Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 104

When Genku was alive
He emanated a golden light,
Which the chancellor, an ordained laymen,
Saw before him.

Cultic Buddhism

The Macquarie Dictionary describes the word cult as: 'An instance of an almost religious veneration for a person or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.' As I have already pointed out, the verses that are concerned with Honen Shonin reveal a surprising phenomenon. Shinran Shonin presents Honen in a plainly cultic manner. In this verse - and in those that follow - there is a quite astonishing absence of any mention of the details of Honen's teaching.

When we survey his verses in honour of the six dharma masters of the Pure Land lineage, who came before Honen, we are confronted with references to the content of their teaching that are sometimes even quite demanding. They assume a measure of sophistication and knowledge of the dharma.

However, when Shinran Shonin comes to the verses on Honen all this changes dramatically. Shinran's treatment of Honen is cultic in its emphasis and it reminds us of the importance of cult in the practice of the dharma. As we move on to look more closely at this aspect of Buddhist tradition, however, although the word 'cult' is a suitable term in this context, it is also used in a clearly pejorative way in modern religious discourse.

The current obsession with using dismissive descriptions of 'cults' in modern society is somewhat mysterious, since every single one of the religious groups that currently claim 'mainstream' status were once small, tightly focussed groups, often with a single charismatic leader. As well as that, some of the mainstream organisations encourage unquestioning obedience to their chosen authority.

As for all groups that are now mainstream, Honen's Pure Land movement was, in its formative days, obviously open to criticism as a cult. I would suspect that Shinran is not alone in his sense of devotion. He does not use rational argument, nor provide us with an outline of Honen's doctrine in the context of his hymns. Instead - in respect of Honen - Shinran focuses almost exclusively upon those things that induce in us a sense of religious veneration and awe.

Buddhist purists are often keen to disavow the cultic way in the Buddha dharma but the dharma itself sanctions it. An example of this can be found in the Lotus Sutra.

Those who with distracted minds
Have offered a single flower to a painted image
Will in time see innumerable Buddhas.
Or those who have done obeisance to images,
Or merely pressed their palms together,
Or raised a single hand, or nodded their heads,
Will in due time see innumerable Buddhas.
They will attain the hightest path
And extensively save innumerable sentient beings.
They will enter nirvana without residue
Just as a fire goes out after its wood is exhausted.1

Apart from this small piece of evidence, we can see numerous cases of cultic devotion throughout Buddhist history. One striking example of this can be found in the journals of the travels of the great sixth century Chinese scholar and pilgrim Xuanzang. One story says that he visited a famous cave in Bamiyan in which there was a miraculous image of Shakyamuni. The fact that Xuanzang saw this image, received its special grace and was deeply moved by it, is testimony to the power and importance of cult within Buddhist tradition.

Given that the Buddha-dharma places great stock upon clarity of mind and concentration, one wonders how (as we see in this quote from the Lotus Sutra) even 'those who with distracted minds' can make progress upon the Buddhist way. Is this a reflection of a degenerate or unworthy aspect of the dharma? Should it be disparaged or dismissed as corrupt and out of character?

My view is that, although most schools of Buddhism strongly insist upon the importance of our inner disposition in our practice of the dharma, the cultic way nevertheless brings to light an offer of hope to every single individual - even those who have distracted minds and no great commitment to the ongoing practice of the dharma. To dismiss the cultic way as aberrant not only flies in the face of manifest reality but also fails to appreciate the all-emcompassing embrace of the Mahayana.

Shinran's reverence for Honen, however, is not a simple example of the cultic appreciation of a teacher. Although Shinran emphasises the cultic aspects of Honen's life in these verses, he also encourages us, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, to study his teaching and to devote ourselves to the way of nembutsu.


1: The Lotus Sutra, tr. Kubo Tsugunari & Yuyama Akira, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1993, p. 44.

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