Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 25

Neither monks nor laity
Had any place to turn for refuge;
Master T'an-luan alone resolved
To lead them to aspire for the land of happiness.

The Way of One Alone

When I consider deeply the Vow of Amida, which arose from five kalpas of profound thought, I realise that it was entirely for the sake of myself alone!1

Two great Chinese Masters, T'an-luan and Shan-tao (613 - 681) stand out as archetypical Pure Land followers. Of these two, T'an-laun's religious experience is most striking and reveals a pattern which has been experienced by individual followers of the dharma across hundreds of generations since.

T'an-luan is said to have been of poor health most of his life, but in China he is especially revered as a healer. This healing capacity is essentially spiritual in nature and is supported by T'an-luan's deep self-awareness and utter dependence on Amida Buddha. His life - like all individual lives - is one of development and a gradually deeping realisation. It seems that T'an-luan was at first noted for his learning and intelligence. However, a life-threatening illness brought him face to face with his own mortality. Then his search for truth broadened and moved from theoretical, to eminently practical concerns - the immeditate and urgent quest for genuine salvation.

The quest brought T'an-luan into contact with new ideas and new possibilities but it was the Indian sage Bodhiruchi (of whom more later) who confronted him with difficult truths. Bodhiruchi is thought to have scoffed at T'an-luan's adoption of practices designed to extend his life by saying that the change we call 'death' is inevitable - a fact of existence which no one can avoid. He then presented T'an-luan with the Contemplation Sutra and at that moment the great scholar and sage - T'an-luan - found certainty and truth.

From that time on, T'an-luan spoke of the way of nembutsu as the only available option for himself, even though we learn from Shinran Shonin that some eminent people, like the emperor, were sceptical and even derisive of his choice. I do not think that T'an-luan burst from his monastery and travelled far and wide urging people to adopt the Pure Land way. Instead, it is more likely that his approach was simply one of absolute personal honesty and this, in istelf, was something that people found attractive.

We see from his encounter with the emperor that T'an-luan met inquiries about his dharma choices not with sophisticted and objective-sounding rhetoric and apologetics but an honest account of the personal awareness that had inspired him. In modern terms the conversation would go something like this:

'Master T'an-luan, you are a great sage, and yet you follow the Pure Land way. There are 80,000 dharma gates why do you choose this one?'

'In my case, there is no option. I am not capable of any choice in the matter. I have looked and found that only this way is matched to my capacity.'

This is a very different approach from the one that we are often tempted to take. We want to justify our choices by referring to precedent and universal principles. In reality, however, neither of these things are immediate to us. Without our own self-awareness and personal honesty we cannot touch them, either. The dharma is self-existent and does not need the service of our exposition. In contrast to this, people with whom we engage will only ever be genuinely touched by the reality of our own lives and experience.

This abandonment of universals and any attempt to objectify our experience of the dharma is a profoundly isolating thing but the important fact about it, on the other hand, is that it is also deeply courageous and truthful. It removes us from claiming authority beyond our own existential encounter with truth - our own truth. It is not mere narcissism because it is not ultimately self-referencing: it has led us to the truth beyond ourselves. Rather than beginning with this truth, however, our starting point is our own existential dilemma.

In our time personal honesty is difficult because of the adversarial and competitive nature of society. In my view, however, these attitudes will eventually be exhausted because they are themselves debilitating and destructive. So, I think we do well to stand outside of this masquerade by becoming private individuals of a reflective inclination. When an opportunity to discuss the dharma arises, I think we ought to avoid rhetoric and an approach which tries to be objective and theoretical.

In the allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path, the aspirant who is the subject of the story says, 'Since there is a path, it must be possible to cross.' The first thing for him, however, is his realisation that there is simply no other way that he can follow. To my mind, T'an-luan anticipates this story in his own life. Having realised the truth of his own severely curtailed capacity, and exhausted all possibilities, the way is offered to him in the person of Bodhiruchi. He is, in that moment presented with the way.

The way does not present itself unless we first see our need of it. We do ourselves, and others, a disservice unless we point out, that first and foremost, the Pure Land way is for us, alone. It is not for us to try to convince others but simply to point out that, fortunately, this is the only way that is available to us.

1: CWS, p. 679.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next