Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 111

When the moment of death approached,
Our teacher Genk├╗ said,
'This is my third time to be born in the Pure Land;
It is especially easy to accomplish.'

Persistence

The title of this essay may carry with it an expectation that the reader is in for a moralising pep-talk about 'the need for us to persist and we will eventually achieve our hopes, our dreams, or our goals'. However, although - luckily for us - some hopes are realised, the fact is that few of us are in a position to be able to easily move away from our obligations. We often have to live with the consequences of our mistakes, there is little we can do about the depredations of those who govern us. Burdens like debt, our cravings and habits, our attachments and dependencies, and our other limitations, tend to curtail many possibilities. Perseverance does not necessarily bring us the results we had longed for. Life is full of suprises, some pleasant, some unwelcome. For many of us, life follows a course that we did not plan.

In this verse, we learn that Honen Shonin was especially pleased to have completed a fruitful and satisfying life and we are tempted to think that he is being cited as some kind of model for us. The time has come, however, for us to explore the significance of the references in the verses on Honen to those manifestations concerning him that we might be tempted to describe as 'supernatural'. We read that people saw rays of light emanating from Honen's body and we are astonished to discover in Shinran Shonin's verses that Honen speaks of himself, in a familiar way, as though he knew and accepted the belief - that his disciples held - that he was a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, the embodiment of Amida Buddha's light or wisdom. As we shall see, Honen acknowleges that he had previously lived at the time of Shakyamuni as one of his close disciples, possibly Shariputra.

The verses on Honen culminate, not with a great exposition of his teaching, but in the realisation that he was, indeed, Amida Buddha himself. In fact, many thought that Honen was already enlightened and that he had come from the Pure Land to be born as a man and became a monk in order to propagate the nembutsu. For him, this life was especially pleasing to have completed because the time had come, at last, for the teaching to prevail. The persistence, then, is not our's but Amida Buddha's.

Amida Buddha's persistence has only one objective - the one that is common to all Buddhas. It is 'suffering and the relief of suffering'. These were Shakyamuni's words: 'I come to teach suffering and the relief of suffering'. The Buddha-dharma probably has little relevance to those who have not come to recognise life's unsatisfactoriness; but many there are who do come to it. Many have had their hopes dashed or experienced some disappointment and some people untuitively know that the spin-doctoring and feel-good ideas that are so prominent today are obviously unrealistic. Knowing this, we can choose to abandon ourselves in debilitating despair and cynicism; or we can seek a courageous way of living cheerfully despite these facts.

In the experience of the Buddha-dharma, each individual who recognises the unsatifactory nature of existence, feels an instinctive joy in discovering it and recognises that it speaks to his or her heart in a way that nothing else does. One feels that one has come home and returned to the company of an old friend who understands us - and our circumstances - perfectly.

All of us also have an instinctive tendency to react to broken-ness. If something is broken we must fix it; if life is unsatisfactory we must do something to make it better. For this reason we habitually read the message of Shakyamuni and the dharma in an inverted way. We think that there is actually something that we must actively engage in by way of redress. This is especially the case for people who have a European background. We are a practical people, driven by the desire to control things. We are not used to the idea that happiness can also be found in accepting both ourselves and our circumstances as they are.

Yet, the dharma firstly asks us, not to do anything, but to recognise the truth. The Fourfold Noble Truth begins with a recognition of the deep reality of our existential dilemma, and the first rung of the Eightfold Noble Path is 'Right View'. It is seeing, understanding, knowing, recognising, that are the qualities that are needed for us to progress. Even 'viriya', so ofren translated as 'effort' does not call us to superficial practical endeavour but to quite passive things, like endeavouring to gain insight and so on. We all know someone, who in practicing dhyana (zen, meditation, etc.), is trying to 'get something' - battering down the walls of enlightenment, while the important thing is recognising that Enlightenment is there already.

The Middle Way does not work like that. If it did, it would not be the way that renounces violence. We are not in the business of mutilating our personalities or forcing anything - fiercly attacking our own truth and integrity. The dharma is about seeing, realising and awakening to things.

For this reason, the important thing about the life of Honen is the way in which those who knew him came to rejoice in his person: the discovery that he was a living demonstration of the unrelenting persistence of the dharma through endless ├Žons, in its primary task of reaching into our hearts and freeing us from samsaric bondage.

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