Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 103

The supreme virtues of Genku's wisdom and practice were such
That even the teachers in the various schools of the Path of Sages
All turned to him for guidance and revered him
As master of the diamondlike precepts embodied in the one-mind.


Honen Shonin founded the nembutsu way as a distinct school of the dharma and gained hundreds of followers - converts from other schools and people who hitherto had little interest in the Buddha-dharma. As we have already seen, he did not exclude anyone from his company and he did not reject those who were lacking in virtue. Nevertheless, unlike Shinran Shonin, he remained afaithful member of the bhikshu sangha throughout his life. He was famous for his scrupulous obedience to the pratimoksha - the 'rules' or 'restrictions on freedom' - that were an integral part of the monastic life. The pratimoksha collection (Sk. vinaya-vibhanga) was one of the two volumes that comprise vinaya), which is the first 'basket' (Sk. vinaya pitaka) of the 'three baskets' that make up the Buddhist canon of literature (Sk. tripitaka). The other 'baskets' are the Sutra Pitaka and the Abhidharma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka was compiled first and the Abhidharma Pitaka was last.

The Vinaya consists of two major books. These are the Vinaya-vibhanga (which includes the pratimoksha rules) and the Vinaya-vastu. The Pratimoksha refers to the rules that govern daily conduct within the monks' lives and includes instructions on how breaches of the rules can be redressed. Penalties sometimes involve expulsion but the most common method is confession alone. Repentance and confession is therefore a very early tradition within monastic life. Indeed, we saw, when we were considering Shan-tao's teaching, that it plays an important part in the spiritual life of Pure Land Buddhists too. Punishment is not a part of the Buddhist pattern of behaviour, since the law of karma brings its own rewards, but confessoion consists of 'owning up to' unhelpful or damaging behaviour. It is a way of encouraging us to take responsibility for our own actions.

It seems to me that it is not only important in the life of a community, in which all individuals depend on each other, but it is a psychologically healthy thing too. It never seems like a good idea to deny our responsibility or to refuse to own up to errors or wrongdoing. It is a relief to admit to mistakes and then to learn from them and move on in life. Admission of error, however, is a very perilous thing in a competitive environment like the modern workplace. Our colleagues will see it as weakness and exploit it to their own advantage. Or, is it? In any case, in the Pure Land tradition the nembutsu is the expression of both confession of errors and rejoicing in the Power of Amida Buddha's Vow. It seems to me that the most important thing is to face up to uncomfortable things, since denial will only haunt us in the future.

One important factor in the question of the admisson of error is that, in a mutually dependent community like the bhiksu sangha, we become known as honest and trustworthy, and people are more likely to believe our denials if (as often happens) we are wrongly accused. Such, in any case is the purpose and value of the Vinaya. Admission to error and an apology to the community brings the promise that we will not make the same mistake twice. The bhiksu sangha, however, is such that there are limits to repeat offenses. The community can be destroyed by those who fail to at least make a sincere effort to learn from their mistakes. One of Shakyamuni's key disciples, Ananda, was famous for his rather turbulent libido. His mistakes in that regard were fuel for his spiritual growth and he became firm of will, honest and reliable in character because he frankly faced and owned up to his errors.

A feature that I found to be a striking part of the very ethos of the Vinaya is the way in which the rules are determined by precedent. Rules were made up 'on the run', usually on Shakyamuni's instructon. Thus, on one occasion we learn that a number of monks were horsing around while bathing - splashing each other. People in the neighbourhood found this offensive and complained to Shakyamuni, who then went on to give instructions about the rules that apply in the matter of bathing.

The fact that the rules were influenced more by public expectations of celibate monks than by any over-riding 'moral' code - that has been handed down by some kind of superior authority - is a very important pointer to the entire question of conventional ethics in the world of the dharma. After all, the objective of the dharma is complete freedom (Sk. moksha) and it is a path that encourages self-determination and personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, the spirit of the Vinaya is to urge us to be prudent and to avoid bringing the dharma into disrepute as a result of our personal conduct (even in Jodo Shinshu, which has no formal precepts, priests are expected to adhere to this very same ethos). At the same time it encourages us to face up to and to own our mistakes, to learn from them and to move on without looking back in regret. These things are, in themselves, very liberating.

Following Shakyamuni's parinirvana, the Vinaya naturally tended to become ossified; commentarial material became more and more important as social, geographical and climatic conditions changed. The robes that can be comfortably worn in tropical climes would result in death from hypothermia at higher latitudes and altitudes. Furthermore, there tended to be two distinct monastic life-styles. On one hand were the wandering bhiksus, the mendicants, but there was also a tendency for some members of the sangha to congregate and live in settlements (Sk. vihara) that eventually became buildings and permanent monasteries and temples. Each of these groups needed to develop specific modifications to the rule to match the realities of their circumstances.

In both China and Japan separate schools of Vinaya developed (ritsu) but every monastery had at least one monk who was an expert in Vinaya and who was the main repository of wisdom in regard to its demands. Honen was such a person. Because Honen was clearly so virtuous, it is easy to see how he can so easily be identified with Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva and Amida Buddha. This is even more so, when it is remembered that - in spite of his extraordinary virtue - his compassion embraced even the most lowly and outcast people. In him we truly see a living Buddha and the face of the Primal Vow.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next