Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 100

Though Shan-tao and Genshin urged all to enter the true
      Pure Land way,
If our teacher Genku had not spread it amongst us
On these isolated islands in this defiled age,
How could we ever have awakened to it?

Isolated Islands

The 'isolated islands' (zokusan-henshu), made up of some three-thousand islands, but principally Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, became home to the Buddha-dharma about a thousand years after Shakyamuni. These islands have proven to be a fine home, too. Although not universally favoured by the people, not invariably popular and presently teetering on the edge of collapse, the Buddha-dharma has imbued the whole of society with its exquisite teachings and been cherished by many millions of people.

While the Buddha-dharma was degenerating in China (becoming syncretistic and confused), in the isolated islands, it was gradually developing and maturing. The earliest form that was adopted came from the Korean Peninsula and served the Soga clan. This kind of Buddhism, however, was also degenerate and corrupt, attractive mainly as an object of superstition. We will discover that Shinran Shonin has something to say about this in the Shozomatsu Wasan. This all changed towards the end of the sixth century, when Prince Shotoku studied the dharma seriously and even lectured on the teachings. Shinran also celebrated Shotoku's fine stewardship in the Shozomatsu Wasan and in other collections of his verses.

At the end of the eighth century the dharma had become accepted as part of the people's lives. On the Hiei and Koya mountains, the homes of the Tendai and Shingon traditions developed, becoming great centres of spiritual and intellectual life, even recognised as such throughout the known Buddhist world. It was in the period, during which the seat of government was at Kamakura (1192 - 1333) that several great reformers emerged and offered interpretations of the dharma that were accessible to ordinary men and women. From that time, Japan became almost the only Mahayana country in which the Buddha-dharma retained its purity and focus.

Each of the Kamakura reformers sought a clearer interpretation of the dharma and there was a very strong impulse to approach the teaching in such a way as to make it possible for it to become integral to daily life in one way or another. There was a movement away from ritual, formalism and esotericism, and towards spontaneity, simplicity, consolidation and openness. The movements were, as far as I know, not motivated by rejection of the past nor a fundamentalist hunger for some kind of mythic 'pure original'. They all accepted the Mahayana as conveying the teaching of Shakyamuni and saw no reason to question its authenticity. On the other hand they were conscious of the problems of legitimacy that are stirred up by the confusion and darkness that reigns in the age of mappo.

The wonder of the Kamakura reformers is that their genius has proven a boon for the dissemination of the Buddha-dharma in societies of European provenance because of their accessibility.

The first reforming spirit to appear was Honen. He was born in Ianoka, Mimasaka province in 1133 and died at Kyoto on February 29, 1212. Honen's principal disciples were Ryukan (1148 - 1227), Shoku (1177 - 1247), Kosai (1163 - 1247), Bencho (1163 - 1237) and Shinran (1173 - 1262). Each of these men further developed Honen's teaching and spread the Nembutsu Way throughout the isolated islands.

The next great reformer was Dogen (1200 - 1253) (a.k.a., Jogyo Daishi, Kigen Dogen), who introduced the Ts'ao-tung Ch'an teaching (soto zen) to his people. Dogen was ordained at Mt Hiei at the age of twelve but, like Honen, he remained spiritually restless and went to China to study zazen on his own initiative for four years under Master Ju-ching. On his return home he practiced and spread the Zen teaching, eventually establishing a temple of his own (Eihei-ji) in Nagoya. Dogen was surely a wonderful philosopher in his own right and has inspired much thought and practice since his time; his teaching extends into many aspects of art, craft and literature down to our own time. In the twenty-years that ended with his death in 1253, he composed a 95-chapter thesis entitled Treasury of the True Eye of the Dharma (shobogenzo).

Dogen's only practice was 'just sitting' (shikan taza) and he is famous for his emphasis on the equivalence of enlightenment and just sitting. Dogen's religion has often met the spiritual needs of the nobility and warrior classes. Sadly, its association with 'bushido' has proven to be a hermeneutical problem for followers in our time because of the abuses that it endured in association with militarism during the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1222 a fisherman's son was born in Kominato. His name was Zennichi but we call him Nichiren (a.k.a., Rissho Daishi, Zenshobo Rencho). In 1233 he was ordained as a monk at a Tendai monastery close to his home town. In keeping with the Tendai teaching, he eventually came to a realisation that the Lotus Sutra was the true and ultimate teaching of Shakyamuni. He rejected all other aspects of the Tendai practice, which he saw as confusing - obfuscating the pure dharma.

At Kiyosumi-dera in 1253, Nichiren announced to the abbott of his monastery - and to his fellow monks - that all other forms of the dharma, other than the Lotus Sutra, should be banished or exterminated. His proclamation was met with dismay and he was banished himself, moving to a shack in Kamakura, where he stood on street corners and proclaimed his doctrine. His criticism of other schools of Buddhism were based on his concerns for the well-being and welfare of society but, nevertheless, they earned him increasing hostility. He felt that popular adherence to other teachings of the dharma was undermining social cohesion and inviting disaster. The arrival of Mongol ambassadors demanding submission of the islands to their sovereignty served to intensify his fears.

Nichiren became so irritating to those in power that he was eventually sentenced to death but miraculously escaped the executioner's sword. He was eventually pardoned and continued his mission to propagate the Lotus Sutra as representing the only genuine teaching of the Shakyamuni. He exprienced constant hostility and persecution and, worn out by his difficult life, died in 1282.

In spite of the apparent tumultuous nature of his personality, Nichiren was nevertheless (as we can see from his letters to his friends) a very compassionate, loving and understanding man. Although very nationalistic in emphasis his religion thrives in several forms in our time. It is very popular in some parts of Europe, the USA and, especially, south-east Asia.

Honen and his followers were, by no means, the only Pure Land reformers of the Kamakura Era. One person who is often overlooked is Ippen (1239 - 1289). Ippen expounded a sublime nembutsu teaching - that is consistent with Tendai orthodoxy - which he built upon the idea of immediacy. That is to say that his interpretation of 'one thought', or single-minded nembutsu is based on the idea that the nembutsu that we say at each moment is the only nembutsu that exists. He was a deeply humble man, who lived first as a hermit and then as a wandering monk (hijiri), having no place to stay, nowhere to live. He fulfilled the aspirations of the bhiksu sangha in all its pristine integrity - the simple way of 'bowl and robe': living the way of nembutsu alone, without any adornment.

Of all of the Kamakura reformers, apart from Shinran himself, I love Ippen the most. His teaching, attitude, demeanour and way of life would, I am sure, be especially pleasing to the heart of Shakyamuni. Ippen was a simple, kind and compassionate man. Although his personal way of life belongs to the path of sages, this dedicated nembutsu follower fulfilled in his own life many of the genuinely practical aspects of the way of the dharma. Ippen had much to contribute to all of us who enter the Pure Land way.

It resists uprooting:
the heart of a person
that cherishes a self.

But what grass or tree flourishes
         of its own will?1


1: Ippen, tr. Hirota 1986, p. 119.

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