Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 85

Although they have been given the teaching of the path to the West,
They have obstructed themselves and obstructed others
      from accepting it,
And so for vast kalpas since the distant past,
They have spent their lives meaninglessly and in vain.

Censure

The part that others play in disrupting our progress towards the final release in attaining the status of a Buddha is frequently emphasised in the teachings of the Pure Land School. Of course, it is also the case that we have powerful inner obstacles as well: matters of habitual thinking, duplicity and lack of trust. Other traditional obstacles, like our inner conflicts (bonno, Sk. klesha), innate spiritual blindness (mumyo, Sk. avidya) and our failures of understanding and virtue (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) are only obstacles in the Pure Land way just so long as we believe that they are.

Shan-tao gives a significant place to the rôle that others play in hindering our progress upon the way in his allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path. In the course of the story he describes a man, who has heeded the advice of Shakyamuni. Just as the man is taking his first steps along the white path across the two rivers of water (greed) and fire (anger) ...

... brigands on the eastern bank call to him: 'O taveller, come back! The path is treacherous and permits no crossing. You are certain to meet your death. None of us address you thus with evil intent.'1

Shan-tao's explanation of this event in his allegory is that ...

... people of different understandings, different practices and false views, with their own misguided opinions, one after another seek to misguide him, claiming that he will commit evil and fail.2

In the allegory, then, we discover that a common experience for followers of the Pure Land way is censure from those who are not of the same path. These others censure our intentions and our practice for the best of reasons, and mean well. Nevertheless, Shan-tao's allegory goes on to tell us that the traveller - in spite of the warnings from his well-intentioned friends - decides, at last, to heed the call of Amida Buddha (in the Name) and, with 'single-minded determination' follows the path. On reaching the end of the path, the traveller meets his good friend (zen u ai'mi, Sk. kalyana mitra) - Amida Buddha -, and 'his joy is endless'.

The problem of censure on the part of others, and a clear decision to ignore it, is a remarkable feature of the Pure Land way because opposition is recognised as being either a genuine obstacle or a catalyst for a successful outcome. In other words the doubts of others eventually fail to have power over followers of the Pure Land way; and this is a remarkable fact. It is this which, in part, lies at the heart of Shinran's conviction that faith is the product, not of the aspirant, but of Amida Buddha. Indeed, Shinran shows us that it is Amida Buddha's own faith, transferred to all beings by him. This fact gains immense piquancy in the recognition that those who oppose us mean us no harm; that they are motivated only by a concern for our well-being.

Censure is a very interesting phenomenon because, in itself, it is entirely neutral. The use of censure may be motivated either by the desire to control another, as an exercise in bullying and power; or it may be based on a wish to stop someone we love from harming themselves in some way. The censure that followers of the Pure Land way experience is probably one or the other of these, depending on the context and the relationships involved. We are never in a position to know what motivates others with any certainty, the only thing of which we can be sure is the censure itself.

The experience of censure by others is quite outside these considerations, however, when it comes to the Pure Land way. In order to understand the location of resistance to the censure of others in the Pure Land way, we need to go right back to Shan-tao and his allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path.

The 'traveller in the open plain', represents us. The traveller's confrontation with the censure of others occurs at the very cusp of his determination to follow the call of Amida Buddha. We learn from Shan-tao that the traveller is in a place 'where there is no one'. This means that he has not found any living person whom he can trust as a guide. Worse, he has also discovered that in pursuing the dharma he has been an abject failure. Worse - and more painful still - he has admitted this to himself. In other words the traveller has come to a terminus - an end-point, beyond which he cannot move; a crisis, which has no solution; a disease, which has no cure.

Experience shows that few people come to the Pure Land way without a deep - and often painful - insight into their own reality; their own frailty and inadequacy. Even fantasists and liars who turn to the Pure Land way confront their own incapacity with profound personal honesty and courage. This is clearly impossible in ordinary circumstances and can only be attributed to the power of the Vow of Amida Buddha. What these people discover about themselves and their relationship with the Buddha Dharma is known by them to be ultimately irresistible. An irresistible fact. It is an obstacle and a truth that disqualifies them absolutely from following the Buddha Dharma - or any religious or philosophical system of any kind at all. As the allegory says:

If I turn back now, I die! If I remain here, I die! If I go forward, I die! There is no way for me to escape death. Therefore, I choose to go forward, venturing on this path! Since this path exists, it must be possible to cross the rivers.3

Before the traveller has heard the censure of others, he has first gone through a process of censuring himself. The traveller has already stared long and hard at absolute and cavernous doubt within his own heart. In the very moment that the censured one hears the censure of others, he has already accepted it. He knows it and loves it well.

It is only the Power of Amida Buddha that takes him forward.


1: CWS, p. 90.

2: CWS, p. 91.

3: CWS, p. 90.

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