Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 84

The Buddhas of the ten quarters, countless as the sands of
        the Ganges,
Teach this dharma that is most difficult to accept;
For the sake of the evil world of the five defilements,
They bear witness to the teaching and protect beings who
        take refuge in it.

On Going Against the Stream

Someone once told me that Shakyamuni formerly said that following the Buddha Dharma is 'to go against the stream'. I have never been able to find that reference. In fact, of course, the entry from the status of an ordinary person (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) into the stages of enlightenment or the bodhisattva career is described as 'entering the stream'. The only sutra I have found which discusses streams is the famous allegory of the log. In it Shakyamuni describes how just as a log becomes jammed - on its way from the mountain forest to the sea - by sticking to various kinds of snares, so in our journey through life we can become ensnared by our attachments on our way to the great sea of nirvana. The image is of flowing with the stream, rather than against it.

In any case, the verse above points again to the difficulty of accepting the dharma - especially the nembutsu way - and thereby suggests this same image of going against the stream; of standing out from the crowd for those who do accept it. We all know the story of the events which followed in the train of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. He realised just how difficult it would be to teach the dharma and changed his mind upon the urging of Brahma who, acting in his compassion on behalf of suffering beings, suggested that Shakyamuni would be very remiss if he did not make the effort to teach the dharma as there may just be some people who will be receptive to it.

In Jodo Shinshu the eighth Monshu, Rennyo Shonin, is reported to have said that the Shin community (kyodan) exists for the sake of even just one person who awakens the entrusting heart. The supporting texts, the Pure Land sutras and Shinran's writing suggest over and over again that hearing the dharma is difficult. From the beginning, the dharma has understood that truth is not necessarily easy for us to accept; and unlikely to be popular. History has not necessarily proved this to be true. The Buddha Dharma became a universal religion very quickly, given the contraints of the age, and at one time spanned most of the 'civilized' world. We also know from the inscriptions which have survived from the time of the Emperor Ashoka that a teaching that resembled the southern form of Buddha Dharma provided the communal underpinning of the great civilization over which Ashoka ruled (3rd century BCE). In seventh century Japan Shotoku Taishi (574 - 622) adopted the Mahayana, and incorporated the Three Treasures and certain Buddhist ideas into his constitution.

In East Asia, even today, it is striking how popular the Pure Land path continues to be; how inspiring it is for millions of people.

But I would suggest that, while the Buddha Dharma is universal, it is not really popular. It has been - and continues to be - widely tolerated because it is generous and tolerant in spirit itself. As a movement, the Buddha Dharma has never sought to destroy the indigenous religions it met in its expansion throughout the world and its monasteries invariably provided the masses with places of serene beauty, rest and refuge. The followers of the dharma had their moments of unhappy derangement but by and large they have, throughout history, been remarkable for their serene urbanity and kindness.

The dharma has also been characterised by its generosity of spirit, freely lending its insights and wisdom experience to the world at large; inspiring great movements in the world for the development of art, literature, architecture, medicine and philosophy. The dharma has always preferred reasonable persuasion and shunned self-righteousness and violence as arguments in its support, gaining thereby the widespread respect and affection of the masses.

Nevertheless, I think it is as true now as ever it was that very few people adopted the dharma as the exclusive focus of their lives for it does come to us with truths which makes all of us - from time to time - not a little uneasy. Such is the legacy of truth and wisdom as it impresses itself on the world of illusion!

Many followers of the dharma in Australia - and I am sure this is true in every other country - lament the way in which the vast majority of those who practice the dharma only do so in a partial and discontinuous way. Most seem to use it in a utilitarian way and abandon it when it has served some apparently self-serving purpose.

My view is that we should be firm in insisting on the tried and true pattern of the dharma's relationship with the world. This is the way of seeing ourselves - and the dharma we love so much - as guests. Rather than lament the partial interest that a large number of people show in the dharma, we do well to maintain the old generosity of spirit which has commended it throughout history to the rough and ready world at large . Shakyamuni warned us, not just in the Amida Sutra, which this wasan commemorates, but in many places, that his teaching is difficult. Bearing this in mind, I think we should see ourselves as guests and servants of the world, being ready to offer whatever kind words, gentle wisdom, warmth, generosity and support for others that we can find within ourselves to share; no matter what their relationship with the dharma may be.

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