Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 77

The minister Jivaka, with hand on his sword,
Stepped backward and began to take his leave;
Ajatasatru was thus made to discard his sword,
But he confined Vaidehi within the palace.

Outrage

The tumultuous events at Rajagriha palace were the occasion that the Pure Land dharma was revealed in the world. If life had treated Vaidehi fairly and justly, it is unlikely that she would have appealed to Shakyamuni for help; and, then, the opportunity to teach the Pure Land dharma would have passed. To explore this further, it is worth reflecting upon King Bimbisara's history.

There is a story that before adopting the teaching of Shakyamuni, King Bimbisara was a devout follower of the Vedic religion, a worshipper of fire (Sk. agni). One day Siddhartha - Shakyamuni when he was still a bodhisattva and before he became a buddha - was approaching Rajagriha and was overtaken by some shepherds guiding a flock of sheep towards the city.

Asked why they were in such haste the shepherd told Siddhartha that the King (Bimbisara) had proclaimed a feast and that the sheep were on their way to be slaughtered in a holocaust. The shepherds hurried on. By the time Siddhartha arrived at Rajagriha the ceremony was well under way. Siddhartha walked up to the King and the priests at the head of the congregation and told them that sacrifice was a meaningless activity. He pointed out that no sentient being wanted to die so we should not kill them and, in any case, sickness and death fetches us off soon enough - so why hasten the process unnecessarily? He also said that it was extremely unfair to expect others to suffer on our behalf.

If one is not honestly prepared to give one's life in a particular cause oneself, then it is disingenuous to ask others to risk their lives on one's behalf. This is, of course, the Golden Rule, a norm of conduct common to all of humanity; except that - in case of the Buddha Dharma - it extends to all sentient life.

As a result of that fist meeting with the bodhisattva who was to become Buddha Shakyamuni the ground was prepared for Bimisara's conversion to the dharma - after which he became a devout and virtuous follower to the end of his life. Now, suddenly, he is the victim of severe oppression and abuse at the hands of his son Ajatashatru. In her attempts to help her husband, Bimbisara the King, Vaidehi, too becomes Ajatashatru's victim and is imprisoned. It is this incident which - from our perspective - can only be described as outrage and confusion, served as the occasion for the launching of the Pure Land teaching.

In the midst of this confusion, when darkness carries the day, the Pure Land way shines as a beacon on a moonless night and as an oasis in a desert, fair and bright and offering the only light. This dharma is for the confused and the despairing.

Let the one who seeks to abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure; who is confused in practice and vacillating in faith; whose mind is dark and whose understanding deficient; whose evils are heavy and whose karmic obstructions manifold - let such persons embrace above all the Tathagata's exhortations, take refuge without fail in the most excellent direct path, devote themselves solely to this practice, and revere only this entrusting heart.1

If Vaidehi had not been incarcerated and the victim of an outrage, she may not have been inclined to seek out the Pure Land dharma. And, if Bimbisara had thought that he would be safe and secure by following the dharma he, too, would have been wrong. Outrage and confusion, too, may be the motivating force that drives us to seek out the way of nembutsu, just as it did for Vaidehi.


1: CWS, p. 3

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