Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 59

Wrongdoing and evil acts in this defiled world
Are like violent winds and torrential rains;
All the Buddhas, sorrowed by this,
Urge us to take refuge in the Pure Land.

No Longer Second Best

During the life of Tao-Ch'o, China underwent significant political change. The era of the southern and northern dynasties came to an end and the T'ang Dynasty began its 1,300 year hegemony. This change was accompanied by much violence and turmoil, yet it seems to me that for Tao-ch'o this is only a distant reality. As a monk, he was probably largely isolated from the upheavals that were felt in certain other parts of Chinese society - especially amongst the nobility. The fact is that Tao-ch'o's sense of the five defilements and mappo-ji was largely subjective.

Whereas T'an-luan was a deeply compassionate man, who was highly esteemed as an exemplary bodhisattva, T'ao-ch'o was the first prominent Pure Land master to see that the fundamental existential problem was within himself. This perspective is quite clear in the An-le-chi. It follows from this that, while T'an-luan saw the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha as addressing the needs of those who were inept and disadvantaged - as practicers of the Buddha Dharma - because of their life circumstances, Tao-ch'o, who as a monk had every opportunity to progress in the Buddhist way, saw the problem as being within his own mind. In this way he is very like Shinran Shonin.

This verse of the Koso Wasan has strong resonances in the Shozomatsu Wasan. Let us remember that the three volumes of the wasan are each focussed on specific living entities, along with their environments and influence. The Jodo Wasan tell us about Amida Buddha; his environment (the Pure Land) and his influence - which, of course is universal in both time and space. The Koso Wasan are about each of the seven dharma masters, along with their environments and their influence: the ways in which they each contributed to the development of Pure Land thought. The Shozomatsu Wasan, which Shinran wrote towards the end of his life, are about Shinran: and his environment. The Shozomatsu Wasan also reveal how Shinran saw his influence, for he was keen to deflect our gaze away from himself to Amida Buddha. In my view, he saw his influence as potentially dangerous - as long as the focus was on Shinran and not the Buddha. This theme is also present in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

I have already pointed out that Tao-ch'o did not insist that the path of sages was wrong but it is true to say that he does, indeed, seem to have been quite convinced that it was futile. While Nagarjuna described the way, that was to be called the gate of Pure Land, as 'the path of easy practice' - available for bodhisattvas who were faint of heart, as it were - Tao-ch'o seems to have been quite certain that it was the only worthwhile option.

The 'furious winds and torrential rains' of the five defilements, the internal afflictions (bonno, Sk. klesha) and the 'evil-doing' that is the ten unwholesome (Sk. akusala) actions that negate the Mahayana precepts - killing, stealing, sexual infidelity, dishonesty, flattery, slander, harsh speech, greed, anger and false views - are Tao-ch'o's internal blight.

As Shinran observed of himself - expressing an insight that is the timeless understanding of the Pure Land way - Tao-ch'o saw himself as 'outwardly wise, inwardly mendacious'. Even in the serene and safe context of monastic life, Tao-ch'o believed that he had no advantages in the task of striving for enlightenment. All his scrupulous observance of the Vinaya code was as naught when it was being constantly undermined by his inner turmoil.

Tao-ch'o points out in the An-le-chi that our inner turmoil also renders any faith that we may generate quite unstable. Only the faith that is of Amida Buddha, manifested in our nembutsu, has the purity, stability and power to carry us to the Pure Land and to the freedom that is enlightenment. Even though we may awaken to the Other Power shinjin, the 'furious winds and torrential rains' rage on, unabated. Because all constituents of the universe are interconnected, our inner reality is reflected in the world at large: the clouds do not clear away and the thunder does not become a distant memory as long as we dwell in the world of the five defilements and the age of mappo.

In Tao-ch'o's understanding, the Pure Land way has become the best way. It is no longer the poor relative of the path of sages, offered as consolation to those who are inadequate. In fact, since it is the only dharma that can deliver us to the goal, it is the only path that is able to fulfil the objectives of the Dharma.

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Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

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