Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 88

Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Shakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya.

The Transmission of the Dharma

The phrase translated as 'infinite past' (kuon jitsjo) in fact, reads, 'actually accomplished a long and distant time ago.' Amida Buddha's enlightenment occurred so long ago that we did not know about him until he manifested himself as Shakyamuni.

When the time was ripe, Shakyamuni Buddha told Queen Vaidehi about Amida Buddha, and later delivered the Larger Sutra to his disciples. Indeed, Amida Buddha's self-disclosure was the reason for Shakyamuni's appearance in the world. As we have already seen, the promulgation of the Pure Land teaching is Amida Buddha's contrivance, and Shakyamuni is the principal agent of its transmission in the present era. As the seventeenth Vow says, 'all buddhas praise the Name'; all buddhas revere and declare knowledge of the true original Buddha, Amida. The actual vessel of the transmission of this truth depends on time and circumstance.

When Shinran Shonin speaks of the 'true Buddha' he describes only the qualities of Amida, the Tathagata of inconceivable light. Shakyamuni is never mentioned in that context. Hence, in our tradition, there is essentially only one Buddha, Amida, and this Buddha is the wellspring of all enlightenment and truth. It is there, with Amida Buddha, that the transmission of the dharma begins.

Gaya is close to the bodhi tree where Shakyamuni is said to have attained enlightenment. This means that this verse seems to equate that great event with his manifestation as Amida Buddha. However, it is clear - from a marginal note left by Shinran - that Shakyamuni's birth into the family of King Suddhodana is the point at which Amida Buddha appeared in this world of the five defilements.

Since Shakyamuni's time, his sangha has served as the principle vehicle for the transmission of Amida Buddha's dharma from generation to generation. In many times and in many generations, the light of enlightenment has flickered low and even become extinguished. At times it has thrived in the most impossible of contexts. We, who take up the teachings of Shinran as our guide, for example, are indebted to the perseverance and devotion of the sangha in the oases of central Asia because it is they, who transmitted the dharma from India to China and beyond.

Transmission of the dharma has always moved at a glacial pace, and faced many hardships and difficulties, including misundertanding and outright persecution. In our own time it is at a very low ebb and resources are scarce.

We are immensely privileged in Jodo Shinshu. We are blessed with the scholarship of academics who have the time and resources to study ancient languages so that they can provide careful and reliable translations, which we may use. In the last few decades, the Ryukoku Translation Center and the Hongwanji International Center have given us priceless translations of Shinran's works. This represents the end-point of an ancient journey, whereby the dharma has come down to us from the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha to the English-speaking world in our time.

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