Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 16

When Amida, on becoming a Buddha, first taught the dharma,
The sages present were numerous beyond reckoning;
All who aspire to be born in the Pure Land,
Take refuge in Amida of the vast assembly.

The Great Teacher

The Buddha said to Ananda, 'The number of sravakas in the first assembly of the Buddha is beyond reckoning. So is it with the number of bodhisattvas.'1

After this brief quote from the the Sutra of the Buddha of immeasurable life, or the 'Larger Sutra', the Buddha and Ananda move into a wonderful repartee about mathematical maxima, deciding finally that the number of people at Amida's first sermon was fairly close to infinite. It is a delightful passage, one of several in the Larger Sutra that exhibits a sense of humour. One can almost hear the Buddha and Ananda giggling to themselves as they try to outdo each other in finding formulæ for hyperbole. There is much humour in the dharma.

Shakyamuni concludes that, even though the number of people at Amida Buddha's first sermon was almost incalculable, the number of sages 'yet to be counted' is incalculably greater still. However, the hyperbole has a purpose and is not mere rhetoric or hubris. It implies that Amida Buddha is the teacher (zenchishiki) of the infinite beings who have lived and are yet to live in the universe.

In the wasan, Shinran Shonin exhorts us to 'take refuge in this great assembly'. He calls upon us all to listen to Amida's sermon. In doing so, we join the massive throng of the disciples of Amida Buddha.

The Pure Land school sees itself as a universal brotherhood, supported by the power and insight of Amida Buddha alone.

Shan-tao said that, when aspirants arrive at the Pure Land, 'they meet their good teacher, and their joy is endless.' There are neither gurus nor a hierarchy of intermediaries in the Pure Land tradition. However, clergy and learned doctors who have dedicated their lives to the study of the dharma for the purpose of helping fellow followers are worthy of our respect and deference; they are a precious resource. Nevertheless, they do not command unquestioning obedience and they do not have the power to personally convey virtue to others.

During the time of the eighth Monshu of Jodo Shinshu (Rennyo Shonin) there were people who claimed that their 'good personal teacher' (zenchishiki) was of supreme importance for the awakening of Amida Buddha's shinjin and that they had awakened it through their teacher, 'He is the only good teacher because he gave me shinjin; those who follow other teachers do not have true shinjin.' This is the heterodox view within Shin known as zenchishiki danomi or 'faith in a personal teacher'.

Rennyo Shonin's response to the view of zenchiskiki danomi was to say that the only function of a teacher was 'to encourage people to take refuge in Amida single heartedly and steadfastly.' In other words a genuine 'good teacher' will direct our gaze away from himself and to Amida Buddha only. A good teacher will present himself with his feet of clay clearly visible so that a seeker is repelled by him and directed to Amida.

Power is a heady and intoxicating drug which clouds the mind. People who have power are rarely uncorrupted and often their judgement is skewed by it, making it dangerous indeed to commit our wholehearted faith to a fellow human being, no matter how exalted. People in authority in the Pure Land tradition - doctors and clergy - have a vitally important role but essentially as servants of the community (kyodan).

Although it takes some understanding initially, it is to Amida's assembly that we should go and in him alone that we should take our refuge.


1: TPLS, II, p. 38.

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