Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 64

If women did not entrust themselves to Amida's Name and Vow,
They would never become free of the five obstructions,
Even though they passed through myriads of kalpas;
How, then, would their existence as women by transformed?

The Status of Women

This verse presents us with the second reference to the thirty-fifth Vow of Amida Buddha. The first was in Jodo Wasan 60. This new reference is much more significant, because behind it lies the thundering authority of the wise and compassionate heart of Amida Buddha, expressed through Shan-tao. It is also particularly significant that the series of verses that praises the life and work of Shan-tao opens with a reference to the status of women. This is because the Pure Land tradition - especially from the time of Shan-tao - has been unequivocal in its recognition that, in the dharma, women are of equal status with men. In this respect the Pure Land tradition, underwritten by its primary resources - especially the Larger Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra - is unique. In contrast, all other Buddhist traditions are markedly misogynistic, despite modern revisions.

Let us begin with the thirty-fifth Vow itself. In its verbal expression, which we find in the Larger Sutra, we discover that women, who have serene faith (Sk. prasada or shraddha), are re-born as males - never again to take on the female form. This seems like a rather odious idea, until we exlpore its true significance. In the main, the tradition of the Buddha-dharma has understood that women may eventually become male by repenting of the female form and undertaking rigorous practice. When, eventually they are able to attain succesive births as males, they can gain sufficient merit to progress towards the attainment of final release as Buddhas. In any case, it is traditionally held that it is imperative for women to become male before they can develop the necessary qualities to attain enlightenment.

The reason that women are enjoined to follow this process lies in the Indian tradition of pancha-avaranani - the five hindrances. The five hindrances make it impossible for women to become Brahma-kings, Indra, Maras, Secular Kings, and Buddhas, because they are: 'too solid', 'filled with lust', 'weak-willed', 'prone to jealousy' and 'redolent with bonno', respectively.

In the thirty-fifth Vow we encounter a distinct variation from the usual ideas about the supposed limits of femininity. In it we find an important amelioration of the dilemma posed for women who wish to practice the dharma. At this very point, the commonly accepted discrimination and rather nasty obloquy concerning women in the Indian tradition is turned on its head and rendered ultimately impotent. It is clear that, when the Pure Land tradition is revealed, discrimination against women is removed from the dharma, because from the moment of faith, women may assume future birth as males and proceed on their way upon the bodhisattva path within the context of their present circumstances. It is the Pure Land tradition, first and foremost, that affords the initial and basic occasion whereby the dharma is seen to be the way forward for women.

The Pure Land Way, alone, is the gate whereby all women of every kind have the opportunity for full, untrammelled participation in the dharma. Indeed, the only way for women to proceed in the dharma is the Pure Land Way.

We can see then, that at the very outset, the Pure Land teaching is the quintessential path for women. Lest this matter should be unclear, however, it is Shan-tao who removed the grounds for any misunderstanding that may arise from the wording of the thirty-fifth Vow. It was always possible for clergy and teachers to make much of the apparent suggestion, in the precise wording of the thirty-fifth Vow, that women of nembutsu will merely be born as males - since it does not specifically mention birth in the Pure Land. This left the way open for discrimination, because it was still possible to extrapolate, from the wording of the sutra, a sense that women are somehow lacking or inferior, and not full participants in the dharma.

Shan-tao's first work of Pure Land scholarship was the Kuan-nien-fa-men; its full title in English is Exposition of the Merit of the Samadhi of Meditation on the Ocean-like figure of Amida Buddha. Obviously, this book is concerned with samadhi, rather than shomyo - recitative nembutsu. Nevertheless, it is in this book that Shan-tao addresses the thirty-fifth Vow of Amida Buddha. His commentary is striking for its clarity. He begins his remarks by reiterating the significance of the passage but he concludes by over-riding any possibility of ambiguity concerning any suggestion that women will merely be transformed into males in their future births by virtue of the thirty-fifth Vow. Shan-tao gives a wonderful description of the way in which Amida Buddha will take them into the Pure Land and lead them straight on to enlightenment. After pointing out, further, that - without the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha - women would be condemned to keep wandering in samsara for æons, he offers a stern admonition concerning the Buddha's intent:

This should be noted. If a monk or a layman should say that women cannot attain birth in the Pure Land this is an unreliable statement. It is not to be believed. This sutra is given in evidence.

In other words, at the point of departure from this life, men and women are of identical status. Furthermore, both men and women will be born as buddhas, undergoing whatever transformation is necessary.

To complete our exploration of this verse, we need to ask ourselves why Shinran Shonin draws on the Kuan-nien-fa-men, when this book is not part of the Pure Land canon, since its focus is meditative nembutsu and not shomyo. Clearly, he saw it as pivotal; as having high significance. To understand this better, we do well to remember one of the distinguishing insights that is characteristic of Shinran's interpretation of the nembutsu way. Traditionally, the 'moment of truth' - of epiphany and realisation - in our stream was felt to be at the moment of death. This was the moment at which one's destiny would be finally settled. However, Shinran saw beyond this and realised that the settlement of one's destiny for birth in the Pure Land is the moment that Amida's shinjin (Sk. prasanna-citta, 'believing mind') is settled. Shinran correctly understood that the moment of death could not be decisive because it is often fraught with confusion and pain. Clearly it is the awakening of shinjin that matters.

In the person of nembutsu, when shinjin is settled, our future destiny is assured. In this very life - the life we experience, now - those who follow the nembutsu way are on the threshold of buddha-hood. In this implicit truth, then, any distinction in the status of men and women is swept away. Shinran not only served as heir to Shan-tao's clear admonition: he also realised that the community of nembutsu-shinjin was, in itself, one in which men and women are already equal.

In the Pure Land way, there is no distinction between women and men.

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