Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 43

Buddha-bodies, equal in number
To the thirty-six hundred thousand billion
Beams of light, emerge from each flower;
Their features and marks are like mountains of gold.

How to Spot a Buddha

Generally speaking, mainstream traditions of the Buddha Dharma make a clear distinction between a prthagjana - an ordinary human being, who is steeped in the illusion of samsara - and a Buddha. A Buddha has a threefold knowledge which distinguishes him from ordinary people like us.

It is said that a Buddha

  1. knows the details of his own previous births
  2. knows the history of the births and deaths of all other sentient beings
  3. has gained the liberating insight that brings final release from the whole miserable process of wandering in birth-and-death.

An ordinary person does not have this knowledge. Furthermore, so that we can know that a Buddha is genuine, he is said to be distinguished by external marks and signs. This idea reflects the fact that our mental state is often evident in our outward expression and demeanour.

In this verse, Shinran Shonin is referring to the 'thirty-two characteristics of a great man' and the 'eighty subordinate marks' of a buddha. Followers of the Buddha Dharma have never regarded Buddhas as ordinary, since buddhas have transcended the limitations of mundane existence (Sk. lokkotara). From the very beginning Shakyamuni was regarded as extraordinary. For about three centuries after his parinirvana, his words were not recorded; his image was not represented.

Most of the signs and marks point to exquisite physical beauty and excellent deportment. These features include a voice like Brahma's, broad shoulders, well-proportioned and slender legs, and a straight back. The only striking visible differences to such sublime human form are the chojo-nikkei (Sk. usnisa-shirsa, a slight protuberance on the head), the miken-byakugo (Sk. urna-kesa, a twist of hair between the eyebrows which is sometimes mistakenly represented as a 'third eye'), and impressions on his hands and feet that resemble

  1. svastikas, a well-known and ancient decorative symbol, so sadly misused in the twentieth century
  2. a cruciform flower and
  3. nanyavarta, a symbol of happiness and joy

The description of the the 'thirty-two characteristics of a great man' and the 'eighty subordinate marks' of a buddha may seem rather fanciful. No doubt they can only be seen with the eyes of faith, but the idea serves to remind us of the superlative nature of the person and attainment of a Buddha. So it is that Buddhas' 'signs and marks' testify to their enlightenment and signify their reliability and trustworthiness.

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