Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 54

The fundamental intent for which the Buddha appeared in the
        world
Was to reveal the truth and reality of the Primal Vow.
He taught that to encounter or behold a Buddha
Is as rare as the blossoming of the udumbara.

When the Desert Blooms

I have never seen a udumbara blossom. In his marginal note, Shinran describes it thus:

udumbara: The udumbara is called 'the mysterious, auspicious flower(zuio).' The udumbara tree always bears fruit, but the flower blossoms very rarely. Since a Buddha's appearance in the world occurs only with extreme rarity, it is likened to the udumbara flower.1

Indeed, the udumbara is Ficus glomerata. As a fig, of course, the flower is contained within the fruit and is never visible. Figs are fertilised by species of wasp, which are specific to the species of fig. The wasps reside in the nascent fruit, and figs do not need to produce a visible flower.2 So the analogy - that it is as rare for a fig to flower as it is to be born in the time of a buddha - is apt.3

One of the things which we find it difficult to face up to is that a painstaking search for light might just end in futility. Sometimes we are ready to settle for second best when we know that we have not found what we are really looking for. Searching for 'truth' and 'light' is a natural outcome for those of us who feel a profound unease and dissatisfaction with things. Such is the first of the Four Noble Truths - all is suffering (Sk., duhkha - 'discomfort'). People who come to this point in their lives are those who set out in search of reality and have a hunger to understand and to find a centre in their lives, which portends harmony, meaning and peace of mind.

In August 1970 I set out with two friends for a trip to the desert regions of the Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre. In the south-west and central part of the Oceanic continent, winter (June-August) usually brings rain to the agricultural areas - and in a good year it extends into the drier inland pastoral districts. We had been planning on a visit to the desert because the winter where we live, near the coast, had been very wet and we assumed that the desert would be 'blooming' this year. The trip is difficult and perilous but - on the spur of the moment - we decided to make it.

As we drove north we were delighted by the green countryside and the dense fields of emerging grain crops, which promised a rich harvest in about December, late spring. But suddenly, within a few kilometres, as we drove northwards, the green turned to brown, dry earth. At the first town we came to we learned that no rain had fallen at all that winter. Indeed, no rain at all had fallen for several years. We were disappointed by having made our way so far north to no avail but decided to push on further into the desert. The barrenness of the countryside was indescribable. I had never experienced anything so extreme and we began to worry about our safety. What if we ran out of water? What if our car broke down? Sensibly, we turned south to return home again. I decided at that time that the desert was not for me. If it wasn't going to bloom this year, I would put it out of my mind forever. The barren, harsh desert was just that. It would never be better than that.

Three years ago I had cause to fly accross that same desert country on my way to Singapore. Having flown out of the agriultural areas that I know well because I live there, I began to feel sleepy. As I turned to pull down the shutter on the window I was almost blinded by the brilliance of the flowers and the lush greenery that was riotously evident so far below. I could see small lakes and even tiny specs of wildlife - pelicans and flocks of birds. Was this the same country that I had visited with friends so many years ago?

I checked - and yes it was. The sight of such abundant life was breathtakingly beautiful and so miraculous and wonderful that I was reduced to tears. How joyous! How sublime! If I had never seen this transformation I would never have believed it possible.

Wherever the Buddha comes to stay, there is no state, town or village which is not blessed by his virtues. The whole country reposes in peace and harmony. The sun and the moon shine with pure brilliance; wind arises and rain falls at the right time. There is no calamity or epidemic, and so the country becomes wealthy, and its people enjoy peace. Soldiers and weapons become useless; and people esteem virtue, practice benevolence and diligently cultivate courteous modesty.4

From this passage we know that, like my friends and I in 1972, we have 'missed the rain' of the Buddha's blessing. We live in a world unlike the one we could expect under the Buddha's dispensation. But we do still have the teachings of the Buddha handed down to us, with great difficulty, through the ages. Though we may not see a Buddha in person we can, in his teaching, rejoice in the dharma, even at a distance.

In time his teaching will itself also fall out of view. We are people in a cycle of time that is well past midnight. The Larger Sutra is still with us. It sits before us, like the last bus out of the barrenness and vacuity of a deserted city, waiting to take us home.


1: CWS p. 340.

2: The Secret Life of Trees, How They Live and Why They Matter, Colin Tudge, Penguin, pp. 329-337.

3: In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Chapter on True Teaching, Shinran quotes from the Sutra of the Enlightenment of Ultimate Equality, which reminds us that udumbara (Ficus glomerata) 'bears fruit but no flowers'. A Buddha's appearance in the world is so rare as to be quite improbable.

4: TPLS p. 304. It is interesting that the sutra should make such a claim. In fact Shakyamuni Buddha lived in a time of notable armed conflict (Gotama Buddha, A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, by Hajime Nakamura, Vol. 1, pp. 379-84).

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