Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 60

So profound is Amida's great compassion
That, manifesting inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
The Buddha established the Vow of transformation into men,
Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood.

The Absolute Equality of Women and Men

As Shinran Shonin notes in the margin, this verse commemorates the thirty-fifth vow of Amida Buddha, making it clear that the true meaning of the vow is the ultimate and absolute equality of women.

When I attain Buddhahood, the women throughout the countless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds in the ten quarters, having heard my name, will rejoice in entrusting heart, awaken the mind aspiring for enlightenment, and wish to renounce the state of being women. If, after the end of their lives, they should be reborn as women, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.1

As an Indian religion, the Buddha Dharma developed in a social context dominated by local mores. Manu was the Indian hero who survived the Great Primordial Flood to reveal a code of law which included special regulations for women. It is the timeworn Indo-European misogyny and patriarchial triumphalism of the sky-god that we see in our own European tribal story: gaining prominence in epics like the Iliad, in which the old matriarchal tradition sinks into oblivion with the ravaging and fall of Troy, a city of the goddess.

In keeping with Mahayana sensibility, the code of Manu is challenged in the Larger Sutra, which reveals this vow, over-riding the convention that women were eternally subject to 'three reliances'. As children, they rely on their fathers, as young adults upon their husbands and, as widows, upon their sons.

Under the three reliances it was impossible for a woman to practice religion according to her own needs. Her salvation depended on that of her male governor. Buddha Dharma emerged at a time in which patriarchy had become the norm. This attitude to women is utterly repugnant to those of us who live in societies like ours. Most of us work as equals with female colleagues and report to female superiors. I am sure all of us are glad that our society is organized in this way.

The thirty-fifth vow of Amida Buddha seems itself rather demeaning of women but it is in fact revolutionary because it offers women the same outcome as men upon realizing the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha. The phrase 'renounce the state of being women' reminds us that it is not femininity itself that is the disabling factor but the status to which tradition had relegated women. So, within its context, this vow is really talking about abolishing discrimination in terms of gender. This is borne out by sutras like the Sutra of Queen Shrimala of the Lion's Roar.

A mark of the underlying egalitarian sensibilities of the Mahayana is the Pure Land teaching itself - especially that of Honen and his successors like Shinran -, which gave practical expression to gender equality. It is interesting to note that both Shinran and his wife, Eshin-ni, regarded each other as bodhisattvas, both of whom were, because of their shinjin, 'the same as Maitreya.'2

In reflecting the ocean of great shinjin, I realise that there is no discrimination between noble and humble or black-robed monks and white-clothed laity, no differentiation between man and woman, old and young.3

There are ten sub-branches of the Shin Buddhist denomination. Of these, one has consistently appointed a woman as its head priest: Bukko-ji4. Within the fiercely patriarchal society of 600 years ago, that, in itself, is remarkable. Let us hope that our Shin Buddhist tradition will continue to exert its resources to play a role in the on-going struggle for absolute and unequivocal equality of women in society.


1: TPLS II, p. 27.

2: CWS, p. 122-124 et. al.

3: CWS, p. 107.

4: Bukkoji Buddhist Temple

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