Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 89

Our teacher Genshin earnestly set forth,
From among all the teachings of the Buddha's lifetime,
The single gateway of the nembutsu,
And spread it among the beings of this defiled world in the
      latter age.

No Choice

Most of the dharma masters, who comprise the Jodo Shinshu lineage, were men who made a choice to turn to the nembutsu after spending much of their lives - and time and effort - upon the path of sages. As we have already seen, it was Tao-ch'o, especially, who brought to light a clear distinction between the monastic - or quasi-monastic - path of the dharma and the Pure Land way (jodomon, strictly, 'Pure Land Gate').

Tao-ch'o was clearly aware of his own need to follow the Pure Land way but he was also a monk of high repute. While he was keen to disseminate knowledge of the nembutsu outside the bhiksu sangha - to 'ordinary' (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) men and women - he, nevertheless seems to have thought that there is an element of choice in the matter.

In the centuries between Shakyamuni and Tao-ch'o, much controversy was generated in the Buddhist world concerning what kind of person ought to be the main focus of the nembutsu path. However, from the time of the White Lotus Society, groups of lay followers seem to have taken increasing interest in it as well. Even so, this interest seems to have been spasmodic and the monastic tradition maintained prominence. The monastic way remained the superior choice that a follower of the dharma should make: for his own sake and for the sake of others.

The Buddha-dharma in Genshin's time probably looked very like the thriving Tibetan tradition, with which we are more familiar. However, it was an emphatically elitist religion whose principal practitioners lived in monasteries, while those outside were left with magico-religious rituals that brought them spiritual consolation. The prevailing denominations were the Shingon (true word) and Tendai (named for Mt Tien-t'ai in China, where it began). Since it was the 'last age of the dharma' (mappo), the monks were largely seen as necessarily corrupt. It also seems that the dharma was received by the general populace in a rather negative way, reminding them only of the vacuous and evanescent nature of life, without offering any possibility of transcendence or hope.

Into this ambience came Genshin. As we have already seen, he gained widespread recognition as a great sage and as an accomplished Buddhist master. In keeping with this, his nembutsu teaching seems, on the face of it, to have been directed towards those who were dedicated to monastic life. It involved contemplative practices and required a huge investment of time and effort. His pattern of practice was very much in keeping with - and faithful to - the Tendai tradition. For him, the principal meaning of 'nembutsu' was contemplative; and saying the nembutsu aloud (shomyo) was an accompaniment to this practice.

In spite of this, it seems to me that Genshin made a remarkable discovery.

When Genshin gives his reasons for taking up the nembutsu, he wrote the words that inspired this verse of the Koso Wasan:

The teaching and the practice for birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss are the eye and the foot in the last age of this defiled world. Who then - monk or layman, noble or base - would not depend on it? However, the teachings of the exoteric and the esoteric are not one, and the practices for the cause (for enlightenment) in principle and in fact are diverse. For the intelligent, wise and earnest it is not difficult, but for me, an obstinate and foolish man, how is it possible to follow the teachings and practice?

Genshin describes the world, as we know it to have been in his time. In doing so, he casts the nembutsu way in a new light. Although he seems - at one point - to be saying that there are people who are intelligent enough to follow the path of sages, he initially reminds us that there is no one who is ineligible for the nembutsu way: 'Who would not depend on it?' His statement that the nembutsu is the 'eye and the foot' also tells us that both understanding and progress depend upon it, too. His description of himself as 'a foolish and obstinate man' are countervailing references that correspond to the fact that the nembutsu is the eye and foot in the last age of the dharma. Because he is foolish he cannot see; because he is obstinate, he cannot walk upon the way of the dharma.

The significance of this is that Genshin completely cuts through the walls, which historically had divided monk and lay, not by bringing the high dharma of the Vinaya (monastic life) down to the level of the ordinary person, but by implying that there is no distinction between monk and lay followers of the dharma. The status, he suggests, of those who are, like him, learned and accomplished followers of the dharma is the same as the ordinary person - the 'man and woman in the street'. Although outwardly a monk, Genshin is - in his inner reality - a layman. Making the same comparison, Shinran Shonin also described himself as 'outwardly wise, inwardly foolish'.1

This profound insight and sensibility on the part of both Genshin and Shinran suggests a more compelling situation than the one that was decribed by Tao-ch'o. Tao-ch'o set up a choice between the 'high road' of the path of sages and the 'low road' of the Pure Land way. Genshin's personal awareness drew him to conclude that only one way exists for us. There is only the single way of the Nembutsu and we have no choice in the matter.

Although we may be inclined to claim special status for ourselves, ultimately, as our insight deepens, we begin to discover that these things are mere superficialities. If we are honest and courageous, we will see that, inwardly, we are foolish beings; just like everybody else. We will accept that there is no alternative for us but the nembutsu: there is simply, no choice. For Genshin, the path of sages has ceased to exist, in anything but form.


1: CWS, p. 587, et.al.

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