Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 87

Amida, full of compassion for those lost in
        the great night of ignorance -
The wheel of light of dharma-body being boundless -
Took the form of the Buddha of Unhindered Light,
And appeared in the land of peace.

The Personality of the Dharma

At this juncture we leave behind the verses specifically dedicated to the three canonical sutras of the Pure Land way, because Shinran Shonin turns to the exploration of some other texts, which he sees as resources useful to this tradition. The nine verses that follow this one seem in large part to be selections of ideas suggested by other recensions of the three Pure Land sutras.

The extra editions are surprisingly numerous and Shinran did not hesitate to use them as appropriate. One of these is quite well known us in the form of Max Müller's translation of the Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra1.

The eighty-seventh verse of the Jodo Wasan, above, has always been an especially arresting verse because it is a sudden incursion of the personal into ideas that are often thought to be otherwise. The key words are 'compassion', 'form' and 'appearing'. No wasan that we have considered so far has such a striking and powerful reference to the personal as a feature the dharma body.

Although the translation of this verse uses the word 'compassion', it is noteworthy that Shinran uses a Japanese word, awaremu, which has the sense of 'pitying' or 'sympathising with'. He, thereby, emphasises a sense of deep pathos at the heart of existence.

When we study seminal treatises like the Abhidharma-kosha-bhashyam of Bodhisattva Vasubandhu we are naturally impressed by the strong place of the doctrine of 'non-ego', or 'not-self' (Sk. anatman) within the field of concerns espoused by the Buddha Dharma. Many people who encounter the dharma for the first time are intrigued by this focus and, of course, we have already seen that it is one of the 'three signata' (Sk. tri-lakshana) which mark Buddhist orthodoxy. Anatman in fact attests to the complex structure of human personality; the fact that it lacks any single enduring, individual substance. The five bundles (Sk. skhandha) are usually presented in dharma discourses to demonstrate this - along with the complexity and evanescence of the personal attributes which contribute to our sense of character and identity.

Nevertheless, the dharma, in its emphasis on anatman, does not deprecate the reality of human personality as we experience it, neither does it posit its destruction or any lack of individuality or uniqueness.

The dharma body as dharma nature (the original body of Amida Buddha), although ineffable, has emotional qualities. A good example is compassion (Sk. karuna) which in fact is a straightforward identity with the suffering of the mass of beings and is concommitant with wisdom (Sk. prajna) - emptiness (Sk. shunyata). Needless, to say, the dharma body is also 'moved' ('pitying') by the 'king of blind passions' - the 'long night of ignorance' - to emerge into a Buddha-realm as Amida Buddha, the Buddha of unhindered light (mugeko butsu).

So real and palpable is the tragedy of suffering that even the dharma body as dharma nature 'feels' it and responds.

This is a telling image. Its ethos is well-attested in the life-story of the great person, Shakyamuni Buddha. When he was a prince Siddhartha ventured out of his cocooned life in the palace to encounter the reality of 'old age', 'suffering' and 'death'. His abhorrence and sorrow at such a discovery moved him to act so as to discover and overcome the causes of these things. Thereupon he acted, moving out of his household and into the life of an ascetic. When he eventually found enlightenment, his realisation that he could impart the way to the benefit of others 'moved' him to stand up from his contemplative absorbtion - and the enjoyment of the fruits of enlightenment - and 'return' to the world of the samsara for the sake of suffering beings.

The dharma body knows and shares our tears, it experiences our pain and is moved eternally to take the form of Amida Buddha, as the dharma body of compassionate means.


1: Sacred Books of the East, Vol 49.

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