Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 27

The two kinds of fulfillment of the Buddha land
        of happiness - the beings and adornments -
Were formed through the power of Dharmakara's Vow.
They have no equal in the heavens or on earth,
So take refuge in Amida, the power of the great mind.

Cloth of Despair, Robe of Joy

In his preface to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin alludes to the dramatic occasion on which the Pure Land teaching came to be delivered by Shakyamuni:

Thus it is that, when conditions for the teaching of birth in the Pure Land had matured, Devadatta provoked Ajatasatru to commit grave crimes. And when the opportunity arose for explaining the pure act by which birth is settled, Sakyamuni led Vaidehi to select the land of peace. In their selfless love, these incarnated ones - Devadatta, Ajatasatru, Vaidehi - all aspired to save the multitudes of beings from pain and affliction, and in his compassion, Sakyamuni, the great hero, sought indeed to bless those committing the five grave offenses, those slandering the dharma, and those lacking the seed of Buddhahood. (Sk. icchantikas).1

The first sentence refers to the tragedy at Rajagrha Castle, which is described in the Contemplation Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra2. The crown prince, Ajatashatru, was enticed by his friend Devadatta, Shakyamuni's cousin, to usurp the throne. To that end Ajatashatru imprisoned his father the king (Bimbisara). The king's consort was Vaidehi. She was deeply devoted to the king and smuggled food to him in an attempt to save his life because it was intended that the king should starve to death. Bimbisara was a devout follower of the Buddha and two important monks called daily to visit him. Eventually the prince found out about Vaidehi's attempts to keep the king alive and threw her into gaol as well. As might be expected, Vaidehi at this point reached the depths of despair:

Then Vaidehi having been confined, became emaciated with grief and despair.

Her grief was not just for her own predicament but also because in trying to help her king she actually had made matters incalculably worse.

Shakyamuni sent the two monks, Mahamaudgalyayana and Ananda to see her. At the time of their visit to her she also saw Shakyamuni in a vision and in the midst of her despair, she cried,

I beseech you, World Honoured One, please explain to me in detail a place that is free of sorrows and afflictions. I wish to be born there. I do not wish to live in this defiled world of Jambudvipa filled with beings in hell, hungry spirits, and animals, and where there are many vile beings. I wish that, henceforth, I may hear no evil words and may see no evil people. ... For what I truly desire, Sun-like Buddha, is that you teach me how to visualise a place perfected by pure and undefiled acts. 2

Shinran's reference in this wasan to 'The two kinds of fulfillment of the Buddha land of happiness - the beings and adornments' is to this aspect of the Pure Land - the land of pure karmic perfection. Such a realm stands in sharp contrast to life as we experience it. We live in samsara which has grown from the three roots of evil: greed, wrath and folly. Instead, the Pure Land has grown from the pure karma of enlightenment - non-greed, non-wrath and non-folly. It it a place made especially for those who, in this life, despair of ever being able to practice the dharma and who are thwarted constantly by their conditions - whether through our own ineptitude or the nature of our circumstances. Amongst us are those who may even, as Shinran says in his preface, be 'those without any potential for good'.

Although Vaidehi's conditions appear to be the result of events which were out of her control, an insight into one's own condition may seem subjective to outsiders but it is none the less real. The experience of coming to the conclusion that one is totally bereft of any capacity to practice the dharma, to realize enlightenment but - worse - to become a person of any positive value to others, is unfashionable these days but it can also be profoundly truthful and realistic. It can be an extremely bitter realization but truth is also liberating.

It is upon this moment of despair that the Pure Land way is forged. Imagine the misery of Vaidehi's situation. And do we not also know that kind of despair? When we try to be good but discover that our good has only served the greater harm? A life spent in altruistic works not just brought to naught but actually serving as the occasion for unthinkable evil. Such was Vaidehi's grief and despair. A world turned not just upside down but inside out.

Although she could say that she was the victim of circumstances, such is not the way we explain things in the Buddha Dharma. At the base of our circumstances lies an ineffable profusion of ignorant errors, mistaken moves, wrong turns, thoughtless reaction, anger, perplexity, confusion; a mesh of karmic cloth from which we come to realize we can never extricate ourselves. To realise that we are bombu (Sk. prthagjana) - unwise beings - is not possible to sustain by artifice. It is only something we can come to by the power of another. It is often at a time of terrible loss, or disappointment, that the light dawns and the pain of our existential hopelessness haunts us - driving us down into the deepest darkest night. So, it is inevitably circumstances that force us to look at ourselves.

The Buddha Dharma is founded on the Four Noble Truths. The first of these is 'the truth of suffering'. Unless one agrees with this truth it is not possible to follow the path or progress along it in any meaningful way. Shinran's introduction to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - and the rebellion at the palace in Rajagriha - shows that the first plank of Pure Land Buddhism is despair. Few of us have the stamina or courage to confront our demons by ourselves; it is usually events which force us to do this. But when we do, and like Queen Vaidehi turn to the Buddha, a tiny seed of joy may well begin to germinate in our hearts.

It is not only that moment of profound relief (in which we know that we do not need to pretend to others and to ourselves any more) that waters this little fragile seed of shinjin. The same light, which from its pure karma wove the happy land of enlightenment specifically for despairing people like us, brings it to our consciousness as well.


1: CWS p. 3.

2: This, and the previous quote: TPLS I pp. 20 & 22

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