Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 75

King Ajatasatru shouted, in a fit of rage,
My own mother betrays me!
And heinously, to strike her down,
He drew his sword against her.

Anitya

The next four verses relate the events described in the third chapter of the Contemplation Sutra. Indeed, for Shinran Shonin, the first five chapters of this sutra are clearly the most important. In them we encounter some of the most fearsome and terrible passions.

Shinran was familiar with these passions. He not only experienced them in the course of his life - as when the nembutsu community was confronted with the fury, anger and jealousy of both the monastic and secular leadership - but the inconceivable light of Amida Buddha cast his own inner demons into sharp relief.

In the last verse we saw that Ajatashatru deposed his father, King Bimbisara. Now, on discovering that the Queen, Vaidehi, was taking food to him, Ajatashatru flies into a rage. Intending to kill his mother, he declares her to be his enemy. Then he commits the crime of abuse the dharma.

Upon hearing these words, Ajatashatru became infuriated at his mother and shouted, 'Mother, you are my enemy because you are an accomplice to my enemy. Those vile monks with their delusive magic have enabled that wicked king to remain alive for these many days.' Immediately, he drew his sharp sword, intending to kill her.1

This paragraph describes some profound human truths at the heart of which is the ugliness of self-justification. No matter who we are, it is extremely difficult for us - human beings - to see ourselves as being at fault in any given situation. And those of us who claim to accept our faults are very often feigning it in order to escape notice or retribution.

Ajatshatru's absurd name calling and accusations are a common feature of human life. Human history is full of murderous demagogues who harbour the most vicious potential of their own while accusing others of the very things that they think and do. But even in ordinary circumstances, and relationships, society at large, this kind of behaviour is a common theme.

In this verse, Ajatashatru is enraged and outspoken with the dharma itself. He is contemplating killing his mother, an evil which is inconceivable. It is impossible in this fuming man to see one who, within a few years, would become a benefactor of the Buddha Dharma; a virtuous and wise lay disciple.

Unless, of course, one is in tune with the dharma. For one of the 'signata' (Sk. lakshana) of existence (conditioned things - samskara) is change (Sk. anitya). Although this truth can be threatening and frightening, it is the harbinger of positive change as well.

We learn in the Nirvana Sutra that the enraged and abusive Ajatashatru later became a gentle and devoted follower of the dharma.


1: TPLS I p. 18.

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