Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 113

Born on isolated islands scattered like millet in the sea,
He spread the teaching of the nembutsu;
In order to guide sentient beings,
He came into this world many times

Jataka

Shakyamuni Buddha is well-known to have made frequent references to previous existences, when he was a bodhisattva - one who is on the road to birth as a Buddha and to enlightenment. The collection of these accounts of his past lives is known as the Jataka. The fact of Shakyamuni's practice of explaining current events by reference to previous experiences, which he recalled at the time of his enlightenment, is one of several unique characteristics that pertain to a Buddha. From the perspective of the dharma, ordinary, unenlightened people like us do not have reliable access to that kind of memory. When it comes to ordinary people (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) any recollection of past lives is more likely to be self-serving delusion.

The Jataka were especially revered in central Asia, mainly the Greek colonies of Gandhara and Bactria. The influence of these societies extended through an area that is now encompassed by the nation states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaiijan and Tzadjikistan. These countries range across the Hindu Kush and all of the western slopes of the Pamir Ranges. At the heart of this area - Gandhara - there were countless stupas and shrines to the manifestations of Shakyamuni in his previous lives. It seems that pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world came to these areas in order to pay their respects to the Buddha in his previous manifestations.

All of this certainly seems to have grown from the utterances of Shakyamuni himself. We can be fairly certain that the stories of 'causes' - previous lives - is integral to the notion of enlightenment within the tradition of the dharma. It is interesting to contemplate why the Jataka tradition attained such a high level of popular support in the Greek colonies. Perhaps it was because a primary tradition in Greek society was the capacity to trace one's antecedents to the heroes of earlier generations. In this way, these communities would have found much warmth and comfort in Shakyamuni's Jataka revelations.

Shakyamuni's Jataka include many wonderful accounts of his previous lives. They give us pause, because they illustrate, in a compelling way, the reality of true compassion in the sense that the dharma understands it. As I have often said, in our time, compassion has been weakened and drained of its true meaning, which is 'to suffer as though one is the other'.

In the Jataka, we read - for example - that Shakyamuni was once a monk who allowed a starving tigress to feed his body to her cubs. This illustrates compassion in the way that the dharma intends - the sense that is based on 'not-self', 'voidness'. In this story we are compelled to become aware of the true nature of compassion: to feel the starving pain and pangs of the tigress's cubs and the joy that the monk felt in allowing her to tear his flesh away from his bones in order to bring them fleeting relief from passing hunger.

In Jodo Shinshu, our Buddha is Amida, and - like Shakyamuni - he also has a Jataka tradition. The best known of these is the story that Shakyamuni outlined in the Larger Sutra, which - of course - is one of the three sutras that make up the canon of the Pure Land way. In this account we learn about the way that Amida Buddha undertook the forty-eight vows that have come to define his reality and to explain the way in which it impacts upon our lives. However, Amida is also an important Buddha in the esoteric (mikkyo) and other schools of the dharma. His relevance in these varied contexts is often under-pinned by his Jataka.

Amida is accounted for by some sixteen Jataka stories. All of them explain his present existence, since Jataka - as you will have already guessed - is associated with 'karmic cause'. In the case of Amida, the prevailing theme is renunciation. For Shakyamuni, it is compassion. I think this is quite important, because it points to the way that Amida Buddha's Jataka 'background' devolves from 'giving away', 'handing over', liberality, generosity and attitudes that are connected with the deepest theme of the Dharma - 'not-self' (Sk. anatman). In other words, Amida Buddha gives us his shinjin - his pure heart of truth.

Honen Shonin also has a Jataka, as we see from this verse. The prevailing theme in Honen's case is a sense of mission. He is a prominent way in which Amida Buddha approaches us and calls upon us to entrust ourselves the working of his Vow.

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