Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 51

Venerable Ananda, rising from his seat,
Beheld the majestic radiance of the World-honored one;
Amazed, with a rare feeling of wonder emerging in him,
He realized he had never witnessed such radiance before.

Thus Have I Heard

Shinran Shonin's verses based on the San Amida Butsu Ge of T'an-luan ended with the fiftieth verse in the Jodo Wasan collection. He now begins a series of verses based on the three Pure Land sutras, and some other sutras which throw light on the nembutsu teaching. The next three wasan describe the way in which the The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (dai muryoju kyo or Land of Bliss in the Sanskrit recension - sukhavativyuhasutra) came to be delivered.

The Three Pure Land Sutras (jodo sambukkyo) were selected by Shinran's teacher, Honen Shonin. They are only a very small fraction of the total number of sutras that deal with Amida Buddha and his Pure Land. In his principal works of exegesis1 Shinran makes it clear that the most important of the three sutras is The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life because it contains the verbal expression of certain key Vows of Amida Buddha, especially the eighteenth, or Primal Vow. It also reports the fulfillment of the Vows.

Needless to say, Shinran draws on a wide pool of classical Buddhist literature in his exegesis and does not restrict himself to the textual legacy that he received from Honen. In fact, Shinran ventures well beyond the conventional limits of the three Pure Land sutras. When it comes to the Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life ('Contemplation Sutra') and the Sutra on Amida Buddha ('Smaller Sutra') he discloses that their meaning is more subtle than is apparent from their literal expression.

In the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (the 'Larger Sutra') the Vows are included as part of a birth story (Sk. jataka) of Amida Buddha. Jatakas, or birth stories make up a significant part of traditional Buddhist literature, and their principal purpose is to affirm from experience the working of the law of cause-and-effect2 and demonstrate in a practical sense the causes of ultimate liberation. In the classical literature of the Buddha Dharma no fewer than fifteen sutras include a variety of jataka stories concerning the ætiology, or causes, of Amida Buddha.

When we read this genre of classical Buddhist literature, it is important to remember that the 'validation' of current empirical experience is the starting-point. Then the explanatory jataka is derived by working backwards in ways that are constrained by the law of karma. This means, I would suppose, that, in samadhi before delivering the Larger Sutra, Shakyamuni encountered Amida Buddha, analysed his characteristics and then penetrated the causes that led to the current result.

The two related forms of Buddhist literature, known as avadana and jataka, giving the causes and birth stories of enlightened ones, are extremely important in the overall scheme of things. Until the intrusion of secular humanist ideas into the Buddha Dharma at the behest nineteenth century Europeans and Americans, avadana and jataka are thought to have been by far the most important kinds of literature. Unless a religious path is validated in a practical sense, as it is in the jatakas, it remains mere doctrine or philosophy, disengaged from living human experience.

Ananda was the first person to recite sutras for approval at the first Buddhist council (consisting of five hundred enlightened monks - once Ananda had become enlightened himself!) just after Shakyamuni's entry into parinirvana. He was Shakyamuni's cousin and is a very important figure in the early Buddhist movement. He has always been highly regarded as a reliable source within the Buddhist community.

The two most important factors in the transmission of sutras are hearing and receiving. Whether or not they are the actual words of Shakyamuni is not part of the formula since some sutras would be based on a form of exchange between Shakyamuni and his disciples within the context of the transcendent realization of samadhi; or an idea which only has its germ in Shakyamuni's speech; or even a gesture on his part! Not only that but some sutras were initially spoken by one or other of Shakyamuni's disciples and later approved by him.

At the first council of sages it was Ananda who recited the sutras. However, this also was not sufficient support for authenticity. All sutras must be heard and received. So it was that, from the first council onwards, sutras became part of the Buddhist canon only by being ratified by a council of enlightened sages. This process did not end with the first council of Arhats (enlightened sages) but carried on down through time as more sutras came into use. Some even quite popular sutras were rejected. Among these were sutras that were compiled in China; they were rejected because they were essentially Confucian in tenor.3

The Larger Sutra is authentic because it was 'heard and received' in keeping with the process, which I have just outlined. Many enlightened sages, especially most of the Jodo Shinshu dharma masters, received the Larger Sutra and it is an integral part of the Chinese Buddhist canon. The Larger Sutra begins with the phrase 'Thus have I heard', and Ananda himself plays a central role in its delivery. The significance of this is that the Larger Sutra reveals the key, seminal and pivotal ideas not only of Shakyamuni's teaching but also of his enlightened experience.


1: Shinran's principal systematic works of exegesis are: Ken jodo shinjitsu kyogyosho monrui (Kyogyoshinsho), The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation of the Pure Land Way, (Teaching, Practice, Faith and Realisation)(completed in 1247); Jodo monrui jusho, Passages on the Pure Land Way (1255); and, Sangyo ojo monrui, A collection of Passages on the Types of Birth in the Three Pure Land Sutras (1255).

2: The law of 'cause and effect' is a cardinal principle of Buddha Dharma, without which a teaching is not Buddhist: 'Good acts bring good results and evil acts bring bad results.' [Contemplation Sutra, tr. HIC 2003, p. 24.]

3: For a detailed discussion of the creation and transmission of Buddhist Sutras see Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission by Kogen Mizuno, Kôsei , 1982.

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