Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 20

Those who reach the Pure Land of happiness
Return to this evil world of the five defilements,
Where, like the Buddha Shakyamuni
They benefit sentient beings without limit.

Shakyamuni

... like the Buddha Shakyamuni
They benefit sentient beings without limit

'Shakyamuni' is the popular name given to Gautama Buddha, who set in motion the wheel of dharma some 2,400 years ago. 'Shakyamuni' means, 'wise one of the Shakyas.'

When we are talking about great movements of thought and affective insight like the one attributed to Shakyamuni, the stark personality of the founder is lost as soon as he breathes his last. This is surely something that you would expect in the case, especially, of one who had attained nirvana!

Shakyamuni will not conform to an image that does not take account of his own sense of transcendence - certainly not that of a secular and materialistic culture like ours. In some traditions of the dharma, especially those that are based on the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni is eternally enlightened and does not belong to any constrained historical illusions. He is always teaching and guiding those who seek his light; and those inspired by him (perhaps even through many generations) eventually compile an account of what they have heard.

All authentic collections of Shakyamuni's disclosures begin with the refrain 'Thus have I heard at one time' (Sk. evam maya shrutam ekasmin samaye). Sutras never begin with the phrase 'This is the word of the Buddha'.

Sutras are 'heard', rather than 'taught'. Sutras are, in fact, the lived practice and experience of Shakyamuni's disciples that are eventually passed on in writing. They gain their authority not only by being uttered but by also being lived, cherished, followed and heard. Hence, as Shan-tao says, '[The phrase] "Thus [have I heard]" is meant to clarify what the Buddha taught'.1 Shakyamuni is the vessel for the dharma, which takes root in our hearts. Then it is up to the disciples to say just what it is that they once heard.

In Jodo Shinshu, Amida ...

... who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Shakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya.2

Shinran Shonin is here saying that Shakyamuni benefits sentient beings without limit because, after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, he delivered the The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (the 'Larger Sutra'), which - the Buddha assured us - will remain well after the disappearance of all other Buddhist teachings.


1: CWS, p. 214, italics mine.

2: CWS, p. 349.

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