Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 83

The time has come when the five defilements increase;
Those who doubt and revile Amida's Vow are numerous.
Both monks and lay people despise the nembutsu
And harm any they see engaging in it.

Conflict

In assessing the age of declining dharma (mappo) we need to remember that there are two time-cycles. There is a long-term wave-like cycle in which there are peaks and troughs. Within this, there is a natural decay that occurs because of the passage of time and the growing distance between the contemporary sasana and the teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. The long-term cycles are kalpas, an ill-defined concept of time. Shakyamuni is often described as having thrived - some 2,500 years ago - in a declining phase of the current kalpa. So, even during his time the 'five deflilements' were already prevalent. Now, however, it is felt that their thrall has deepened and the Buddha sasana has even degenerated further into open conflict and internal hostilities.

About one hundred years after Shakyamuni's parinirvana the Buddhist community split into two. The cause of this schism is not known with any certainty; but during the century leading up to the Third Council as many as thirty sects had emerged. During this time and the next time that we have an eye-witness account of the Buddhist world - in the writings of the Tripitaka Master Xuanzang (600 - 64), seven hundred years later - a plethora of Buddhist religions had emerged and were thriving in an area covering more than half of the Eurasian land mass; extending from the Caspian Sea and the shores of the Indian Ocean to the Pacific coast.

Xuanzang, you will remember, is the famous monk, the Tripitaka master - a collector and translator of sutras - who travelled from China, through the deserts of central Asia and across the Pamirs to India. Xuanzang's journal is part of the collected canon of Buddhist texts known as the Taisho Tripitaka and can be read in an English translation published by Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

A feature of Xuanzang's approach to the vibrant and manifold religious traditions of the Buddhism of his time is his apparent delight in the variety of opinion and tradition. For him Buddhist sectarianism is a source of wonder, an ever-fascinating kaleidoscope. While there were disputes between groups, they seem to have been friendly: respecting each others' differences. At the great Buddhist university in Nalanda, the various schools worked happily in the same precincts and were prepared to learn and grow together in the dharma. This all seems to have changed in the early centuries of the second millenium of the common era.

So it seems, from a historical perspective, that there is truth in the idea that intolerance was emerging in the Buddhist movement around the world. How are we to regard these developments?

Certainly, in Shinran Shonin's time, the strength of Honen Shonin's following aroused anger and jealousy from within the older schools of Buddhism. Although there does not seem to be much vituperative feeling within the writings of either Honen or Shinran towards other schools, the reverse is not always the case. Dogen - the founder of Soto Zen - and Nichiren, both of whom were roughly contemporaneous with Shinran, used pejorative rhetoric in an attempt to discredit the Pure Land movement.

This contempt for the Pure Land way certainly continues into our own time. It is disappointing and difficult to understand. Since the Pure Land way enables ordinary people (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) to become Buddhas, one would have thought that people who had trained themselves in compassion and non-attachment would rejoice in this fact; but this does not seem to be how things work.

Probably one of the most important writers to popularise the Buddha-dharma in the English-speaking world was Christmas Humphries, an English lawyer. He made a very important contribution to the dissemination of the dharma. Nevertheless, he added his voice to a chorus of harsh and ill-informed anti-Pure Land polemic.

For a follower of the Pure Land way, this kind of behaviour is baffling and distressing. As a result, writers like Christmas Humphries have done much to engender a general sense of low morale among Pure Land Buddhists. This, in turn, has elicited some defensive work on the part of some Pure Land scholars that has, in the final result, been singularly unhelpful. It seems to me that we Pure Land followers ought to embrace the hostility and not try to challenge it. Obviously, the Pure Land way is, for some, a source of fear; any attempt to address fear with reasoned argument - or facts - is futile. The solution is to understand the anger of others and accept it for what it is.

Shinran seems to have found the capacity to accept the ugly reality of the unpleasant and dismissive rhetoric of some Buddhist schools in their relation to Pure Land Buddhism. He saw in it more evidence of the degeneration of the dharma. He is a fine example for us of the way in which we ought also to both interpret - and respond to - this phenomenon where it occurs.

Shinran and his fellow followers of the dharma suffered terrible privations and attacks from other Buddhists who opposed the dissemination of the nembutsu. Knowing full well that many of these people would not look fondly upon either him or his collection of passages in support of the Pure Land way, which he had drawn from the teachings of the Buddha and the commentaries of many scholars and writers through history, it was he - a man who thought of himself as a bombu, a 'foolish' being - who found it in his heart to forgive. The concluding words of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho come from the Garland Sutra.

On seeing a bodhisattva
Performing various practices,
Some give rise to a good mind and some to a mind of evil
But the bodhisattva embraces them all.1


1: CWS, p. 292.

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