Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 74

King Bimbisara put the ascetic to death
Without waiting for the time of his rebirth as determined
        by past conditions,
And in recompense for this act of murder,
Was imprisoned in a cell seven walls thick.

The Nirvana Sutra

This is the second wasan in a series of nine, which draw upon the Contemplation Sutra. The sutra begins with an incident in the life of the royal family at Rajagriha, an important location in Shakyamuni's life: it was close to the place of his enlightenment; he delivered many of his sermons nearby on Vulture Peak. King Bimbisara is in fact the victim, at the hands of his son Ajatashatru, in the events recounted at the beginning of the Contemplation Sutra, but here we learn that this oppressive experience was the outcome (Sk. vipaka) of his own vicious karma (Sk. akusala karma).

While Shinran Shonin draws on the Contemplation Sutra in all of the other verses in this section, the account of the karmic cause of Bimbisara's current distress comes from the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Nirvana Sutra)1. In spite of the fact that, in the chapter on True Teaching in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran emphasises the central import of the Larger Sutra the Nirvana Sutra is Shinran's most fertile resources.

It is clear that one of the main reasons for Shinran's extensive use of the Nirvana Sutra is the harrowing sense of crisis and anguish in the story of this tragic event at Rajagriha castle - and the way in which light can break into and redeem intractable human evil.

In the Contemplation Sutra, Vaidehi, King Bimbisara's consort, receives instruction from Shakyamuni about the way to attain birth in the Pure Land. She is profoundly distressed by the cruel treatment her husband the king has received at the hands of the prince, Ajatashatru. The Nirvana Sutra takes up the events that followed Bimbisara's death. It is then that Ajatashatru sees himself as utterly incurable; he sees into the deep darkness of his heart; he sees the reality of the greed, anger and depravity that imbues his every motive, taints his every love, stains his every aspiration.

In the account of Ajatashatru's shocking, existential pain it is the very fact that he becomes aware of his own nature with such palpable clarity, which is the first of the two deep minds in the redemptive process. The second is his concomitant awakening to the shinjin granted by the power of the Primal Vow of the Buddha. All this deep, intractable despair is completely alleviated, and forever, by 'shinjin, that has no root in me'.2

The Nirvana Sutra is the great exponent of Buddha nature (Sk. buddha-dhatu or tathagatagarbha). But without Ajatashatru such ideas are mere empty assertions, lacking any formal expression, and not well grounded. Ajatashatru himself, was inconsolable until he heard the Buddha's call and awoke to shinjin. It is this section of the Nirvana Sutra - and its re-telling in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - that bears witness to the truth of Buddha nature, and the place that the Pure Land teaching springs to life and its fruit becomes manifest.


1: The only translation available at present is The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. Kosho Yamamoto, edited by Tony Page, F. Lepine Publishing, 2008.

2: CWS, p.138. The phrase 'no root in me' means 'not something I created myself'.

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