Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 106

Genku appeared as Mahasthamaprapta,
And also as Amida.
Emperors and ministers venerated him, and
And the ordinary people in the capital and the countryside
      revered him.

The Sage

This wonderful verse reminds us of something, which we have explored before. It points to a very significant aspect of Buddha-dharma. The dharma is not inherently formulaic, and neither does it settle for naïve abstraction. It is a living, energetic, vibrant and engaging reality.

This quality of the dharma is very often overlooked in English-language presentations but I think that Kenryo Kanamatsu (1915 - 1986) gets it right when he renders prajna as 'pure feeling'. Prajna is invariably translated, rather dryly, as 'wisdom'. But 'wisdom' does not really tell us a lot. Wisdom is an extraordinarily imprecise word and can be applied to a wide range of people - from an obsequious description of someone who is really rather pompous and unduly self-important to a genuinely wise person who manifests remarkable insight about things. 'Wisdom literature' in various scriptural traditions is so varied in meaning that it causes the word to stretch the bounds of consistency. Some 'wisdom' traditions consist of collections of pedestrian and clichéd aphorisms and some are profound, conceptual and essentially ineffable.

We have also seen that the 'Four Treatise School' of the Madhyamika had a more vibrant view of wisdom. T'an-luan, who was originally a scholar of the Four Treatise School, was able to draw together themes and concepts from both the Madhyamika and the Vijnaptimatrata Schools to show us how it is that wisdom takes living form as Amida Buddha.

In Shinran Shonin's experience of his encounter with Honen Shonin we discover that neither Amida Buddha nor Mahasthamaprapta, the embodiment of his wisdom, are merely transcendent and absolute. Shinran rejoices in the way that great, intelligent and noble figures of the imperial court, along with rustic folk - peasants and farmers - came face to face with Amida in the form of Honen.

Honen, the embodiment of wisdom. It is in this manifestation that it becomes easier to understand the nature of prajna in the world of the Buddha-dharma. Prajna is inherently elusive because it is 'without form, empty like space'. However, in the actual - one might almost say 'practical' - experience of those who follow the dharma, it can be apparent in the form of a living individual.

It is not that the individual who is thus described 'realises' wisdom and then shows it in some kind of epiphany; it is the prajna itself that moves to its own epiphany in the form of a person like Honen. Kanamatsu's phrase 'pure feeling' is so very apt because, as we see from Shinran's poems on Honen, the wisdom is known not in words - meaning in the niceties of Honen's verbal expression - but in the sense, on the part of those who heard him, that he was 'radiant'.

To think more precisely about this, I suggest that you picture a group of people who are listening to Honen speak. We can hear across this group of people sitting together on the floor, many of whom are murmuring the nembutsu, the voice and words of Honen. However, it is not his words that are conveying his wisdom. True, they are a part of it, but these people are experiencing something far more wonderful and intangible. They are 'seeing' his wisdom; seeing it deep within. Honen's presence is showing them things, which his words only skim over, glance aside and hint at. It is not his words that they can call to mind; it is the image that comes to mind. When they think of his dharma talks, they have an impression of 'rays of light' and a sense that they are hearing in such inner depths that it can only be Amida Buddha who is before them.

I strongly believe that communication works in these indescribable ways. We 'hear' things, not just through words, but through context, demeanour, posture, facial expression, the environment and even the weather at the time. We hear things subjectively; for example, we hear in ways that are coloured by our mood. If we are depressed and worried, some tangential phrase may either plunge us into an even darker mood, or suddenly lift us to the heights of joy. When something very pivotal in our lives may occur, and we later call this event to mind, we may remember a few key words but we have more vivid memories of these other things.

In order to gain useful insight into wisdom, prajna, pure feeling, we need - as I have said before - to draw on wider Buddhist resources. The Diamond Sutra (Sk. Vajracchedika prajnaparamita sutra) and the Lankavatara Sutra are useful texts. Furthermore, we can seek out guidance in the Dhyana tradition of 'transmission of mind' directly from person to person. The Pure Land tradition, having had centuries-long association with Tien-t'ai, but especially Ch'an, is imbued with such a spirit. This is why the expert twentieth century Buddhist philosopher Junjiro Takaksu classifies the Pure Land way among a family of schools which are those of 'intuitive introspection'. He sees the Dhyana Schools as apophatic and the Pure Land Schools as kataphatic, but untuitive, rather than rationalistic.

With this in mind, it is possible to solve many conundrums in the questions that are raised by the method of dharma transmission within the Pure Land stream. One of them is the interesting question of the relationship between Honen's Hongan Senchaku Nembutsushu and Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. As we study these two crucial works we discover some significant contrasts that cannot be overlooked, although they frequently are. Honen's works is dry, formal and prosaic, Shinran's is engaging, inspired and poetic. Honen addresses the public, Shinran the individual.

However, Shinran is writing not about the actual and specific words that he heard Honen say: he barely mentions them. Shinran was writing about the light and the music that he heard in sitting before Honen and being in his presence. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is the inner reality of the nembutsu way, it dares to sing of that which surpasses speech and to write about things which are understood in terms of vision - wisdom, pure feeling and light.

Some people communicate, however, more effectively in words than they do in their personal presence. It is perhaps the case that Shinran was one such person. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho ennables us, therefore to be among those who sat before Honen receiving the subliminal mind-to-mind intuitive transmissin that is integral to the dharma, basking in his light. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is the light of the Buddha. Honen's genuis was in transmitting it, Shinran's was in receiving it and then by writing it, releasing it for all living things in the universe to savour through time.

In Honen's case it was the man himself that was the message. His book was composed to rebut criticism and to set up a formal 'contract' whereby he demonstrated the independence of the Pure Land school. Yet, it is the 'pure feeling' - that is his inner life - that people heard when they saw his wisdom shine forth.

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