Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 69

It is difficult to meet true teachers
And difficult for them to instruct.
It is difficult to hear the teaching well,
And more difficult still to accept it.

The Teacher

This verse, like the previous one, celebrates a well-known and often quoted passage in the Larger Sutra. The teacher is 'a good (virtuous) friend' (zenjishiki, Sk. kalyana-mitra) - someone who brings the dharma to life for us in their own person. A zenjishiki is someone we know that we can trust in spiritual matters; a person who enriches our hearts.

Such people inspire and encourage not so much by learning or authority as by their presence; their whole-hearted attunement to the dharma that one seeks. Acceding to the authority of a teacher is held in reserve and we are never expected to suspend our judgement and common sense. They are more an inspiration than authority figures. In his interpetation of the allegory of 'A White Path and Two Rivers', Shinran Shonin - in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - implies that our true teacher is none other than Amida Buddha.

A teacher is absolutely vital and indispensible. This is because the profound and sometimes abstruse meaning of the dharma comes to light for the seeker only when it is exemplified by a living, walking, talking, breathing individual. We may not necessarily meet a teacher in person but the teaching needs a biography. Thus Shinran may be known not only by his written testimony and legacy but also by the way in which his teaching lives in his person. His portrait and life-story bring his teaching to life. For most of us in the Jodo Shinshu path Shinran is our teacher. We may not be able to fully understand - or wholly subscribe to - his teachings but his most important role is his example and inspiration.

Anyone may be a teacher. The famous Shinshu follower Genza regarded his cow as a teacher because the way she carried the burden of her own straw reminded him of the way that Amida Buddha thrives on Genza's blind passions (Sk. klesha, bonno). The person who had the most profound impact on me and precipitated a determination to follow the nembutsu way was a friend whose courage and personal honesty were powerful inducements for me to see the truth of Amida Buddha's dharma. A couple of years later, Shakyamuni himself (in his recorded teaching) brought me to a further and far deeper understanding, which has never left me. Now, it is 'sitting at the feet' of Shinran and contemplating his own writing that has - for many, many years - been a daily joy.

Of course, there are bad teachers (akujishiki). Such people are easy to pick because their objective is to have followers rather than independent companions who are devoted to the dharma. They like to gather crowds of admiring people around them and their modus operandi tends to be control. One very telling feature is that they are unwilling to admit to mistakes or to change their minds from time to time, and they tend not to rejoice at the accomplishments of others. Neither Shinran nor Genza's cow manifest any of these characteristics.

It is difficult to meet a good teacher not so much because there are none available (for example, Shinran's collected works are easy to acquire) but because of our closed minds and hearts. Meeting a good teacher is like falling in love. Our self-absorbtion is transcended and we are moved to a new ontological stage and captivated by their spirit and their words. It is, indeed, difficult to progress or continue in the dharma without this kind of meeting - with either an historical, factual person or a living contemporary.

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