Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 118

I embrace persons of the nembutsu
And bring them into the Pure Land.'
Let us respond with deep gratitude for the great benevolence
Of Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta.

This concludes the hymns to Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta,
the original state of Master Genku.

The Geniality of the Dharma

This verse completes Shinran Shonin's songs in praise of Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. From other sources, it is quite clear that Shinran views Mahasthamaprapta as a principle, rather than as a personal entity. In the Letters of Eshin-ni, Shinran's wife, we read that this Bodhisattva is the light or wisdom of Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha's two attendant Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta are Amida's life (his compassion) and his light (wisdom). So it is that the Jodo Shinshu tradition has always seen Amida Buddha's form as his Name (myogo), which includes the virtue of the two attendant Bodhisattvas - compassion and wisdom.

Because the written form of the Name is essentially unreadable, it is normally depicted as having a human form which expresses the meaning and significance of the Name. This is the 'sesshu fusha' (embracing and not forsaking) picture, in which the Buddha is standing and leaning forward slightly (to remind us that he is active in saving beings). His right hand is facing, palm outwards, as a gesture of re-assurance, and his left hand is lowered with palm facing outwards as a gesture of encouragement to us to trust him. It is therefore Amida Buddha who - in the words of this verse - 'encompasses the followers of the nembutsu, and makes them enter the Pure Land.'

In 1200, after much harrowing searching and spiritual pain, Shinran entered the realm of the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha, which he describes as the 'Vow of Sincere Mind and Entrusting' upon meeting Master Genku, Honen Shonin. Honen taught the 'Way of the Chosen Primal Vow of the Nembutsu'. At this meeting, Shinran abandoned all practices and spontaneously entered the eighteenth Vow, finding himself assured of ultimate enlightenment by means of the Pure Land way.

From principle, to embodiment, to effect. That is always how the dharma works. Throughout the Jodo Wasan we have been discussing ideas, doctrines, and often rather abstruse concepts, but the dharma is not effectively transmitted unless and until it is enfleshed; unless it is passed on through the agency of a living person. In writing, the dharma remains theoretical. It is only transmitted in personal encounters, with people both from the past and living now. For Shinran, I have no doubt whatever, that he 'turned and entered the gate of true thusness' upon meeting Honen. In Honen he saw the wisdom of Amida Buddha - Mahasthamaprata Bodhisattva; the very wisdom, which is Buddha and which pervades all things. Of course, Honen did not think of himself in that way. Although he was the active agent of Shinran's awakening to shinjin, he made no such claims for himself.

Unlike most other religious traditions with which we are familiar, the sacred texts of the Buddha Dharma are the body of a living reality only when we accept it graciously as a meeting, a conversation, which comes to life as a process of personal exchange and encounter. It is in this sense that within the dharma we are most inspired by others - people who embody the teachings for us. If there are no such people then the written word is a dead letter. The dharma is warm, embracing, and humane. It has a smile, a twinkle in the eye, and a gentle word of encouragement. It is the living people - the flesh and blood behind the words - who touch, move and guide us. Not by the purity of their hermeneutics, not by the depth of their philosophy but by the ineffable light which has informed their hearts and minds.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran's major exposition of the Pure Land way, is the doctrinal source for exegesis but it is also a living entity. It is truly Shinran himself - his entire personal reality. As we listen to Shinran in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, or in his wasan we hear his voice, the ripple of his laughter and sometimes a gruff rebuke. It is this which infects and moves - and encourages - us to turn to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha for our own good, just as he has done. When we read the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we are hearing the voice of a person and not a disembodied treatise. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is as much Shinran's story as his philosophy or his teaching.

As we now turn to the Koso Wasan we shall be meeting, first and foremost, certain individuals. Fascinating, living, breathing flesh and blood people, who were Shinran's teachers. In the wasan we see, repeatedly, that these people were, in themselves, as much an inspiration and encouragement to Shinran as their teaching, for he is moved, more than anything, by their relationship with Amida Buddha. He sees them as living, personal reality, whom he even entreats for help in the later collection of wasan, the Shozomatsu Wasan.

The dharma is first and foremost warm and congenial, a flesh-and-blood living and breathing corpus, forged from the anvil of sometimes bitter experience and nourished by the example, the friendship and the encouragement of others. As we embark upon the new collection of wasan, the Koso Wasan, then, we will visit each one of Shinran's teachers in their homes and in their world and come to see each one of them as our kind guides; our warm and loving friends.

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