Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 108

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta,
Together with bodhisattvas countless as the Ganges'
     sands or as particles,
Accompany us just as shadows do things.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

'Avalokiteshvara' means 'The Lord (Sk. isvara) who Hears the World' (Sk. avaloka). He is the embodiment of Amida's compassion and is, therefore, the embodiment of life itself. He is remarkable for being common to both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. In Sri Lanka, for example, he is known as Natha-deva. His sutra is part of the Lotus Sutra. He is loved throughout the Buddhist world and most followers of the Buddha Dharma see him as a close companion and friend. To my mind Avalokiteshvara is the figure which represents the presence of the Dharma in the world, spanning the time between Shakyamuni's appearance and that of Maitreya in the future.

The Avalokitesvara Sutra describes the things that the bodhisttava will do to help those who call upon him and despite his great power he feels unable to accept the adornments which the Buddha Akshayamati offers him. The nature of Avalokiteshvara's help is not significant for its rather supernatural and miraculous tone; the point of it is that he seeks to alleviate the symptoms of the world's suffering in order to facilitate the practice of the Dharma. For those who are hungry, in jail and suffering in other ways he offers emergency assistance, as it were, so that the beneficiaries of his compassionate action can get on with the most important thing in life: the study of the Dharma and progress along the path.

Hence in countries where the dharma has had a long presence, people who feel that they have been saved from some kind of disaster by the intervention of Avalokiteshvara may dedicate more time to the dharma to repay the debt they owe him.

In keeping with his powers, Avalokiteshvara is the quintessential master of the of the Perfection of Wisdom and sees conditioned things as empty (Sk. shunya). Things that lack any substance are inherently impotent and the fear that they may seem to command is illusory. The apparently miraculous power that Avalokiteshvara seems to wield is in reality the dissolution of fear and the freeing of the mind from the debilitating hindrances which frustrate the exercise of the dharma. Thus Avalokiteshvara delivered the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Sk. maha prajnaparamita hrdaya sutra) and is honoured more for this profound offering than anything else.

Affection for Avalokiteshvara reached its height in northern India between the third and the fourth centuries of our common era and he first became known in China as Guanyin as early as the first century. From the seventh century onwards the His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been seen by the members of his lineage as the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (Tb. chenrezig). During the seventh century Avalokiteshvara was guide to Triptika Master Xuanzang in his perilous travels through central Asia. He was known in Japan from the very earliest days of the introduction of the dharma. In Japan he has come to be venerated in seven forms, the most elegant of which is Sho Kannon, a seated figure holding a lotus.

Shinran Shonin apparently had a close and special relationship with Avalokiteshvara. He wrote many verses - some of which are part of the Sanjo Wasan - in praise of the Prince Regent Shotoku whom he saw as the embodiment of the bodhisattva. We know, too, that Shinran's wife, Eshinni Sama, had a dream in which she became aware that Shinran himself was the bodhisattva; but she did not tell him about the dream. In one of her letters, she describes the time in Shinran's life at which he was moving into the ambit of the Other Power's faith (tariki no shinjin). It was at the time of his meeting with Honen (1201).

Your father left Mt. Hiei, remained in retreat for one-hundred days at Rokkakudo [where Avalokiteshvara is enshrined], and prayed for salvation in the afterlife. Then in the dawn of the ninty-fifth day Prince Shotoku appeared in a vision, revealing the path to Enlightenment, after reciting a verse. Thus, he immediately left Rokkakudo, before dawn, and called on Honen Shonin to be shown the way to salvation in the afterlife.1


1: The Life of Eshinni Wife of Shinran Shonin, Yoshoki Ohtani, p. 91.

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