Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 54

King Hsiao, the Emperor of Liang,
Always faced in the direction
Of our teacher and paid homage to him,
Calling him Bodhisattva Luan.

The Legacy of T'an-luan

It seems to me that the very first thing we need to consider, when we discuss the legacy of a great dharma master like T'an-luan is the very fact of his biography. While the teachings of Shakyamuni are, very largely, lost in the mists of time, T'an-luan is an actual person who lived within a specific geographical and historical context. The significance of this is that he was a man who embodied the dharma within the framework and physical constraints of his life. So the biographies of the dharma masters are important, since we see in them the dharma being ratified in the life of individuals who needed to struggle with and adopt it within the constraints of a genuinely human existence. The teachings of the sutras are glorious, profoundly illuminating and inspiring but, unless there are people who genuinely realise the teaching in their lives it remains entirely a matter of theory.

These sentiments might seem to contradict the fundamental Buddhist idea of the ultimately illusory nature of existence but we should remember that we, ordinary people, still live within the sphere of 'conventonal truth' (Sk samvritti satya). The existence of historically factual individuals who ratify the dharma within their own lives is a form of skilful (Sk. upaya) approach.

The seven dharma masters - of which T'an-luan is the third - also constitute the third part of the Triple Gem in our Jodoshinshu lineage; together they make up the living sangha to which we go for refuge. They are the interpreters of the dharma, which was expounded by the Buddha. Our sangha - the dharma masters, our community of monks - stand alongside Amida Buddha and Shakyamuni as the guardians, disseminators and exponents of the truth that shows us the way to the other shore, to nirvana. Shinran's major work is utterly dependent on them. The power of their exegisis stands upon the rock of the dharma, which they ratified by their practice.

In this lineage, T'an-luan was the first to expound an enduring Buddhology.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have two Dharmakayas (Dharma-bodies): Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature and Dharmakaya of Expediency. From the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature originates the Dharmakaya of Expediency; through the Dharmakayas of Expediency the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature is revealed. These two Dharmakayas are different but inseparable; they are one but not the same.

A little further on in the text we discover the full weight of T'an-luan's Madhyamika theory being brought to bear upon his immortal philosophical underpinning of the Pure Land Way:

Because Dharma-nature is Nirvana, Dharmakaya is formless. Because it is formless there is no form which it cannot manifest. Therefore the body adorned with the marks of excellence is itself the Dharmakaya.1

T'an-luan's legacy also extends to the fact that he draws to our attenton the idea - already implicit in the Pure Land teaching - that the necessary disposition in Pure Land practice is attained by means of the Other Power.

There are also other more peripheral things we can take from T'an-luan. I also see in him a breadth of vision, a generosity of spirit and an urbanity that is a role model for followers of the dharma. He is, at once, celebrated for the depth of his Madhyamika understanding, his Taoist writings and his Pure Land philosophy. He was a person of path; he followed a course that led to his final refuge in the nembutsu. At the same time his writings convey the sense of an individual of such warmth and humanity that he is the kind of person you could comfortably visit for a quiet chat and a cup of tea.

Although his fragile health seems to have been a life-long burden, he was renowned for his kindness and compassion. This indicates that he had realised shunya ta - the voidness of all dharmas. He was completely devoid of prejudice, welcoming to his cliff-side hermitage both rich and poor, powerful and weak. His compassion, arising as it does from his attainment of the perfection of wisdom, his faith, is profound - and profoundly moving. The first time I read his account of the causes that inspired Amida Buddha to create his Pure Land for the sake of suffering beings, I was so moved by the depth of his compassion and pathos that I was reduced to tears.

T'an-luan's compassion is so selfless, powerful and radiant that I do not think I have encountered anything like it anywhere else - except perhaps in Shan-tao or Shantideva. It is a compassion which found both a conduit and a recipient in Shinran Shonin. It is so striking that one can almost feel it as a living, guiding presence. I feel certain that T'an-luan was, without question, completely at one with Amida Buddha; and, as he comes to mind now, the two seem indistinguishable.


1: Inagaki, 1998, p 264f.

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