Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 80

Since conditions for the Pure Land teaching had matured,
Sakyamuni and Vaidehi, manifesting compassionate means,
Led the minister Varsakara to bear witness
And King Ajatasatru to commit grave offenses.


In this verse, Shinran Shonin tells us that he sees the main players in the events at Rajagriha Palace manifesting a tide of karmic ripening whereby the fullness of time had come for the proclamation of the Pure Land teaching. This way of seeing things is most venerable in the tradition of the Buddha Dharma. Whereas we who live in an individualistic era tend see Shakyamuni as a singular hero whose personal struggle led to the conquest of darkness and his personal awakening to the dharma, no such attitude prevails within the tradition which descends from him. From the earliest times, the birth, life and death of the Buddha are cosmic events. In the exquisite biography of Shakyamuni by Asvagosha, the Acts of the Buddha (Sk. buddha carita), the World Hero is supported by the gods and all the natural forces of the universe1.

So it is in this way that the dawn of the Pure Land teaching was a momentous event of timeless and vast significance.

In Shinran's view, an important factor leading to Shakyamuni's proclamation of the Pure Land way is the evil behaviour of Ajatashatru, who usurped the throne of his father Bimbisara.

We learn in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that Ajatashatru eventually opened himself to shinjin when he repented of his wrong doing. Repentance (Sk. kaukritya) is 'turning about' from the evils of the past to take refuge in the Three Treasures. It is associated with a determination to move on and leave the past behind. When one makes a mistake, one leaves it behind, lets it all go, prepares to take the inevitable consequences, and pushes on without any further regret. One might be wiser - have learnt a lot - but neither the past nor its future outcomes can be changed. The law of karma is inflexible.

The repeated reference to the grave wrongdoing (gyakuaku) of Ajatashatru - takes us back to the previous Wasan in which Shinran says in his footnote that the 'most foolish and the lowest [evildoers]' are 'we who have sunk to the bottom of the great sea'. What does Shinran Shonin mean by this intriguing phrase?

There are some nine or ten uses of the word 'sea' in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho but the two most relevant of them are these:

... sentient beings of the countless worlds, floundering in the sea of blind passions and drifting and sinking in the ocean of birth-and-death, lack the true and real mind of directing virtues; they lack the pure mind of directing virtues.2

The other passage is a quotation from Shan-tao:

The beings in the ten quarters in the same way transmigrate within the six courses endlessly; revolving in circles, they flounder in the waves of desire and sink in the sea of pain.3

These two passages can be considered in concert with this quotation from the Nirvana Sutra:

Good sons, there are four acts that bring evil results. What are these four? The first is to recite the sutras in order to surpass others. The second is to observe the precepts in order to gain profit and esteem. The third is to practice charity in order to make others one's followers. The fourth is to fix and concentrate one's mind in order to reach the realm of neither thought nor no-thought. These four good acts bring evil results. Those who practice these four good acts are termed 'people who sink, then emerge again; emerge, then sink again.' Why is it said that they sink? Because they aspire to the three realms of existence. Why is it said that they emerge? Because they see brightness. To see brightness is to hear of precepts, charity, and meditation. Why do they sink again? Because their wrong views increase and they give rise to arrogance.4

Shinran's reference to having sunk to the bottom of the sea is an allusion to unmitigated karmic evil, which follows from unqualified attachment to the three realms of existence. There is no relieving moment of brightness; and progress within samsara is a constant downward spiral, in which nothing one does is free from the taint of desire and ignorance. Even the good that one does is tinctured with one's underlying assumption that samsara is reality. The burden of karma becomes heavier and heavier. Overwhelmed by its unremitting weight, one sinks to immobility in the sludge of karma, unable to move or rise again. There is no brightness and no upward movement. It is too late; the burden is too heavy; one drowns in the sea of samsara and pain.

It is this realistic sense of the weight of karmic evil that aroused such relief, such joy in Shinran's heart. So immobilised by evil karma is he - so bogged down - that the only possibility of transcendence is 'the call of the Vow' (Namu-amida-butsu), which - like Ajatashatru's awakening - broke through his emotional bondage to the three realms of existence. This is the rope that appears in the depths of the sea of samsara. Since it is all there is, one has no choice but to accept it. Having done so it is not until one feels a tug from the other end that one knows that it can be trusted.

1: There are three readily available translations: 1) Buddha-Karita of Asvagosha E. B. Cowell, in Buddhist Mahayana Texts, Sacred Texts of the East, Vol. LXIX; 2) Buddhacarita; In Praise of Buddha's Acts, tr. Charles Willemen, Numata Centre, 2009; and 3) Life of the Buddha by Ashva-ghosha, Translated by Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanskrit Library, NYUP & JJC Foundation, 2007.

2: CWS, p. 103

3: CWS, p. 239.

4: CWS, p. 235.

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