Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 88

Master Genshin stated:
'Originally a Buddha, I appeared in this world;
The conditions for teaching others having already run their course,
I am returning to my primal land.'

Darkness and Light

Shinran Shonin draws on Master Genshin's writings in order to support the teaching that he expounds in the Practice (gyo, Sk. yoga) and Shinjin (shin, shraddha) sections of his Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. From these quotations we gain a glimpse of the full sophistication and complexity that is the person of Master Genshin.

Master Genshin lived at the turn of the first and second millenia. He was born in 942 and returned to the Pure Land in 1017. He lived almost exactly a thousand years before us. He lived in the era of the Tales of Genji and was the first Pure Land master born in Japan to have been taken by Shinran Shonin as one of his teachers. In the verse that opens the collection of the ten Genshin Wasan, Shinran draws on a biographical work called Genshin Sozu Gyojitsu.

As we have done in the case of his predecessors, we will explore more details of Genshin's life as we progress through this collection of verses. The more one learns of Genshin the greater the sense of his personality deepens; and our response is a sense of growing warmth and affection for this truly remarkable man. It is said that he was conceived after his mother had implored Avalokiteshvara (kanon, Ch. guan-yin) for a child. He was born near present-day Nara. At the age of fifteen, he travelled to Mt Hiei, near Kyoto, and became a monk, joining the relatively new Tendai order.

The age in which Genshin lived was characterised by gloom and accidie - a listless sense of the futility of everything - and of the evanescence of life. This is obviously far more realistic than our consumerist delusions but it seems to have pervaded everything - the court, literature, the dharma itself - to the point of utter oppression of the spirit.

Genshin's interest in the Pure Land way was obviously not a new development in the Buddhism of his time; and he was following a venerable Tendai tradition, especially in Japan, where, apparently, devotion to Amida Buddha was particularly strong. Genshin formed a nembutsu society, which had twenty-five members. In doing this, he revived a pattern of nembutsu practice that was established by the White Lotus Society. This group of one hundred and twenty-three followers of the Pure Land way was established at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries in China. Ever since Genshin's time, the establishment of groups of people, who gather to practice Pure Land teachings together, has been a common feature of the lineage. It reached its apogee in the formal establishment of the Jodoshu by Honen Shonin in the twelfth century.

Although Genshin was the author of about one hundred and seventy works on the Buddha Dharma, he is best known for the manual of practice that he wrote in order to provide guidance and support for his companions in the Pure Land way (jodomon). This great work in three fascicles was called A Collection of Important Passages Concerning Birth in the Pure Land (ojoyoshu). It gained such currency and respect that it is said that it quickly found its way to China and to Mt. Tien-tai, the world-wide source of the Tendai School, where it was joyfully read by seven hundred monks, who paid homage to Genshin from afar. Genshin was held in high regard, even in China, where it is said he became known as the Japanese Shakyamuni.

We can see from both this verse - and that story - that Genshin was respected for his genius and considered to be a manifestation of light, a Buddha. Yet in his own heart he saw things differently; and he did not hesitate to make this known. It is well known that Genshin pointed out that although Amida Buddha's light 'fills the ten quarters', his own karmic evil was so great that he could see the light only dimly himself. He saw himself, not only as wicked and evil, but as ignorant and incapable of succesfully accomplishing the demands of the Buddha Dharma. In the opening passages of the Ojoyoshu, we read:

Even those who are intelligent and diligent cannot accomplish the Way. If that is the case, how can an ignorant and self-willed person like me do so?

Given that others saw Genshin as a Buddha and worthy of worship and reverence, and also that he saw himself in such a negative way, how are we to understand these seemingly conflicting assessments? It is not enough to see Genshin's lack of a sense of self-worth as somehow a piece of clever deception that may be described as skilful means (Sk. upaya). We have also seen that the earlier Pure Land masters, most notably Tao-ch'o, also had a similar assessment of themselves. Shinran likewise inherited this shared self-appraisal.

I have no doubt that Genshin's self-negation was born of genuine experience and a true awareness of himself. It was no pretense. His own self-understanding goes hand in hand with an objective recognition on the part of others that he was a remarkable and fine human-being - a person of such depth and accomplishment as to have been regarded as a Buddha. In Genshin we see true humanity - true depth. In him we see that darkness and light are mutually dependent.

Obviously Genshin's self-understanding was derived from the figure that stood before him as his inspiration and his goal - Amida Buddha. Reading the Larger Sutra we discover the goal of existence in the description of Amida Buddha as both an aspiring bodhisattva - the model for those who follow the way - and as an enlightened Buddha. In the context of the dharma, a Buddha is not a remote divinity that hands mandates from on high but who has no living relationship with us. Buddhas are not gods of any kind. Rather, they represent our inspiration and our goal. We look to the Buddha as our model, our friend and as our guide, as a traveller on the way: one who has gone before us as a pioneer.

Travelling onwards, we, men and women of the way, discover just what it is that the dharma portends. The more time we spend contemplating it, contemplating the Buddha, our guide, who is the embodiment of the dharma, the more we become aware of its brilliance. In the face of such brilliance, what we see, when we turn our eyes inward, is shadow.

It is wrong to see this shadow in a way that invites self-hatred. Nothing could be further from the truth or - in the context of the Buddha-dharma - more misguided. What we do gather is a sense of our own lack of enduring reality, of just how far we fall short: not as an occasion for a sense of hopelessness, but as an opportunity to turn and face the light.

To continue the metaphor: if we turn our backs on the light we will only see the shadow, which the light creates. There can be no shadow without light, so why would we be interested in constantly examining and contemplating the shadow? The shadow, after all, is produced by the light: it bespeaks the light, tells us that there is the light. The shadow that we are, can have no existence without the light.

The practices that Genshin outlines in the Ojoyoshu involve turning away from ourselves to face the light. In facing the light, we turn our backs on the shadow, and discover the only enduring reality. It then becomes obvious that the light fills all things - and we rejoice to discover that, yes, it is dawning in our own hearts, too.

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