Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 55

Setting aside the myriad practices of the Path of Sages,
Our teacher, Master Tao-ch'o,
Proclaims the single gate of the Pure Land way
As the only path that affords passage.

Sorrow and the Mists of Time

Eleven years before Tao-ch'o (doshaku) was born, the age of imitation dharma (zobo, Sk. pratiropa-dharma) ended and the age of degenerate dharma (mappo, Sk. pas-cima-dharma or vipralopa-dharma) began. This was, in any case, the view that Tao-ch'o held. It is not clear to me whether it was a sense of the degenerate nature of the dharma in his time that inspired Tao-ch'o to visit the mausoleum of T'an-luan, or whether it was the early hints in T'an-luan's thought that the dharma was in irreversible decline, that inspired Tao-ch'o to seek inspiration from him. Whatever may have been the source of Tao-ch'o's conviction, it was he who gave the Pure Land way its defining characteristic. This is that we are so far removed from the living presence of Shakyamuni Buddha that all that is taught under the aegis of the Buddha Dharma has become rather unreliable.

Tao-ch'o's teaching, which - as far as I know - is mainly preserved in the Anrakushu (Ch. an-lo-chi), is full of longing for the presence of a living Buddha; so as to make it possible to find certainty in the path and sure guidance on the way to nirvana. Tao-ch'o yearned, above all, to return to the world of the living Buddha. Unhappy with the doctrinal controversies that raged in his time, and probably disturbed by the theory of doctrinal development portrayed by the Nirvana Sutra - of which Tao-ch'o was an expert exponent - he wanted to have a personal encounter with the Buddha himself. Tao-ch'o lived to experience such a personal encounter with Amida Buddha vicariously in his pupil, Shan-tao; something, we are told, that brought him great joy. Tao-ch'o and many people of his generation were deeply sensitive to the underlying truth of the dharma but uncertain as to how to proceed in it.

Tao-ch'o's assessment of the age of degenerating dharma can be found in the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In these passages, we discover how Tao-ch'o made his calculation that he had been born on the cusp of the end of the age of imitation dharma and the begining of the age of degenerating dharma. He calculates that the age of 'true dharma' (shobo, Sk. sad-dharma) prevailed for five hundred years from the time of Shakyamuni's parinirvana in 949 BCE. From 449 BCE until 551 CE (a thousand years) the age of imitation Dharma had run its course. Tao-ch'o was born in 562 CE.

Saicho, the great Japanese Dharma Master wrote in a similar vein in the Mappo Tomyo-ki, but he considers a number of theories about the timing of the three dharma ages. It seems from his writing that Tao-ch'o's assumption that the duration of three ages were 500, 1,000 and 10,000 years, respectively, is more-or-less correct.

Needless to say, Shakyamuni's parinirvana is no longer thought to have been so far back in time, and it is not entirely certain that he can be accurately described as an 'historical' person, meaning that there is no contemporary written record of his life and teaching. Of course, Shakyamuni Buddha was no doubt a person who actually did live in India, but not more than 2,500 years ago.

However we may choose to calculate these dates, it is in understanding the importance of the theory of the three dharma ages, that we can gain insight into Tao-ch'o's world-view. In any case, one thing is certain, and that is that our present era is clearly well into the third and final age of the dharma. Saicho quotes from significant texts in order to demonstrate the reality of the age of mappo. In one place he points out that precepts, wisdom and meditation can no longer be practiced efficaciously; and that the correct interpretation of these three divisions of the Noble Eightfold Path has become unclear. This insight has as much to do with our distance in time from the living presence and influence of Shakyamuni as with anything else.

In our pilgrimage on the way to transcendence and the final release of nirvana, each one of us must make a personal assessment as to whether or not the age of degenerate dharma is upon us. For, our decision in this regard determines our future course. Just as a realisation that is both rational and visceral leads us to accept the Four Noble Truths, our observations of both the contents of our hearts and the reality of the claims of others, will lead us to choose, like Tao-ch'o, between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land way. The Fourfold Noble Truths are based upon an aetiological survey of the human condition. Our sense of living in the age of degenerating dharma arises in a similar way - from the dissonance between what we know of the teaching of the Buddha, our personal capacity and our frank observation of the claims of others.

Many of us, like Tao-ch'o, come to a point at which our experience, our observations and our bitter disappointments leave us convinced that our only hope is the nembutsu and the Pure Land way. Having seen a glimmer of light through the mists of time from the living presence of Shakyamuni, now distorted and tarnished by the human frailty of those who designate themselves as its guardians, we turn at last to the living Buddha Amitabha and long to be in his presence. Eventually there comes a time when we are, indeed, in his presence and hear the voiceless dharma in our hearts. There is then no need for anything but to listen and adore.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next