Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 116

Monks and laypeople, men and women,
    gathered beforehand;
Ministers and nobles assembled in numbers.
Lying on his right side with head to the north,
He observed the manner of the Tathagata's passing into
    nirvana.

Darkness Falls

Amida Tathagata comes forth from suchness and manifests various bodies - fulfilled, accommodated, and transformed.1

Reflecting within myself, I see that in the various teachings of the path of sages, practice and enlightenment died out long ago, and that the true essence of the Pure Land way is the path to realization now vital and flourishing.

Monks of Sakyamuni's tradition in the various temples, however, lack clear insight into the teaching and are ignorant of the distinction between true and provisional; and scholars of the Chinese classics in the capital are confused about practices and wholly unable to differentiate right and wrong paths. Thus, scholar-monks of Kofuku-ji presented a petition to the retired emperor in the first part of the second month, 1207.

The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Genku - the eminent founder who had enabled the true essence of the Pure Land to spread vigorously [in Japan] - and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their [alleged] crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given [secular] names, and consigned to distant banishment. I was among the latter. Hence, I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life. For this reason, I have taken the term Toku ["stubble haired"] as my name. Master Genku and his disciples, being banished to the provinces in different directions, passed a period of five years [in exile].

On the seventeenth day of the eleventh month, 1211, during the reign of the emperor Sado-no-in, Genku received an imperial pardon and returned to Kyoto. Thereafter, he lived in the capital, at Otani, north of Toribeno in the western foothills of Higashiyama. In 1212, during the midday hour of the twenty-fifth day of the first month, he passed away. The auspicious signs [that occurred then], too numerous to record here, may be found in his biography.2

I have quoted these passages from Shinran Shonin's Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho to show why it is that I believe that Shinran Shonin thought of Honen Shonin's passing into nirvana as the dying of the light. He tells us that it was the final triumph of ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya). In these moments the light of Amida Buddha that was repeatedly evident in the world, through the agency of the seven dharma masters, finally - in a dignified and solemn way, implicity recognised by all ranks of society - was extinguished.

From this verse on, Shinran speaks as one who feels the darkness, as a palpable reality all around him. The light can only now be known to us in the form of namu-amida-butsu, the form taken by the Buddha as the means by which he manifests himself to us. It is namu-amida-butsu that is root and branch of his Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, for this book culminates in the claim that nembutsu is now the only way that we can be carried to nirvana - and, even then, on condition that we allow its dynamic power to awaken Amida Buddha's shinjin in our hearts. All that remains for us, should this realisation come to pass for us, is the saying of the Name in remembrance of our dire need and of our appreciation of its power. In this way the light is known in the world; the fulfilment of the seventeenth Vow, the Vow that all Buddhas say the Name. Thus in saying the Name we practice Great Compassion.

For Shinran, there is now no sangha to cherish, protect and propagate the dharma in the world, there is only the Larger Sutra, which Shakyamuni has told us will be the last Sutra to remain in the world. The dharma now resides in those ancient texts produced by the ancient sangha (Shakyamuni and the seven dharma masters) which serve to expound the Larger Sutra. The two other sutras - the Amida Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra are valid, in Shinran's view, only to the extent that they point the way ultimately to the Name in the Primal Vow and carry implicit truths in support of the Larger Sutra.

As we begin to move on to the Shozomatsu Wasan, we will discover that Shinran did not only feel that darkness had finally descended upon the world around him, but he saw evidence of it within his own heart. The Shozomatsu Wasan were composed during the final two years of Shinran's ninety year life; a life in which he felt all of the pains and joys known to all men and women of all ages. We will also discover that, within this darkness of the world and - in a manner of speaking - of the soul, there is light, there is hope, there is joy and there is transcendence.

With the passing of Honen, however, we are alone in the world. There is darkness all around, darkness in our hearts, there is little we can trust - but in Namu-amida-butsu the light reaches out to us, calls us to itself; calls us to turn and face it. Hopeless as it seems, yet there is hope; but in the passing of Honen we are finally abandoned by our parent, left to our own devices and bereft of guidance. For this reason, if nothing else, the nembutsu way enjoins upon us a measure of courage and maturity that is so great that it can only be accomplished as we rely upon the power of the Primal Vow.


Readers will have guessed by now that Shinran was not present at Honen's death. His knowledge of the events that surrounded these moments depended on hearsay and a hagiography called Saiho Shinan Sho. This book tells us that Honen slipped quietly into nirvana. He was wearing the kesa that Master Jikaku had given him. As he lay in the same position as Shakyamuni did, when he passed into nirvana, he continued to say the nembutsu.

Afterwards many people came to pray by his bedside. For something deep and momentous had occurred.

Light had finally gone from the world of humankind.


1: CWS p. 153.

2: CWS p. 289.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next