Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 58

Following the teaching of Master T'an-luan,
Master Tao-ch'o was determined
That to awaken aspiration for enlightenment and perform
      practices in this world
Is the way of self-power.

Master Tao-ch'o

Master Tao-ch'o was born in 562. His early childhood was spent in the province that is now called Shan-hsi. He received initiate ordination as a monk when he was fourteen years of age. During the span of Tao-ch'o's life, Mohammed was born in Arabia and, by the time of Tao-ch'o's birth in the Pure Land (645), Islam had already conquered Egypt, Persia and Jerusalem; the Japanese Soga clan, which had established the dharma in Japan, lost power; in China the great canal was built; and the T'ang Dynasty began its 1,300-year ascendancy.

Tao-ch'o soon became famous as an exponent of the Nirvana Sutra and is said to have lectured on it twenty-four times. When he was forty-eight years old, he travelled to the Hsuan-chung-ssu (temple) where he came across an inscribed stone momorial to T'an-luan. This encounter changed the course of his life and inspired him to publicly declare that he had abandoned the way of self-power. From that time on he became devoted to the Contemplation Sutra and an ardent person of nembutsu. Tao-ch'o invented the use of a string of dried beans as a way to count the number of times he said the nembutsu. The use of religious beads had begun in India and by the third century they had been taken up by the naked desert hermits of eastern ('Nestorian') Christianity. Eventually, the idea caught on in Byzantium and then spread throughout the western world. By contrast, Tao-ch'o's use of beads was original and quite unrelated to this earlier practice.

For Tao-ch'o, nembutsu (Sk. buddhanusmrti, Ch. nien-fo) included the contemplation of Amida Buddha. Although he mainly used the Contemplation Sutra as his instruction manual, he probably also also had recourse to the Sutra on the Samadhi of the Contemplation on the Buddha, which outlined the meditation practice that Shakyamuni taught his father. In any case, Tao-ch'o's principal legacy was the practice of saying the nembutsu (shomyo), since it was later advocated by Shan-tao and Honen Shonin, Shinran Shonin's teacher. Tao-ch'o practiced what he taught; he is believed to have said the nembutsu 70,000 times a day. His way of life from 609 until his departure in 645, when he was 82, was manifestly devotional in focus. It is said, for example, that he spent hours in the temple reciting the nembutsu and burning incense in front of a statue of Amida Buddha.

When I think of Tao-ch'o, who - like all of our Jodo Shinshu dharma masters - is a living manifestation of the compassion of Amida Buddha, two significant features of his spiritual pilgrimage come to mind. The first is the intriguing fact that, like many followers of the Pure Land way, his teacher (zenjishiki, Sk. kalyanamitra) lived a generation earler: he had no direct contact with T'an-luan at all. In this, Tao-ch'o is typical of many people who turn to the Pure Land way. One may assume that a similar characteristic can be found in Vasubandhu, who took into his practice a tradition, which had been passed down by word of mouth within the Gandharan Buddhist community, eventually finding written form in the Larger Sutra and the Amida Sutra of our tradition. So, Vasubandhu's teacher was Shakyamuni, who had long gone before him.

Honen Shonin is a well-known example of trans-generational dharma transmission. He claimed Shan-tao, Tao-ch'o's pupil as his teacher - a link that spans many centuries. On the other hand, T'an-luan was inspired by Bodhiruchi, who handed him the Contemplation Sutra. In point of fact, there are no formal protocols in dharma transmission within the Pure Land way. People turn to the Primal Vow sometimes spontaneously and sometimes under instruction; sometimes by reading the work of someone long departed; and sometimes by direct contact. Again, people turn to the Pure Land way from within a myriad of contexts: sometimes they are monks, sometimes lay, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes talented, sometimes gauche. Our outward form - and the conditions which inspire us to take refuge - are as unique and as varied as the people who follow the Way.

The remarkable spontaneity of the Pure Land way, and the fact that it is largely transmitted independently of formal structures, intimates the native working of Other Power. Amida Buddha's dharma can be heard, even where there are no supportive structures. It works freely and even when we do not actively engage it. It is the unconditioned, which springs to life whenever the proper conditions arise in our hearts.

This brings me to the second feature of Tao-ch'o's life story. His visit to Hsuan-chung-ssu, where T'an-luan's epitaph stood, silently waiting - waiting, just for him. I cannot resist asking myself why Tao-ch'o, at the age of 47 - a successful and famous dharma teacher - went to Hsuan-chung-ssu at all. What was he looking for? We know that his reading of the epitaph brought him to his knees and turned his life on its head. What was driving him on his quest? What was it that permitted the dharma of Amida Buddha to strike him down in adoration?

Was it not that 'demon' that haunts all of us? Of course, it is only a demon until we actually meet it, but when we do, we may find in it relief, release, truth - and even joy, if the light of Amida Buddha's wisdom and the warmth of his compassion steps into the void that it creates. It is a most important demon, a wondrous friend, a cherished messenger of truth - but of it, we all stand in dread. It is the admission of failure: that we are weak, fragile and destined to die. In that moment of self-emptying; in that instant - which may, very often, be the only moment of pure truth that we will ever know - the light that is Amida Buddha's wisdom may pour in and set us free.

Oh! And then all those things we so despised: the weak, the ugly, the sinful, the frail, the trees, the flowers, the leaves that litter the path, the weeds that break apart our handiwork - oh! - these never looked so good and we never loved them so much.

Tao-ch'o, Master teacher of the Nirvana Sutra, is travelling back to his temple: a man brought low, but now with smiling face and shining eyes. He has only one thing, now, to talk about: Namu-amida-butsu.

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