Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 34

The countless bodhisattvas throughout the ten quarters,
To cultivate roots of virtue,
Revere and praise Amida in song;
Let us all take refuge in the Bhagavat.

The Three Treasures

Whoever we are, if we truly appreciate the extraordinary power of Amida's dharma (the Primal Vow - hongan), it is impossible not to praise him. Amida Buddha is the object of our refuge. There is no other buddha of interest to us and who deserves our joyful praise.

All of the followers of each of the 84,000 dharma paths take refuge in the Buddha (the awakened one), the dharma (the teaching) and the sangha (the community of monks and nuns). In a community like ours, which even transcends the 84,000 dharma paths, and does not have a monastic clergy, how are we to interpret this?

Obviously, the Buddha is Amida, Namu-amida-butsu. Perhaps we could say that the dharma is that which proclaims his Primal Vow, the Three Pure Land Sutras. Our sangha could be seen to comprise the teachers of the lineage, awakened sages known as the 'seven dharma masters'. They are Nagarjuna (c 2nd-3rd century), Vasubandhu (4th century), T'an-luan (476-572), Tao-ch'o (562-645), Shan-tao (613-681), Genshin (942-1017) and Honen (1133-1202). When we adore the Buddha, we could see ourselves as taking refuge in this dharma and this sangha as well.

In modern times, the word 'sangha' has come to be used in the broader sense for a group of like-minded people who follow the dharma. This is probably because that was, indeed, its original meaning, which did not have exclusively religious significance. However, in the Buddhist context its use is traditionally limited to the order of monks and nuns; more specifically, to the enlightened sages (Sk. arhats).

When the government attempted to suppress the nembutsu in 1207, Shinran was given a layman's name and officially excluded from the sangha. Thereafter, he declared himself to be 'neither a monk, nor one in worldly life'1. In keeping with the tradition he established, Jodo Shinshu clergy are not monks or nuns. They are men and women who are destined to lead congregations as their ministers.

There are also ordinary lay people, like me, who wish to make a deeper personal - but formal - commitment to study and teach the way handed down by Shinran Shonin. These latter are potentially qualifed to lead congregations, if called upon to do so, but may choose a life committed to the dharma while holding down another occupation, profession, trade or career as well.

Shinran married and raised a family, not - I think - in violation of the precepts, but because he had become aware of the universal relevance of the Pure Land way and that it was appropriate to live as an 'ordinary person' (Sk. bombu, Sk. prthagjana)2. Rather than being a sangha, the Jodo Shinshu order is a lay brotherhood or order (kyodan) - a community of fellow followers (ondobo, dogyo).

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we find metaphysical explanations of the three treasures in quotations from the Nirvana Sutra, for example:

Buddha, dharma and sangha... surpass conceptual understanding3.

Buddha is called awakening, dharma is called the nonawakening, sangha is called the harmonious... . This is a case of 'names and meanings both differing'4.

In other places Shinran uses the term sangha in its traditional Buddhist sense, meaning the monastic order, but not in connection with the community of nembutsu followers:

The three treasures are: first the Buddha-treasure; second, the dharma-treasure; third, the sangha-treasure. The present 'Pure Land school' belongs to the Buddha-treasure5.

I find the metaphysical, or abstract, understanding of the three treasures, which we encounter in the Shinran's writings, to be most compelling. The use of an elite concept like 'sangha' to describe our kyodan does not sit well with the fine sense of equality, common humanity and fellowship that prevails amongst those bombu who know and share the embrace of Amida Buddha's compassion.

In Jodo Shinshu we use the traditional formula when we take refuge in the three treasures: 'I go to the Buddha for refuge; I go to the dharma for refuge; I go to the sangha for refuge'.


1: CWS, p. 289.

2: According to Professor Peter Masefield's study of the Pali Nikayas in Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, 1987, Shakyamuni's original intention for the sangha, was to establish a group (Sk. sangha) of elite, or superior (Sk. aryan) sages that did not include prthagjanas (bombu).

3: CWS, p. 133.

4: CWS, p. 181.

5: CWS, p. 534.

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