Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 105

It was said among the people
That the original state of our teacher Genku
Was Master Tao-ch'o,
Or again, Master Shan-tao.

Lay Wisdom

Religious professionals belong to a class who speak to each other in the same way that other professionals do: using specialised terminogy. However, the appropriate language of religious discourse is inherently other-worldly, pointing beyond the ordinary and mundane to transcendent universals. The difficulty is in hermeneutics. What has been happening is that the process of demythologising truth is removing the transcendent altogether from the apparent - religious authority is speaking in ever more mundane terms. For ordinary people, professional religious teachers have made the teachings so banal that most intelligent and sensitive people conclude that they have, in fact, nothing of any value to say.

Religious truth is universal but the existential reality of those who seek to understand it is plural. Hinduism and the Buddha-dharma have done very well in working within a theoretical pattern that takes account of this fact. There are '84,000 dharma gates', each designed to answer to individual prejudices, expectations and needs of followers. Nevertheless, this has not involved a conscious compromise of the transcendent realities in purely mundane terms but represents a natural developmental process.

Throughout history the various schools of the dharma have addressed individuals in ways that suit their circumstances. Examples of this are the way that the meditation (Sk. dhyana, Ch. Ch'an & Jp. zen) and similar schools, have largely been the preserve of the warrior, ruling and, now corporate business classes, for example, while the Pure Land stream has been popular among caftspeople, performers, merchants, farmers, fishers, tradesmen - and all women. There are many variants on this theme, of course, since the dharma encourages the formation of small groups, which gather around teachers here and there, rather than the maintenance of vast monolithic bureaucracies.

Another contemporary problem for religious professionals - or so it seems to me at any rate - is a widespread tendency to use multi-disciplinary resources to disastrous effect; sometimes sounding utterly absurd to those who actually belong to and pratice one or other of the scientific or professional disciplines that the professional religionist is trying to colonise at the time. It is sad because there is a mistaken perception on the part of many western clergy that the general population is abandoning the faith whereas it is the clergy that are being abandoned. On the other hand, I think that there is growing evidence that professional students of religion are gaining respect when they adhere closely to the boundaries of their own disciplines and are clearly committed to - and practice - it themselves.

There seems to be good historical evidence that, in Honen's time, anti-clericalism was also a problem that confronted those, who were seeking to propagate the dharma. Professional religious teachers were manifestly envious of Honen's popularity. Yet it is an extraordinary fact that precisely the same qualities conspired to cause dedicated and seeking lay-people to flee the professionals on one hand and flock to Honen on the other. And I think that the underlying causes of this phenomenon are the same today as they were then.

Honen was obviously a person who held uncompromisingly to what he thought was true. Instead of trying to appeal to people by 'making his teaching relevant' in a way that adopted mundane terms more appropriate to the laity, he spoke unapologetically of the universal truths of the dharma. He was also clearly a man who practiced the teaching that he proclaimed. And from this verse, we discover that he maintained a good rapport with his followers. The evidence for this lies in the fact that Honen's followers knew who Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao were. They clearly had an intelligent and engaged appreciation of the antecedents for the message that Honen was bringing to light.

Indeed, Honen was honourable and faithful in relation to his antecedents. He never spoke of Shan-tao, for example, as a person whose teaching was compromised by the fact that he had lived some five hundred years earlier. Honen never sought to rationalise or belittle the genuis and wisdom of Shan-tao, never sought to supercede him or displace his importance in the scheme of things.

Honen is the model of a genuine religious leader. His example is a salutary lesson to us today. If we look closely at all aspects of his example we will discover why he was loved and respected and - even though he did not speak in worldly terms -, and why he was believed. His credibility came, not from any clever sophistry, prevarication or rationalisaton. Honen was credible because of who he was.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next