Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 15

The immovable sages, who were formally humans and devas,
Are born from the ocean of wisdom, the universal Vow;
The virtues of their mental activity are pure
And free of discrimination, like empty space.

Visions of Peace

Those dwelling in the Pure Land are quiet and their afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. klesha) have passed away. Here the Pure Land is seen as the perfect environment for concentration (Sk. samadhi). In this world, within wandering (Sk. samsara) it is still possible for those on the verge of enlightenment to be moved by deleterious events and circumstances, but not in the Pure Land. We should note, in passing, that 'gods' and 'men' are only expedient terms. The Lotus Sutra tells is that, in the environment of the Pure Land, such terms are actually meaningless.

Although, in Shinran's thought, the fulfilled Pure Land is nirvana, which as this verse says, is 'non-discriminating as the sky', one of the manifestations of the Pure Land in this world of samsara are the 'secluded places' (Sk. vihara), usually described as monasteries. 'Secluded places' are mundane reflections of the enduring reality of the Pure Land. Such places are a common feature of all schools of the Buddha Dharma and an environment, which, like the Pure Land, is filled with light, serenity, fragrance - and redolent with simple and elegant beauty - is much sought after by followers of the dharma. The Buddha Dharma was the first religion in human history to actively seek harmony and serenity as the abode of those who follow it.

Monasteries across central, southern and eastern Asia are all described as 'seculded places' (Sk. vihara). Calmness and harmony are greatly prized by the dharma because it is based upon the realisation that the cause of suffering is desire (Sk. trsna) and the afflicting passions (Sk. klesha) which feed it. A starting point in addressing these problems is to become calm and reflect upon our human condition with a view to recognising within ourselves the causes of our suffering and removing them.

There can be little doubt that Vasubandhu lived in such a 'secluded place' and in the verse, which inspired this verse of the wasan, he describes his experience of insight (Sk. vipasyana) into the transcendent 'secluded place' that is the Pure Land. There he sees practicers of the dharma fully able to achieve profound depths of samadhi because they are completely free from any viciousness that may distract them. In his worldy environment, Vasubandhu would probably have sought to replicate this same level of serenity, harmony and inner peace. Very often we read that monasteries did achieve something similar; although there were times when the vicissitudes of mundane existence overcame their serenity.

Anything in the environment of a monastery, which threatened to arouse the kleshas or inhibit the search for inner peace, was removed. Killing and sexual activity was especially forbidden and residents strictly forbidden food thought to arouse the passions. Vistors at the monasteries were welcomed, provided that they adhered to rules shared in common with residents. Many laymen throughout Buddhist history are known to have sought 'time out' from the stresses of the world by seeking a time of retreat in monasteries. During this time, they must live by the ten precepts for novices.

So monasteries became places of refuge, pools of stillness, where people could find conditions very like those of the Pure Land. 'Secluded places' appeared in mountains or on isolated hillsides. By the seventh century they extended from Sri Lanka in the south to Lake Baikal in the north and from Afghanistan in the west to Nara in the east. These places were home to hundreds of thousands of monks and some nuns. They were places of learning and deep thought and may have inspired the monastic movements in Christian and Muslim lands, beginning in Persia and North Africa and spreading westwards to the British Isles.

A few centuries after Vasubandhu's time, the network of secluded places began to break down. His own country, Gandhara, was subject to a series of invasions, which became more and more violent. In India, the newly emerging Hindu religion sought to suppress the Buddhist monasteries. Lay-people in the Middle East and Central Asia forsook the Buddha Dharma for Islam, which offered more tangible solace and guidance for people immersed in family life and who needed to work at farming, manufacturing or trade to support them. At this time, and for the same reasons, the Buddha Dharma became more lively as a religion for lay-people. The Pure Land way, especially, attracted followers from the merchant and farming classes, householders who owned property and ran businesses.

The silence of monasteries gave way to chanting of the nembutsu, in fields and homes. In China and especially in Japan, the Pure Land way had left the monastic environment almost completely by the end of the twelfth century. The sounds and fury of war and a succession of plagues raging across central Asia gradually brought the prominence of the monastic life into decline. Invasions by European colonists, the attractiveness of Islam and Christianity to the colonised, the introduction of industry and commerce, and the inexorable growth of the consumerist modality, have further encouraged the decline of the places of peace.

Now the vision of peace has almost dimmed. There is nowhere we can go to find true silence and calm repose. One of the features of life in a 'secluded place' is that it follows the natural rhythms of life, moving silently by as each day passes. In our large cities many of us live in fishbowl-like houses, which have double-glazing and air-conditioning. We only come into contact with the natural world momentarily and cannot endure silence at all. In our world, at last, we more and more find that our only refuge is, indeed, the Pure Land.

There are still occasions when we can glimpse the old aspiration for a peaceful environment that the dharma sought: in chanting sutras or the nembutsu. There are also moments of solitude when things fall silent and we can hear the breeze in the trees or listen to the beat of our hearts. Even in public places we can glimpse moments of peace, in a fellow-passenger at an airport absorbed in a book, or by looking up at the clear blue sky. There can yet be moments when we find what the early Buddhists sought. Although the occasions when do find it seem to be external, the peace we discover is really from within our own hearts and minds.

It is then that we know that the Pure Land is really very close; very close indeed.

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