Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 30

The emperor, wholeheartedly revering him,
Commanded that a tomb be built immediately
At the splendid site of Chin-ling,
In the Fen-chou district of Hen-hsi province.

The Splendid Place

In this verse, Shinran Shonin describes the details of the events surrounding the departure of T'an-luan before he goes on to celebrate T'an-luan's life-time achievements in greater detail. In China T'an-luan is better known as the author of Taoist works on the maintenance of health, and not so much as a dharma master. The place where his remains were laid to rest was a dedicated garden, not necessarily a remote Buddhist temple.

One wonders if T'an-luan himself saw his Taoist work as having been superseded by his dharma teaching. In any case, is it an important question? Does it matter that T'an-luan is revered as both a Taoist and a Buddhist teacher? It seems clear to me that his commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land demonstrates no conscious Taoist philosophical influence at all, in spite of understandable linguistic habit, like using tao to translate bodhi, enlightenment. Tao, here, probably only means 'way', since Buddhism is the 'way of enlightenment'.1

Nevertheless, these questions do raise the problem of religious pluralism. Can a single individual be thoroughly committed to more than one spiritual path simultaneously? In my view, it is possible for some people; although, not for me. In addition, I think that T'an-luan undoubtedly became an exclusive follower of the Buddha Dharma after his meeting with Bodhiruchi. T'an-luan as a Taoist is not the same person as the man who became a follower of dharma. Such is the nature of true religious conversion.

As the Treatise on the Establishment of Truth (Sk. satyasiddhi) says,

If your adherence to nonbuddhist paths is great and your adherence to the Buddha-dharma is light, you are possessed of wrong views. If your adherences are equal, your state is indeterminate, corresponding to neither good nor evil. If your adherence to the Buddhist path is strong and your adherence to the path of Lao-tzu is slight, you possess pure trust. 'Pure' means immaculate both on the surface and within; all the grime and defilement of ignorance has been completely eliminated. 'Trust' means to entrust oneself to the right and be free of wrong views. Hence, one is called a 'disciple of the Buddha who possessed pure trust.' Other forms of trust are all wrong views. They cannot be called 'pure trust'...2

Unlike most followers of Buddha Dharma, T'an-luan's ashes were not interred in a remote mountain monastery but in a garden in the city of Chin-ling in the province of Hen-hsi.

From the earliest times, Indian philosophy and religion had seen urban life as subversive of spiritual cultivation: places of vice and crime. Yet, the Vow of Amida Buddha embraces both wilderness and the places of vice and crime. The nembutsu may rise in all its depth, joy and purity, as much from remote monasteries in inaccessible mountain passes, as from the oppression of a factory or the itchy cravings of a brothel.


1: Buddhism is not 'the way of the Buddha' because there is an infinite number of Buddhas. 'Buddha' comes from bodhi, 'enlightenment'. Buddhism, or Buddha Dharma, is 'the way, or teaching, of enlightenment'.

2: CWS, p. 286

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