Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 109

To encounter a true teacher
Is difficult even among difficult things;
There is no cause for endlessly turning in transmigration
Greater than the hindrance of doubt.

The True Teacher

We have encountered this famous refrain from the Larger Sutra often enough.

Difficult too is it to meet a good teacher 1

So far, more than one verse has expressed Shinran Shonin's wonder at his remarkable encounter with Honen Shonin. When it comes to the account of this meeting Shinran is no longer talking about a theory that has only remote significance for his own life. He is alluding to a personal encounter of utmost importance.

As we have already seen, Shinran tells us, in his own writings, what he wants us to know of his life-story. Clearly, the most important event in his life was his meeting with Honen. It seems to me that this idea is not well understood by people, who are looking to Shinran for guidance in our own time. However, if we delve into the things that Shinran reveals about himself, rather than the things that other people want to emphasise about him, we are drawn to the concerns, with which he struggled and we discover that they are usually of universal relevance.

Shinran's biographies often make much, for example, of the way that he adopted the householder life, raising a family. It is said that he abandoned his monastic vows to do this. However, a close reading of Shinran himself reveals a man who did not abandon his vows at all - he simply did not consider that the vows of an ordinary person ( bombu , Sk. prthagjana ) could be useful or relevant in the Age of Declining Dharma. His experience - and the evidence he found in sacred texts like the Candle of the Latter Dharma ( mappo tomyoki ) - led him to adopt the view that only the outward form of the sangha was extant. The robes should be duly respected, of course, but the binding virtue that it had once manifested was no longer evident.

Shinran described himself as 'neither a priest nor one in worldly life'. This, of course, is a reference to the two alternative forms of Buddhist discipleship for a man. Shinran did not think that these orders had any force or relevance in the Age of Declining Dharma, yet he lived as both a monk and a householder. This began a tradition, which has been continued by his followers, both priest and lay, right down to our own time; sharing in the anxiety and pain of ordinary people. Knowing the warm embrace and compassion of the Buddha themselves, they gradually find the resources to embrace all others, to be a friend to all beings, without discrimination.

Shinran certainly did not adopt the householder life as a remedy for the distressing attachments and desires that he endured until 1201, when he met Honen. His family was clearly a source of considerable anguish for him, as they often are to us, and he continued to experience the painful attachments that we all do. So it is that Shinshu priests and laymen consciously adopt a secular way of living: enduring this 'vale of tears' like everyone else.

It was not a change of environment - moving from the religious to the secular life - that brought Shinran relief and joy. It was his ultimate concerns, the universal dilemmas, that led him to Honen and to leave Mt Hiei.

Shinran's meeting with 'a good teacher' was informed, as it is within the Pure Land tradition, by an account of the destiny and conversion of a person who is 'the lowest of the low'. Very soon we will have an opportunity to explore the 'nine grades of beings' ('three grades' in the Larger Sutra) in the Honen Wasan. It is important because this re-inforces the fact that amongst humans and gods there exists a wide range of talent and ability.

It is the Contemplation Sutra that tells us of a meeting with a 'true teacher' on the part of one who belongs to the category of 'the lowest of the low'. The passage concerned describes the way Shinran saw himself. Many of us, who come to the Pure Land tradition, have a similar experience. Even though we may be young, the sense of our mortality overwhelms us and the pain of existence appears to us as a fatal illness.

Those who attain birth on the lowest level of the lowest grade are the sentient beings who commit such evils as the five gravest offences, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality. Owing to such evil karma, the fool like this will fall into evil realms and suffer endless agony for many kalpas . When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging him to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by pain to do so. The good teacher then advises him, 'If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha, then you should say instead, Homage to Amitayus Buddha.' In this way, he sincerely and continuously says 'Homage to Amitayus Buddha' [Sk. namo'mitabhaya buddhaya , Ch. Na-mo-o-mi-t'o-fo , Jp. namu amida butsu ] ten times. Because he calls the Buddha's Name, with each repetition, the evil karma which he has committed during eighty kotis of kalpas of Samsara is extinguished. 2

These words might seem like hyperbole to many but very often people do come to a brick wall in life and do experience a sense of insurmountable guilt and existential pain. Meeting a 'good teacher' like the one described here brings indescribable relief and joy. I am sure that this is how it was for Shinran. I say this because, for example, while - to the outside world - he may have appeared to be a person of some virtue, inwardly he was tormented by 'such evils as the five gravest offences, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality'. He addresses this very sensibility in the final section of his Chapter on Shinjin in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It seems to me that those who feel as Shinran did will love these illuminating passages and find spiritual healing and respite in them.

In the world today many people are dismissive of the kind of inner torment that Shinran felt, but I do not agree with them. It seems clear to me that we do bear collective responsibility for the evil in the world. The ancient tradition of the law of karma sees it in a collective way. Everything we think or do has an imapact on everything else. We are part of the mass organism of life itself. As individuals we simply do not have truly independent existence but are cellular organisms, contributing - for good or ill - to the whole just by our very existence.

To take a simple, or rather obvious, example. We may ask ourselves what part we could have played - as members of the first world - in the starvation and deprivation that the people of the south experience. This kind of question is painful, and most of us would prefer not to think about it, but Shinran - clearly - did think about things of this kind, mainly because of his training as a Buddhist monk.

These concerns, by the way, have nothing to do with doctrines like 'original sin'. The dharma does not discuss 'sin' as it is correctly understood and it does not accept that our suffering is due to any generic rebellion against authority. Wrong actions are not deliberate rebellion but due to our inherent lack of wisdom, our blindness ( mumyo , Sk. avidya ) - in a way they are inexorable and cannot be avoided without the wisdom of a Buddha. However, the dharma does submit that all living things are inter-connected and enmeshed, and that what we do affects others; even when we are unaware of it.

Shinran's training as a monk would have obliged him to awaken bodhi-citta , whereby he developed a firm determination to strive for the elimination of suffering for himself and all other beings. No doubt, his personal bench-mark would have been text-books like the Dashabhumika-vibhasa by Nagarjuna and the Bodhicara-avatara by Shantideva. This latter book has an absolutely sublime perspective on the requirements of followers in their bodhisattva careers. It seems to me, therefore, that those who see Shinran's self-assessment as unduly critical really have no idea of the true requirements of the Buddha Dharma. While most of us are skilled at excusing our own efforts in falling short of the mark (and, at the same time, very often criticising everyone else), Shinran was disinclined to indulge that kind of self-delusion.

These reasons lie behind my sense of wonder at Shinran and his writings. The depth and truth that is explored, for example, in relation to the challenges and conundrums of life is entirely unmatched in the vast corpus of religious literature. There is nothing that compares with the range of insight - from the heights of gratitude and joy to the depths of personal self-awareness; along with incomparable and penetrating honesty and truthfulness.

It is thanks to his inner understanding, his despereate search for truth and his meeting with Honen, that we have these wonderful sources of light.


1: TPLS2, p. 70.

2: TPLS2, p. 98.

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