Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 40

Trees of seven precious materials fill the land,
Mutually reflecting each other's brilliance;
The flowers, fruits, branches, and leaves all shine thus,
So take refuge in Amida, the store of virtues fulfilled
        through the Primal Vow.

The Religion of the Forest

Long before the appearance of Shakyamuni, almost 2,500 years ago, Indian religion had become the religion of the forest. The sages who revealed the Upanishads - to which the yogic tradition that became the Buddha Dharma owes its foundation - were sages of the forest. Contemplation, education, music, medicine and all the arts of civilization took place in the sacred depths of the forest. Shakyamuni realized the dharma and attained enlightenment beneath the leafy branches of a forest tree.

Usually it is held that civilization belongs to the cultivated and sophisticated life of cities but, in keeping with its Indian antecedants, the Buddha Dharma views this kind of 'civilization' with suspicion. The life of cities is noisy, deranged, subject to artificial forms of control: places of corruption, vice and disease. True cultivation takes place in the depth of the shady forests, in relative solitude and silence.

Shakyamuni always taught either out in the wild places, the forests, or in gardens. He was born in a garden. When the time came for him to seek the truth he left the city and went to live in the forest. Truth can not be found in the artifice of agrarian or city life - distractions make it impossible.

Throughout its history the Buddhist sangha has always preferred the forest as its home, emerging into the villages and towns only occasionally but always forsaking these places as a home. It is the place to which those embroiled in the derangement of the city, civilized life, go for refuge. If it is not possible to be removed from the city then Buddhist sanghas usually surround themselves with reminders and replicas of the wilderness by creating leafy, shady gardens. Trees form the great symbols of the dharma. The bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni sat when he was enlightened has been planted throughout the Buddhist world for 2,500 years. Other trees, like tamarisk and ginkgo are also associated with the dharma.

Seven hundred years ago, however, the sangha suffered a fatal degeneration - at least that is how Shinran saw it. Thanks to Amida Buddha's Primal Vow the dharma now became, through the nembutsu, accessible to all - monks, nuns, laywomen and laymen... even those who were completely outside the dharma. The way of the city had become unavoidable and we had lost the pristine and hallowed precinct of the sacred forest. In the nembutsu the Buddha calls to us wherever we are - no matter how busy, no matter how embroiled in secular life.

Now Shin temples are at the heart of city and village life - reaching into the derangement, confusion, noise and vicious environment of these places. Proving that the Buddha's light is indeed 'unhindered, throughout the ten quarters'.

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