Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 103

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
Nanda, Upananda, and other great nagas,
Along with the countless naga-gods, revere
And protect us constantly, day and night.

Nagas

I have heard that on one occasion, when the Blessed One was newly Awakened -- staying at Uruvela by the banks of the Nerañjara River in the shade of the Muccalinda tree -- he sat for seven days in one session, sensitive to the bliss of release. Now at that time a great, out-of-season storm-cloud rose up, with seven days of rainy weather, cold winds, and intense darkness.

Then Muccalinda the naga king, leaving his realm and encircling the Blessed One's body seven times with his coils, stood with his great hood spread over the Blessed One, thinking: 'Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by cold. Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by heat. Don't let the Blessed One be disturbed by the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping things.' Then at the end of the seven days the Blessed One emerged from that concentration. Muccalinda the naga king, realizing that the sky had cleared and the storm clouds had left, and unravelled his coils from the body of the Blessed One, changed his appearance and, assuming the form of a youth, stood in front of the Blessed One with hands before his heart in homage.

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

Blissful is solitude for one who's content,
    who has heard the Dhamma,
    who sees.
Blissful is non-affliction with regard for the world,
    restraint for living beings.
Blissful is dispassion with regard for the world,
    the overcoming of sensuality.
But the subduing of the conceit 'I am' --
That is truly
    the ultimate bliss.1

The peace of the Enlightenment, which Shakyamuni realised, was protected by the intervention of the naga king, Muccalinda. Nagas are snake gods. They were especially popular in the north-western part of the Indian sub-continent, particularly in Kashmir and Gandhara, which is now part of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are often associated with waterways but are said to live underground in palaces. Their morphology varies from a straightforward cobra shape, like Muccalinda who used his hood to protect Shakyamuni from the elements, to a quasi-anthropomorphic, male or female form.

According to the Hindu account of the genesis of nagas, it was Brahma who consigned them to their underground existence because they were becoming too numerous. It is said that Brahma assigned to them the task of ending the lives of those destined for premature death. In Buddhism nagas are guardians of doorways, and especially oversee vaults containing sacred texts. Eight nagas were present when Shakyamuni delivered the Lotus Sutra2, including the brothers Nanda and Upananda, who are mentioned by Shinran Shonin in this verse.

As we have already seen in the case of Brahma, the Buddha Dharma tends to view gods as inherently supporters of the dharma. Even those who once opposed it become supporters eventually. The dharma does not tend to demonise its opponents, divine or human, and proudly proclaims their conversion as evidence of the tendency of 'superior beings' to seek the truth. Gods have a capacity for omniscience and this gives them a natural inclination to seek the dharma and to recoginze its truth when they see it. They may influence their devotees in that direction as well. So it is that, from the perspective of the dharma, gods are very often viewed as teachers; and teachers as gods.

Perhaps we can see nagas as representing those aspects of ourselves which are brooding and ominous and out of view. Our own death is perhaps such a thing. When we confront these hidden and troubling things, however, resting within the embrace of Amida Buddha in Namu-amida-butsu - trusting his light and his unfathomable wisdom and compassion - it is possible that these hidden things will be seen in a different light; as small and insignificant. And perhaps we will even see the things which we fear or think of as ugly and unwelcome as instead elegant and welcome friends; reminders, if nothing else, of the joyous fact that we are powerless and wholly in need of the Vow of Tathagata Amitabha. Perhaps we will realise that we ought not seek to kill these things but accept them, appreciate them - and leave them alone.

The fear is not in things themselves; but in how we see them.


1: Muccalinda Sutta, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

2: The Lotus Sutra, Numata Center for Translation and Research, 1993, p. 8.

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