Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 43

Being born in the Buddha-land of happiness
Is the path to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood;
All Buddhas acclaim the Pure Land,
For birth there is the unsurpassed means.

How to Become a Buddha

From the time of Nagarjuna the way of being born in a Pure Land and realising nirvana began to develop as a clear alternative to the way of becoming a bodhisattva and making one's way in a linear fashion along the path to perfect enlightenment. Yet, even for Vasubandhu the distinction was not clear. It was his commentator, T'an-luan who saw the Pure Land way clearly as an alternative to the Path of Sages. Yet, it was not until Tao-ch'o that the two paths became distinct traditions.

Although the distinction was blurred somewhat until the time of Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin, the Pure Land way emerged as a popular option for lay people and some monks, who frequently turned to it as a last option. In China today, it often remains as a hedge against shortcomings in one's practice. Nembutsu practice has long been associated with various schools of Cha'an (Sk. dhyana) in China. I once knew a Cha'an master, who always pointed out that we should say the nembutsu, 'just in case our practice goes wrong'.

The essence of the Pure Land way is to be found in the notion of completing our practice in ideal circumstances in a place, which is filled with the dharma and the overarching presence of a Buddha. It is clearly a tradition which stretches back into the mists of time. Although it is a teaching of Shakyamuni, its significance did not become clear until the time of Tao-ch'o. It is associated with the fact that the sangha was drawing away from the time and influence of Shakyamuni. Compounding this was the emerging conciousness of the age of mappo (Sk. saddharma-vipralopa), which gained greater currency between the time of T'an-luan and Tao-ch'o when the Buddhist community found itself suddenly subject to the most appalling and violent persecution imaginable. We shall explore this important development, when we come to consider the verses about Tao-ch'o.

Needless to say, the underlying and growing sense of drawing away from the beneficent influence of Shakyamuni with the passage of time was sufficient cause for followers of the dharma to turn their attention to the nascent Pure Land movement. We can see, in our meeting with T'an-luan through Shinran's wasan, the growing interest in the Pure Land sutras. T'an-luan is the perfect example of such a development as he becomes more engaged with the Pure Land way as his life progresses. In any case, to my mind, it is this increasing distance from Shakyamuni that lends a greater and deepening significance to the Pure Land way.

In the Path of Sages, a man or woman enters the bodhisattva career upon awakening bodhicitta (the mind inclining to enlightenment) and entering the first 'platform' (Sk. bhumi): the stage of joy. Living their lives governed by the principles of this stage, bodhisttavas eventually enter the second stage, after which their careers are no longer mundane but take place on a higher, 'other worldly' plain. Eventually, after traversing the third through the ninth stage, they become Buddhas in exactly the same way that Shakyamuni did.

The Pure Land way offers a parallel path. T'an-luan discovered that in nembutsu bodhicitta is transferred by the Buddha and then at death the aspirant passes into the pure realm of a Buddha, whereupon he or she is to be found in an environment in which the practice of the dharma may be untramelled. However, in this verse, we are reminded that entry into the Pure Land is tantamount to the assurance of becoming a Buddha. To put it in a nutshell: the most certain and effective way to become a Buddha is, in T'an-luan's view, only the Pure Land way.

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