Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 19

Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta
Together illuminate the world with the light of compassion,
Never resting even for a moment
From bringing to nirvana those with mature conditions.

The Bodhisattva that Shinran Knew in Person

Not only is Pure Land Buddhism the gateway that leads to participation in the bodhisattva vehicle but we also benefit from the friendship of those who have gone before, especially Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. These two bodhisattvas are Amida Buddha's assistants and, since they have the power to take any form which may assist in helping us to spiritual maturity and awakening, it is possible that we may also one day meet them in person.

Bodhisattvas are genuine individuals with a history, a biography, a personality and a presence. In some Mahayana countries Avalokiteshvara's birthday is celebrated on February 19 and his or her enlightenment on June 19, while Mahasthamaprapta's birthday is celebrated on July 13.

Of the two bodhisattvas which attend Amida Buddha, there seems little doubt that the one of most importance to Shinran was Mahasthamaprapta. In the Jodo Wasan he alludes to him twice as often as to Avalokiteshvara. This is not only because Mahasthamaprapta epitomizes Shinran's favourite epithet of the Buddha, which is light (wisdom); not because the Surangama Sutra tells us that Mahasthamaprapta attained enlightenment by following the Nembutsu samadhi; or that in his iconography he holds a lotus flower which opens one's heart to the Buddha's light; neither is it just because Mahasthamaprapta is especially concerned to help people suffering in hell or with the plight of fighting spirits or animals. It is because, in fact, Shinran knew Mahasthamaprapta in person.

Furthermore, when we were at a place called Sakai-no-go in Shimotsuma of Hitachi province, I saw the following dream. The scene appeared to be a dedication ceremony for a recently completed temple. The temple faced east, and it must have been an evening festival, for the light from the candle stands was burning brightly in the front. But to the west of the candle stands and in front of the temple there was a piece of wood placed horizontally, as if it were a torii on which were hung the images of Buddha.

One did not even have the ordinary face of the Buddha - all was light and the center seemed to emanate from the head of the Buddha - and I could not see any figure. There was nothing but rays of light. The other image clearly showed the face of the Buddha, so I asked, 'what is the name of this Buddha?' I didn't know who answered, but there was a reply, 'That one which shows only rays of light is Honen Shonin. He is none other than Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva.' So I asked again, 'Who then is the other image?' 'That is Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. He is none other than [Shinran].'

As soon as I heard these words, my eyes opened and I realized that it was all a dream. But I had heard that such dreams should never be revealed to others, and I also thought that no one would believe it, even if I had related to it, so I did not tell anyone. I did tell your father [Shinran] however, about Honen Shonin in my dream, and he said, 'There are various kinds of dreams, but this is a very telling dream which reveals what is true and real. The dream that reveals Honen Shonin to be [a birth] of Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva is frequently reported from various places. Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva is unexcelled wisdom itself, and that wisdom is manifested in the form of light.'1

Thanks to this letter we know what Shinran thought of his teacher, Honen Shonin. This knowledge puts paid to any idea that Shinran saw himself as his Master's equal.

Reflection upon the fact that Shinran had no doubt that Honen was Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva certainly gives us pause. One can only bow one's head in reverence and respect before this awesome truth and feel grateful that we also receive help on the way from such generous bodhisattvas.


1: The Life of Eshinni, Wife of Shinran Shonin by Yoshiko Ohtani, pp. 92f

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