Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 5

People who hear and accept the words
Of our teacher Bodhisattva Nagarjuna,
Should be mindful of the Primal Vow
And say the Name of Amida always.

The Telling

The first thing that strikes us when we meet this verse is the phrase '... hear and accept the words.' Although Shinran includes two quotes from Nagarjuna's Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, it is not because he viewed the author's philosophy as a an important adjunct of Pure Land thought. Clearly, Shinran's designation of Nagarjuna as the first patriarch of Jodo Shinshu, is because he commended the 'easy eath' of nembutsu to all who will listen. Apart from T'an-luan's exposition of the two dharma bodies, Shinran shows scant interest in the system of Madhyamika metaphysics, which Nagarjuna developed.

It is true that in east Asia the principal exponent of Pure Land theory was T'an-luan - a teacher within the Madhyamika school. Indeed, T'an-luan's work is the most extensively quoted commentarial material utilised in Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin-Sho but it is also significant that T'an-luan's commentary itself is upon a work by Vasubandhu, the founder of the Yogacara school of Mahayana metaphysics. Indeed, the exemplary work on the schools of the Mahayana, The Essentials of the Eight Traditions, by Gyonen, explicitly states that the Yogacara classic known as The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (daijo kishin ron, Sk. Mahayana Shradhotpada Shastra) is the basis of the Pure Land tradition.

This verse here raises the question of propagation in the Pure Land tradition: 'people who hear and accept the words.' As we have seen, 'the words' is a specific reference to the Pure Land way, and nothing more.

From the time of Shan-tao, the Pure Land school in east Asia - and especially in Japan - has been inclined to a missionary emphasis, sometimes rather aggressively so. A token of this is the oft-quoted phrase, coined by Shan-tao: 'believe the teaching yourself and teach others to believe' (ji shin kyo nin shin). This resonant mandate is explicity given to Pure Land Buddhist ministers at their ordination. Within Jodo Shinshu it is strongly re-inforced by Shinran's insistence that 'ji shin kyo nin shin' is one of only two ways in which gratitude for the Primal Vow expresses itself; the other being the the saying (shomyo) of the nembutsu. These two outcomes of the awakening of faith are the 'work of great compassion' and are the practical way that the light of Amida Buddha is received throughout the world.

Propagation of the Pure Land way is somewhat vexed outside of east Asia. In China, however, followers of the nembutsu are engaged with the wider community, often forming very active and lively lay fraternities. They are uninhibited about expressing their faith and commitment to the way and often openly describe their own process of conversion to nembutsu. The problem in English-speaking countries like Australia is one of delineation.

In Australia, public expectations about the Buddha Dharma tend to be humanistic, rather than authentically Buddhist in outlook. Actually, a materialistic world view is quite detrimental to a sound understanding of the dharma, but it is widespread, if not ascendent. Buddhist hermeneutics are frequently over-coded by secular humanism, creating the illusion of a wide gulf between Pure Land Buddhism and those forms that lend themselves more easily to materialistic interpretations.

In addition to these considerations, the dharma is especially uncomfortable with the idea of aggressive propagation. In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, community leaders have tended to prefer restraint on the part of followers. Most notable in this respect, is Rennyo Shonin who was confronted with outrageous excesses on the part of nembutsu people. In writings like his letter 'On Six Articles' (Gobunsho 4, 7) he calls upon Shinshu followers to think before they discuss the teachings with others and, indeed, even to publicly disown their allegiance to the Hongwanji, if asked.

Fortunately, the trend these days is to return to the traditional missionary emphasis in the Pure Land way and the Hongwanji actively encourages all members to openly profess their faith. Those of us who support this view, however, still have daunting hurdles to jump, the most debilitating of which is the kind of blind ignorance and prejudice that I described earlier. In the face of this, it is my view that propagation should be passive rather that extraverted. By this I mean that we ought simply to provide people the opportunity to contemplate the Pure Land way but in their own way and in their own time. Indeed, as Rennyo himself suggests, awakening to the truth of the Pure Land way begins with reading and, after that, those who are inclined to take up the nembutsu will be naturally prompted to seek the advice of a teacher and to join the company of other followers.

Enabling people to 'hear and accept the words' that are the nembutsu teaching of Nagarjuna is, however, a principal feature of the Pure Land way and is a significant aspect of the expression of the inner disposition of shinjin. Those who counsel silence are out of step with a key factor of Pure Land Buddhism.

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