Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 1

Our teacher, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, abundantly praises
      the Pure Land in the west
In such works as his commentaries on the Mahaprajnapramita Sutra
And the Ten Bodhisattva Stages,
And urges us to practice the nembutsu.

Our Teacher

Nagarjuna probably lived between 150 and 250 in southern India. During his first thirty years Marcus Aurelius - the last of the five great pre-Christian Roman Emperors - died, and in the east the reign of Han dynasty drew to its close.

Although a rather facile form of the Buddha Dharma had already begun to capture the interest of the Chinese, time would eventually show that it was to be Nagarjuna's teaching that would provide an enduring contribution to Buddhist practice there; and in the rest of east Asia. Nagarjuna would be hailed as the patriarch of eight schools. Jodo Shinshu honours him as the first dharma master.

Nagarjuna was born in central India. Shinran Shonin tells us that he was called 'Nagarjuna' ('Naga [serpent]-tree') because he was born beneath a tree and raised by a naga-king. This is not to say that he was literally raised by a serpent-god, since worshippers of nagas were themselves so described.

Although he was raised as a Brahmin priest, there are many stories about Nagarjuna which support his clear penetration of the Buddha Dharma and his extraordinary genius in recapturing its original vision in his interpretation of the texts that make up the praj├▒aparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature. This corpus of literature forms the basis for the conceptions of the Madhyamika, or school of the Middle Way, sometimes also known as Shunyatavada, the way of Emptiness.

Nagarjuna's objective was to undermine the theoretical basis of both dogmatism and logic in the Hindu and Buddhist scholastic tradition by seeking to demonstrate that any affirmative assertion was untenable and that every philosophical construct is beset with manifold inner consistencies. This, and the fact that his dialectic itself contains logical inconsistencies, suggest that his system should be described as metaphysical in scope. It is mainly a practical method of mental training designed to inculcate an outlook entirely governed by the principle of emptiness (Sk. shunya ta); thus freeing the disciple from all attachments to ideas, including the Madhyamika system itself. In this way, Nagarjuna was able to inspire a truly profound and enduring revolution within the Buddha shasana and return understanding of the dharma to its original principles, especially the insight into 'non-self' (Sk. anatman).

Of the nine key texts attributed to Nagarjuna, only four still survive in Sanskrit. The Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra and The Ten Bodhisattva Stages are the only two that Shinran specifically mentions here. In both the Wasan and in the Shoshinge, Shinran celebrates Nargarjuna's genuis in setting the Buddha shasana on a more orthodox course as a result of his teaching of the Middle Way (Sk. madhyamika pratipad) between two competing extremes of thought.

Shinran shows little interest in Nagarjuna's metaphysical system, however, and never pursues the Madhyamika as an end in itself. He is primarily concerned with Nagarjuna as a sage of deep devotion: a model of the Pure Land way and a teacher of the Pure Land dharma.

Shinran singles out, especially, those passages in Nagarjuna's treatises which allude to the nembutsu. With consummate skill Shinran hangs the warm, devotional side of Nagarjuna's personality upon the pillar of the regard and reverence with which Nagarjuna is held in the wider Buddha shasana. Nagarjuna, then, is our first noteworthy teacher of the nembutsu way.

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