle of the cosmos. Anatman, relates primarily to the constituents of human personality, the skandhas. Needless to say, the whole bodhisattva tradition, and the grand philosophical schemes of Madhyamika and Yogacara arise from the core fact of 'not-self'. In other words the Buddhist truth is anatman. That is why, from the Hindu perspective it is heretical or 'non-dogmatic' (nastika).

The 'philosophies' of all the dharma schools are primarily theoretical systems designed for the purpose of supporting practical outcomes. They are not 'mere philosophy'. Without an actual outcome, they have no intrinsic value. They are not meant to support theories of cosmology and such-like but to assist in the actual outcome; awakening and enlightenment; being free. It is this, not dhyana, which is the defining characteristic of the Buddha Dharma.

The practical effect of anatman impinges upon everything in the dharma: the Jataka tales, the life of devotion, the ethical system, the definition of the accomplished 'saint', the bodhisattva path and the six paramitas. The Noble Eightfold Path begins and ends with anatman. Right view is 'no view', samadhi is the loss of self and is related to the faith of the Other Power. The Jataka tales both of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha tell of nothing but the loss of self.

In everyday life, then, the defining feature of a Buddhist before the introduction of meditation was nothing more nor less than generosity and love for all people, animals and things. This is the practical manifestation of anatman and the surrender of everything that defines us: our property, our ideas and even our hopes and aspirations.

Followers of the dharma expressed their generosity in hospitality which was devoid of any judgement of the worth of the recipient, kindness and a strong programme of devotional activity. Especially popular was the process of visiting monks and giving them gifts; and also of hearing the dharma by chanting the teachings morning and night.

For those then who are interested in what might be called 'traditional Buddhism' it is easy to recommend Jodo Shinshu. If a person wants to understand Jodo Shinshu as a 'process', it too, is anatman.

Namu-amida-butsu

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next

When we say