Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 86

To the evil beings of wrong views
In this evil age of five defilements, in this evil world
The Buddhas, countless as the sands of the Ganges,
Give the Name of Amida, urging [them to entrust themselves to it].

Many Voices

This verse continues the theme from the last paragraph of the Amida Sutra.

Shariputra, you should know that in the midst of this evil world of the five defilements, I have accomplished this difficult task.1

The world-view expounded in the Abhidharma suggests that time has a wave motion, not quite cyclic, but involving peaks and troughs. In the peaks conditions are optimal; troughs indicate disintegration. The optimal times support confident and easy dharma practice and in the troughs it is either extinct or has degenerated beyond recognition.

There are time measurements (kalpas) included in this perspective but they are of indefinite length and are synonymous with 'an almost incalculable' duration. There are also mulitples of these time-spans and they are called great kalpas (mahakalpa). Shakyamuni appeared in the world almost 2,500 years ago (563-483 BCE) and in a time of decline; the time of the decline of the ninth kalpa of the current great term. That is why the Amida Sutra concludes with this reference to the 'period of five defilements'.

Compounding this fluctuation in the dharma's fortunes, there is the sunset, shadowy, dusk-like period of decline (mappo, Sk. is probably, saddharma vipralopa) as Shakyamuni retreats into the distant past and his teaching becomes ever more clouded. Shinran Shonin was deeply conscious of this compounding tragedy and understood that it suffuses everything with its infection. Without a sense of the all-pervasive influence of mappo, I think that it is very difficult to come to terms with a lot of Shinran's teaching.

Those who overlook the reality of mappo are either scandlised by Shinran's teaching or seek to re-interpret it in such a way as to cater to consumerist prejudices, which prevail in our time. It seems to me to be correct that without an appreciation of mappo as the underlying context of Pure Land teaching, parts of Shinran's teaching will seem unduly troubling; but I am also convinced that we do indeed live in the age of mappo.

To my mind the evidence for mappo is clear. However, it is a shame to sully the Jodo Wasan with such considerations. We will have ample time to explore this subject fully when we come to the Shozomatsu Wasan. For now we may still rejoice in the resplendent effulgence of Amida Buddha - the basis of the Jodo Wasan.

The important feature of the last paragraph of the Amida Kyo - to which Shinran alludes in this verse - is that despite the obstacles, all the Buddhas of the universe do encourage us to the nembutsu way. Amida Buddha's light does fill the universe; and our hearts and minds.

Nirvana has innumerable names. It is impossible to give them in detail; I will list only a few. Nirvana is called extinction of passions, the uncreated, peaceful happiness, eternal bliss, true reality, dharma-body, dharma-nature, suchness, oneness, and Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.2

It is evening now and the day is coming to rest. The sun is about to set. The storms of early spring have abated and the season has become balmy and warm. I can hear the excited squeal of children in the distance; and somewhere a violin. The scented air is intoxicating - damask roses, honeysuckle, gardenias, white cedars, mock orange and lilac; a silent concert celerating the beginning of a new annual cycle of birth, stability, decay and death. The air is filled with the chorus of birds and, skimming above all this, a gentle noiseless evening breeze is turning from the sea to inland bearing news from the hills of ripenning wheat and barley.

Tonight these are the voices whispering, in enthralling accord, the resounding reassurance that the way for us all at this time of mappo is Namu-amida-bustu.

Remorselessly, darkness is falling; but still there is light.


1: TPLS I, p. 13.

2: CWS p.461.

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