Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 52

Shakyamuni's splendour was rare and auspicious;
Ananda, rejoicing immensely,
Asked its meaning, whereupon the Buddha revealed
The fundamental intent of his appearance in the world.

Shakyamuni's Splendour

In the first chapter of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin announces that the true teaching is the Larger Sutra.

Its message is unequivocal and sharp.

... To teach the Tathagata's Primal Vow is the true intent of this sutra; the Name of the Buddha is its essence.1

This is a marvellous summary. A single sentence encompasses the entire scope of both the sutra and Jodo Shinshu. This is all that needs to be said about the sutra, the rest is padding. Apart from the circumstantial evidence for the intrinsic value of the sutra, Shinran only quotes passages from it if they serve to elucidate these two ideas.

Shinran is not just promoting his own theory or making a random selection of the sutra to suit his own expectations. He seeks evidence for its importance by considering the events, which surrounded its delivery.

How is it known that this was the great matter for which Shakyamuni appeared in the world?

Shinran then quotes from four sources that call attention to the splendour of Shakyamuni's appearance and the uniqueness of the occasion on which he delivered the Larger Sutra.

There seems to be no precedent for the significance that Shinran assigns to Shakyamuni's radiant splendour. He cites it as evidence of the special role that the Larger Sutra plays in Shakyamuni's dharma. It is true that such a glorious demeanour is not a common observation in the context of sutra delivery, but is such an event evidence enough? Could it really be true that this sutra actually is the essential reason for Shakyamuni's birth?

The claim that the Larger Sutra was the primary reason for Shakyamuni's appearance is legitimate because it has universal relevance. By 'universal relevance' I mean that its core message, which is the call to 'hear the Name of Amida Buddha', embraces everyone. It does not require special knowledge, a list of rules to be observed, or special characteristics like intelligence or moral excellence. A person who is physically impaired is not excluded, our everyday hopes and expectations have nothing to do with our ability to hear the Name of the Buddha.

If there is a single cardinal principle in the Buddha dharma it is expressed in the practice of the 'four viharas' whereby goodwill, friendliness, joy and peace is extended to all beings without exception. Such unequivocal compassion is the message of the Larger Sutra. However, the thing that matters most is its core message, the Primal Vow and the Name, which reflect the principles of the four viharas at the deepest, most universal level. What more do we need to know about it?

In his own writings Shinran supplies us with the important passages of the sutra for our consideration. This does not diminish its overall importance. Rather it reminds us of the sutra's principal purpose. We should not let ourselves be distracted by matters that do not serve these great themes.

When we read the opening passages of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and ponder Shinran's happiness in proclaiming the significance of Shakyamuni's radiant exuberance and clear joy - as he prepares to tell us about the Primal Vow that is revealed in the Larger Sutra -, we cannot but cherish this marvellous work of classical literature. Whatever else we may admire and love about the Larger Sutra, its central purport is its main purpose, and this is the source of its ultimate value.


1: CWS p. 7.

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