Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 118

When beings of the evil world of the five defilements,
Entrust themselves to the selected Primal Vow,
Virtues beyond description, explanation, and conceptual
        understanding
Fill those practicers.

India

  • Bodhisattva Nagarjuna
  • Bodhisattva Vasubandhu

China

  • Master Donran
  • Master Doshaku
  • Master Zendo

Japan

  • Master Genshin
  • Master Genku

Prince Shotoku
Born on the 1st day of the first month
in the first year of Emperor Bidatsu,
1,521 years after the passing of t he Buddha.

Hidden Virtue

It is usually suggested that, by including this list of the seven dharma masters and (the Prince Regent) Shotoku Taishi, Shinran Shonin is creating a link between the Koso Wasan and the Shozomatsu Wasan. The reason for this idea is the fact that the date of Prince Shotoku's birth is given and - as we have already seen - this coincides with the customary calculation - at that time - of the beginning of the last age of dharma, the age of mappo.

We can assume that Shinran began creating the verses that eventually made up the Hymns on the Dharma Ages (shozomatsu wasan) shortly after the completion of the Koso Wasan. This is because the verse that is now located at the beginning of the Shozomatsu Wasan was first written in 1257 (mid-way between the completion of the Koso Wasan and the completion of the Shozomatsu Wasan) and was originally located half-way through the latter collection.

So, it seems likely that Shinran began to develop his reflections on the workings of the Primal Vow from its origins and manifestation in the Jodo Wasan, through the evidence of its working in history (Koso Wasan) to its life in the ordinary world: in the 'here and now', which is the theme of the Shozomatsu Wasan.

The inclusion of Prince Shotoku at the end of this list in unlikely to be simply because he was clearly a most remarkable person. We shall have the opportunity to discover his qualities in greater detail, when we come to the eleven verses that are dedicated to him towards the end of the Shozomatsu Wasan. The fact that he was considered to have introduced the Buddha-dharma in an accessible way to his fellow countrymen just at the beginning of the last dharma age suggests that there is a special place for interpretations of the dharma that came to the fore during the following centuries.

Schools, like Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land were all forged into their current shape in a context that was formed within an over-riding sense of the last age. The resulting lay-oriented ethos that was inspired by Price Shotoku, lent the schools of Buddhism that were developed in Japan an especially accessible quality. This stands in contrast to the seven dharma masters who lived during a transitional millennium, when monastic life was still relatively successful and feasible. The 'Last Age' schools represent the final and most enduring adaptation of the dharma; preparing it for survival in the depredations and violence that prevail in our industrial society.

So, Shinran's mention of Prince Shotoku here can be accounted for by seeing him as a bridge between a world, which was inherently more congenial for the dharma, to one (the last age of the dharma) which was more perilous and uncomfortable. This leaves the question as to why Shinran listed the seven dharma masters after this verse. I would suggest that the reason lies in the verse itself. These men came into the kind of world that Shakyamuni lived in - the 'evil world of five defilements' - and the fact that they entrusted themselves to (shinzure) the selected Primal Vow (senchaku hongan) opened them to Amida Buddha's virtue.

We have discovered before now that, in the Buddhist cosmic 'scheme of things', the world is in a 'double decline'. Shakyamuni appeared in the 'world of the five defilements', which - as the Abhidharma suggests - is on a downward trend in the current great age, or universe (Sk. kalpa). Adding to this, now, is our geographical, temporal and cultural distance from Shakyamuni. Needless to say, the dharma masters lived in a steepening decline. Nagarjuna was born into a similar world of the five defilements as Shakyamuni, but for the last of the Masters, Honen, both the world of the five defilements and mappo had created a damaging synergy.

Shinran describes the 'virtue' of Amida Buddha as 'beyond description, explanation, and conceptual understanding' (fukasho, fukasetsu, fukashigi). He uses exactly the same words to describe shinjin (although in reverse order) in the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho. The virtue of Amida Buddha is this same shinjin.

Unfortunately the word 'virtue' has become corrupted since the ninteenth century and tends to be used to describe behaviour - but its meaning here should be understood in its true sense as 'power', or 'dynamism'. It is not manifested in any necessarily obvious way and certainly not in self-righteousness or airs of moral superiority. We can be sure that the virtue of Amida Buddha's faith is ineffable, as Shinran was fond of reminding us.

The point here is that the dharma masters knew and spoke about the faith that is Amida's virtue. This virtue filled them with its light and, so, even though we live in the world of the five defilements, Amida continues to make his presence felt in the world through the living witness of these remarkable men.

The way that Shinran uses language in this verse has always been of immense significance to me, because it tells us in a very lucid way how the nembutsu of faith works, so to speak. The faith seems to start as 'believing' (shin, Sk. shraddha) - something which we think of as originating in ourselves. But eventually, in the life of nembutsu, the understanding of Pure Land aspirants changes and, with arising of true diamond-like faith, there dawns the realisation that faith is endowed - that it is given - and it becomes understood to be the entrusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna citta or prasada) that is the virtue of Amida Buddha.

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Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

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