Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 110

Genku emanated a radiance
Which he always revealed to his followers,
There is no cause for endlessly turning in transmigration
Greater than the hindrance of doubt.

The Way of Inclusion

It is common everywhere for those whose lives are relatively comfortable to belittle those for whom life is a struggle. I can still remember from my childhood the sarcastic remarks that would be made by the people travelling with me in a car of the 'Men at Work' signs by the side of the road. Very often one or other of these men would be leaning on a shovel, resting, and this was thought to be evidence of laziness. Of course, those who were making the criticism had never tried to work using only their labour, in 40C heat, on a black bitumen road from seven o'clock in the morning to four in the afternoon.

Throughout recorded history, women have almost invariably been considered 'inferior' and many people demonstrate that they continue to think that way. However, women were unquestionably oppressed and, in most societies, were deprived and quite miserable.

When people who endure oppression and hardship try to improve their conditions in whatever way - for example, by gaining a better education, or by making money - then these efforts, too, are criticised and denounced. Even when they are successful in attaining goals that are associated with improvement, they still face obstacles of prejudice and discrimination. It does not matter what the grounds for discrimination may be, those who are already in a position of relative privilege naturally take every opportunity to obstruct progress.

There are still many people today, for example, who plainly resent and resist the slow and halting advances that are being made not only by women but also gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and inter-sex people to come into equal terms in regard to entitlements in society. The small but vehement opposition to same-sex marriage in Australia is a typical example.

When Honen Shonin gathered around him crowds of people who were traditionally despised and rejected by the proponents of the Buddha-dharma, a great effort was made, in the courts of the intellectuals and elites of that time, to discredit Honen and his teachings. In fact, he was - as one would expect - accused of being disruptive, although he was not actually doing anything of the kind. He and his followers were slandered; attempts were made to smear his reputation - even though he was a person of exceptional kindness, decency and virtue. This slander and denigration continues down to our time. For example, the Jodo Shinshu has a wonderful tradition of accepting everyone within its community who subscribes to its teachings - irrespective of their character, occupation or academic achievement - but this is sometimes characterised as a fault.

The scorn of those who feel themselves to be 'superior' in some way is, in my view, the sole basis for putative criticism of the Pure Land movement. The grounds for criticism cannot be justified from within the dharma itself. Criticism of the Pure Land way is driven by ego and a sense of self-importance, not truth. As Shinran himself pointed out, those who study the dharma in any depth eventually come to realise the truth of the Pure Land teaching; its non-discriminative attitude towards people is utterly consistent with the dharma and cannot ultimately be resisted.

One such person was the great and renowned Buddhist scholar Edward Conze (1904 - 1979). Conze was not just a fine scholar of the dharma, he was also a practicer and reached high levels of meditative attainment. He was also a respected historian and with only few exceptions, much that he understood about the history of Buddhism has since been confirmed by more recent scholarship.

One incorrect suggestion by Conze, however, was that the Pure Land tradition showed signs of Iranian influence. Although it appears to have gained its initial ascendency in the area that is now Afghanistan and Uzbekistan (the person who translated the standard verson of Larger Sutra into Chinese was Samghavarman, who appears to have been an Indian monk living in Samarkand) Amida Buddha's characteristics are entirely consistent with the dharma itself, without having recourse any outside influences. Nevertheless, Conze remains a pioneer in western Buddhist studies and practice. He was entirely devoted to the dharma and, unlike many other early western Buddhists, was not involved with any other religious path.

In his early books (for example, his translations of the prajnaparamita literature) Edward Conze was a strident critic of the Pure Land way. As his insight and scholarship deepened, however, he gradually came to see that the Pure Land tradition was entirely consistent with the core principles of the dharma. Eventually, he came to look favourably on Jodo Shinshu and commended it as one of the only traditions of the dharma to have successfully adapted to industrial society. Indeed, he supposed (as I do) that it could be quite likely that the Jodo Shinshu would prove to be the only tradition to carry the torch of the dharma into the future.

As a deeply devoted Buddhist Scholar, Conze came to understand that the core of the teaching of the dharma is 'wisdom', prajna - the wisdom that is the light: Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. This 'wisdom' is associated with 'not self' (anatman) and came, in time, to develop into the more thorough-going teaching of 'voidness' (Sk. shunyata). The upshot of the penetration into a full understanding of the voidness of all things, or not self, is a relationship with seeming externalities that is non-discriminating. This concept clearly lies at the heart of the dharma.

Honen did not discriminate, not because he was exercising some kind of vague insouciance or a sentimental quietism, but because he was fearlessly upholding the expression of the dharma - voidness - which Amida Buddha represents. The profound and immutable truth that all dharmas are void (Sk. sarva dharma shunyata) rends asunder any discriminative process of thought, and cuts through all the delusions that depend upon our personal constructs.

Non-discrimination and inclusiveness may be unpopular and uncomfortable - and many there are who want to slander and belittle this truth for their own ends - but it is the truth of life to which we will all come eventually, no matter how much we try to struggle against it.

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