Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 117

The death of our teacher, Genku,
Came in 1212, in early spring;
On the 25th day of the first month,
He returned to the Pure Land.

The Journey Ends

The date being referred to here can be calculated for our Gregorian, solar calendar, at 7 March, 1212. Shinran Shonin was forty years of age and had been exiled to Echigo, west of Kyoto in 1207. Shinran and Honen were both pardoned a year before Honen's death. Therefore, on 7 March, 1212, the Pure Land teaching lineage came to an end. Henceforth, the teaching would be carried forward by a community, in which there is no distinction between priest and lay followers. This community survives today in the membership of the Ryukokuzan Hongwanji and other temple congregations.

This is the penultimate verse of the Koso Wasan - the songs of the dharma masters. We have come to the end of a journey that has taken us from Rajagrihar in north-east India, through the western lands of the old Greek colonies in modern Pakistan, along the Silk Road and into Japan. We have also traced the way in which the nembutsu teaching was gradually revealed in ever more refined ways, flickering into life, relevance - and ultimately flourishing - as we drew away from Shakyamuni in both time and space.

It is not as though this involved any change in the essential Pure Land teaching itself, for there is nothing in the words of the dharma masters that was not originally laid down by Shakyamuni. Rather, as times changed and the dharma found itself in ever new geographical and social environments, it was able to draw on ancient resources, bring old truths out of its treasury and show them in a new light.

The Pure Land writings of the dharma masters, along with the three sutras that were delivered by Shakyamuni, constitute our 'canon of sacred texts'. The Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho is essentially a compendium of these writings along with explanatory notes. In this way, it serves as a commentary on the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu by Honen, since this book is the culmination of the Pure Land lineage. The writings of Shinran's descendants, especially Rennyo Shonin, are distillations of these very same teachings.

In my view the practical aspect of hearing the dharma is to listen to the words of the dharma masters, especially the selection of key passages that Shinran selected for his Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho. However, in his compassion, Rennyo wrote his letters (ofumi) so that we could hear the essential purport of the dharma in a straightforward and focussed way.

Only very few people have the motivation to read the works of the dharma masters and there is no necessity that we do so; it is sufficient to listen to dharma talks and the Gobunsho - the collection of Rennyo's letters. Even, more succinctly, it is sufficient to live according to the demands of our daily life, saying the nembutsu. Amida Buddha's shinjin does not depend on study or learning. Yet those who do find joy in reading the dharma masters are richly rewarded and play an important role in our community as custodians of the Jodo Shinshu teaching. Anyone - lay or ordained - is at liberty to take up this course should they choose to do so.

For the most part, those of us who are limited to English depend on Shinran's Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho as the main access to the dharma masters. However, the Hongwanji International Center is undertaking the task of translating the Pure Land works of our teachers, having just completed the translation of the sutras.

Of Nagarjuna's writings, the Chapter on Easy Practice has been translated by Inagaki Hisao Sensei, and there are many translations of the Twelve Verses on Amida Buddha. Nagarjuna's main task was to draw attention to the fact that, based on the principles espoused in the Treatise on Great Wisdom (Sk. Mahaprajnaparamita-shastra), attainment is possible through the 'easy way' of the Buddha's Name.

Vasubandhu drew our attention to the Buddha of infinite light (Sk. amitabha) as our only source of refuge and established the Pure Land way as integral to the Bodhisattva Path, whereby the objective of birth in the Pure Land is 'return' for the well-being of all. Once again, the 'Treatise on the Pure Land' by Vasubandhu has been translated by Inagaki Hisao and is included in T'an-luan's commentary.

T'an-luan's Hymns in Praise of Amida Buddha is included in the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, and Tao-ch'o's A Collection of Aphorisms Concerning the Realm of Peace and Happiness has been translated in full. Likewise the three canonical works of Shan-tao have only been translated in a fragmentary way and Genshin's A Collection of Important Passages Concerning Birth in the Pure Land is not available in English at all.

T'an-luan set out the way the Dharma body is unmanifested as Dharma body of dharma nature but is revealed to us as (Amida Buddha) in the Dharma body of compassionate means (hoben, Sk. upaya). He also drew attention to the importance of Other Power, while Tao-ch'o showed us the distinction between the path of sages and the path of Pure Land. Shan-tao's teaching was the culmination of the Chinese tradition - explaining the importance and meaning of nembutsu.

Genshin introduced the Pure Land way as a viable tradition in Japan and Honen, of course, established the nembutsu as a distinct school of the dharma. Each one of the Dharma Masters made vital contributions in the exposition and cultivation of the Pure Land Way.

As I have said before, apart from the Koso Wasan, easy access to the core principles of the teaching of the dharma masters is to be found in Shinran's Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho. In this book, Shinran classifies quotations from their writings (as well as quotations from other, related sources) according to their significance for each of the four essentials of the Pure Land Way: Teaching (kyo), Practice (gyo), Shinjin (shin) and Attainment (sho). In addition he calls upon the insights of the dharma masters in order to provide us with clear definitions of just what we mean by the terms 'buddha' and 'pure land', along with advice in regard to 'provisional' and 'teachings of compassionate means' that may serve to lead us in the right direction, as well as cautions concerning the treachery of false or dangerous, non-Buddhist ways.

So, we have come to journey's end. The collection of Koso Wasan takes us through the annals of history and the winding way of deepening insight into the dharma. As we come to end of our considerations of this volume, we return to the direct presence of Amida Buddha and the realities of the present in the Shozomatsu Wasan.

There are two final verses in the Koso Wasan. They call us back to the two Bodhisattva Masters, Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu. After that we shall explore the present realities of life that are more familiar to us, in the light of infinite wisdom.

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Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

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