Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 115

At the death of our teacher Genku,
Radiant light shone on the sky like purple clouds;
Music sounded, subtle and elegant,
And the air was fragrant with rare perfumes.

Raigo

Shariputra, if a good man or woman who hears of Amida Buddha holds fast to his Name even for one day, two days, three, four, five, six or seven days with a concentrated and undistracted mind, then, at the hour of death, Amida Buddha will appear with a host of holy ones.

These words from the Amida Sutra (Smaller Sutra) form the basis for a strong 'raigo' tradition within the Japanese Pure Land school. 'Raigo' describes the arrival of Amida Buddha at the time of a person's death, to welcome them to the Pure Land. Within Jodo Shinshu, the raigo custom was obviated and eclipsed by Shinran Shonin's strong emphasis on shinjin as the cause for birth in the Pure Land. Once we have accepted Amida Buddha's faith ('mida no shin) our destiny is settled and there is, clearly, no need to await Amida's welcome at the time of death. Shinjin is the only 'meeting' with Amida Buddha that is significant.

Shinran also pointed out that the circumstances of our death do not necessarily lend themselves to quiet concentration and the recollection Amida Buddha's virtue1. Shinran was right to insist that our future destiny is not determined by the conditions at the time of our death. Truly, it is shinjin that is all that matters. It is the moment that it arises, which is the only critical event.

It is doubtful that many individuals are so fortunate as to have a smooth death. Many of us die as the result of a sudden breakdown in our physical system - cardio-vascular disease, or stroke of one kind or another. Many of us die in accidents or in other violent ways. Many of us are in appalling pain and need to be so sedated that we cannot think or see clearly.

Needless to say, raigo lends a wonderfully dynamic quality to traditional Buddhist iconography and, as a concept, it reminds us of the intensely personal nature of shinjin. Our encounter with Amida Buddha is a one-to-one affair, and no two experiences are the same, in spite of the fact that shinjin is always the same faith.

Very often the devotion and focus of a dying person was encouraged by the use of a Buddha image (either a drawing or a statue) from which ribbons that were coloured so as to represent rays of light extended into the hands of the dying person, who, in turn, was exhorted to recite the nembutsu. The light of candles and the sweet fragrance of incense filled the room and 'pillow' sutras were chanted.

There are countless scrolls of considerable antiquity throughout the Buddhist world that attempt to portray the aspirant's encounter with Amida Buddha at the time of their demise. They are delighful to look at and to think about. Once again their main point, as far as I can see, is not so much a matter of re-assurance, but of a portrayal of the dynamism of reality within the Pure Land tradition. It is the sense of 'Other Power', 'External Power' or the 'Power that is not Self'. The images of raigo celebrate the action of the Buddha in approaching and assisting us.

One interesting depiction of raigo can be found at the great Chion-in Temple in Kyoto. It shows a scholar-monk in a pavillion, sitting behind his writing-table. Coming towards him is Amida Buddha and a cohort of bodhisattvas. There is a nimbus - rays of light - radiating from Amida's head and the clouds under their feet are drawn in such a way as to show the speed at which Amida is travelling. It is said that this scholar-monk, who is so serenely awaiting the arrival of Amida Buddha, is none other than Honen Shonin himself.

The final verses in the section of the Koso Wasan that are dedicated to Honen, do not describe a traditional raigo scene at all. Instead, Shinran writes only about the general atmosphere that is associated with raigo; the light of candles, the chanting, the musical instruments, the smoke and fragrance of incense. Clearly, Amida Buddha had no need to come to welcome Honen. As Honen's last breath drew near, Amida Buddha himself was preparing to return to the Pure Land.


1: CWS, p. 531.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next