Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 28

Exerting all his energy to spread
The act for birth in the Pure Land,
He lived at Hsuan-chung temple,
And in 542, moved to Yao-shan temple.


'The act for birth in the Pure Land' is nembutsu arising from shinjin. Shinran Shonin says in a letter,

'... at the moment persons encounter Amida's Vow - which is the Other Power giving itself to us - and the heart that receives true shinjin and rejoices becomes settled in them, they are grasped, never to be abandoned.'1

' ... the heart that receives true shinjin and rejoices', is manifest in the nembutsu. If it is to be consistent with the tenor of T'an-luan's writing, the efficacy of nembutsu depends on whether or not it is imbued with shinjin. Indeed, T'an-luan actually canvasses the very question about the quality of practice for birth in the Pure Land that so plagues nembutsu followers: 'Does the nembutsu, apart from shinjin, have power to cause my birth in the Pure Land?'

T'an-luan seems to suggest that an element of knowledge or awareness ought to be involved in our nembutsu. This is that one comprehends the two-fold nature of Amida Buddha as the dharma body. We will have a chance to explore this in more depth later. More importantly, however, T'an-luan thinks that shinjin is un-complicated (sincere), focussed and enduring.2 So, leaving aside the question of when and how it arises, shinjin is always the qualifying factor in nembutsu. As Shinran says, there is no shinjin without nembutsu; but nembutsu without shinjin is of no significance in relation to matters of ultimate destiny and transendence.3

T'an-luan sees strong support for his perspective on these questions in the opening verse of Vasubandhu's Hymn of Aspiration for Birth, in which the author professes single-minded faith in 'tathagata of light unhindered in the ten quarters'. It is not just any act; and not just any Buddha. Nembutsu is said in full awareness of Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light - and it is unequivocal. Shinran Shonin was later to develop these ideas as the core of his thesis as to the way in which the Primal Vow carries us to enlightenment.

T'an-luan's commentary on the Hymn of Aspiration for Birth was probably composed during the last decade of his life. Its influence on his insight and his exegisis is so powerful that it is impossible to underestimate the significance of T'an-luan's kalyana-mitra, his teacher. We have seen already that, at a time of great anxiety in his life, T'an-luan had a fortuitous meeting with the Indian dharma master Bodhiruci.

Bodhiruci does not seem to have left any of his own writings to posterity, but he is seen in some Pure Land schools as an integral part of the lineage - because of his influence upon T'an-luan. Bodhiruci does, however, loom large as a very dedicated and committed Buddhist. The reports of his brief discussion with T'an-luan seem to reveal a person who had scant regard for non-Buddhist teachings. There are many stories about him. Some say, for example, that he knew the great dhyana master, Bodhidharma, and stayed at a 'Shaolin' temple. So, for some, Bodhiruci has an enduring association with the martial arts. Needless, to say, it seems to me that he is in reality a rather mysterious figure - a kind of éminence gris.

Clearly, he gave T'an-luan a copy of the Contemplation Sutra. This seems to me to be obvious because the idea of recitative nembutsu (shomyo nembutsu) begins to be sanctioned as a specfically defined practice in T'an-luan's thinking. The Contemplation Sutra specifically gives form to this idea, as the culmination of the sacred drama that it discloses. And T'an-luan's understanding of Vasubandhu's 'taking refuge in the Tathagata of light unhindered in the ten quarters' has a notional association with shomyo. A growing sensitivity to the relevance of shomyo in the context of social and geographical conditions, which militated against practices like dhyana - and, indeed its emerging significance as a dharma practice within the Buddhist community - had probably prompted the promulgation of the Contemplation Sutra in central Asia about a century before T'an-luan took it up.

It seems that Bodhiruci undertook the task of translating Vasubandhu's Hymn of Aspiration for Birth early in the third decade of the sixth century, when T'an-luan was in his late fifties. This was the second text that Bodhiruci handed T'an-luan. This simple act on Bodhiruci's part was to result in the formulation of a truly well-formed Pure Land doctrinal system in the subsequent work of T'an-luan.

Bodhiruci probably came from Gandhara and - as we know with some certainty - he arrived in China in 508. He played a role as a member of a committee which translated the Dasa Bhumi chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra; but it is the way in which he handed T'an-luan the books, which were so vital in the development of Pure Land teaching, that I find most telling. For, since the time of Bodhiruci the Pure Land way has been predominantly transmitted by means of the written word. This speaks of the profound privacy required for the contemplation of the truths which the Pure Land way imparts. It does not do well when presented with bombast and by eloquent speakers standing before an admiring crowd.

T'an-luan, too, 'propagated the pure act' by means of his writing, when he compiled his commentary on the Hymn of Aspiration for Birth. Later, the dharma master to follow T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o, was converted to the Pure Land way by reading T'an-luan's epitaph. More importantly, Honen Shonin found the way in reading the works of Shan-tao, who had lived six centuries earlier than he. Probably the most successful vehicle for the propagation of the Pure Land way was the ofumi of Rennyo Shonin in fifteenth century Japan.

I see in all this an overarching presence - the light of Amida - the only real kalyana-mitra. Infinite of time and space, always imminent, always transcendent. From time to time individuals within the community of those who listen to the light are moved to write; and their writings, in turn, speak in the quiet depths of other hearts.

1: CWS, p. 549.

2: CWS, pp. 82f.

3: For example, see Lamp for The Latter Ages, No. 12, CWS, p. 539.

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