Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 104

When we say Namu-amida-butsu,
Yama, the King of the dead, reveres us,
And the officers who judge the beings of the five courses of
        existence
All protect us constantly, day and night.

Yama, the Dharma-King

In both the Hindu and Buddhist religions the icons of Yama are almost identical and his role is similar. He is called 'Yama King of the dharma' (yama dharmaraja) in both religions. At first, in the time of the Vedas, he was a rather affable character but, as people became more and more concerned about the oppressive nature of the law of karma, it was natural that he would be seen as developing sterner qualities. In Buddhist icons he is almost invariably surrounded by flame and conveys a sense of fury.

In Hindu cosmology, Yama is also the ruler of the southern hemisphere but the Buddha Dharma does not seem to attribute that role to him. For us his job is to assess the course to which our actions (karma) have assigned us. That is why it is understandable that people burdened with the mistakes of the past should tremble and see him as a firece judge. His judgement, however, is never arbitrary. Yama himself is the product of the law of karma and cannot over-ride it under any circumstances. His power lies in knowledge of the law but he does not frame it. The purpose of Yama, Dharma-King is to remind us that the law of karma is absolutely inexorable and that there is no way we can escape the results of our actions.

Yama is not the only entity to have the title 'Dharma-King'. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, for example, Shinran Shonin quotes a passage from the Shorter Pure Land Liturgy of Nembutsu Chant in Five Stages, which describes Amida Buddha as 'Dharma-King'. Yama, Dharma-King (Jp. emma ho o) is only a god and is therefore not fully enlightened. He does not rule the dharma, the dharma rules him. In meting out judgement to the dead he affirms the results of the law of karma which is discovered and taught by all the Buddhas. Skilful actions lead to good results, unskilful actions lead to unhappy results. Many followers of the dharma aspire to behave in such a way as to ensure a 'favourable rebirth' for themselves. Keeping the precepts, for example, is likely to result in a human birth and thus afford a further opportunity to hear the dharma.

The objective of the Buddha Dharma is to transcend the round of birth-and-death (samsara) and this is not accomplished by merely trying to do good actions and avoid the bad. The aim of the dharma is to attain 'no-birth' and to go beyond good and evil. If, in the nembutsu, we acceed to the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha Dharma-King, there should be no need for us to meet Yama. The pure mind of Amida Buddha, which is embodied in Namu-amida-butsu, transcends the bondage of samsara. Again, there is nothing in and of ourselves which would command Yama's respect; it is just that, in seeing people of the nembutsu, he sees only the transcendent light of Tathagata Amitabha.

In India death is often described as 'the call of Yama'. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran describes the nembutsu, Namu-amida-butsu, as the call of the Vow. Here are two contrasting calls. The call of Yama is a call to stay within samsara; the call of the Vow is to be free. Having assessed his own prospects for himself, Shinran decided that no matter how skilful or good his actions may be, all of his karma was ultimately based on unclear and contaminated intentions and motives. He came to see the nembutsu as his only option.

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