Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 90

Master Genshin, who was among the assembly
That heard Shakyamuni on Vulture Peak,
Taught the difference between the fulfilled and transformed lands,
Thereby clearly setting forth the benefit of the single praxis
      over mixed.

Vulture Peak

Get out an atlas and find a spot that is at 25.02 degrees north and 85.25 degrees east. Here you will find the small city of Rajgir. The old city-state of Rajagriha - in the province of Bihar - is on the north-eastern side of the Indian sub-continent. It played a prominent part in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. Not far from the city is a line of hills and, near its highest point, a prominent monolith is conspicuous for the fact that it actually looks just like the head of a vulture. This is Vulture Peak (ryozen, Sk. gridhrakuta). Here Shakyamuni spent some of the time before his enlightenment studying under the guidance of the sage Udraka-ramaputra; finding, in due course, that his attainment did not meet the objectives of his quest for light.

Coming to Rajagrihar before his enlightenment, during the time of his quest, Shakyamuni met King Bimbisara, who would later become a great patron. Shakyamuni spent many hours in meditation on the quiet slopes of Vulture Peak and he returned, when he had become a Buddha, to conduct annual retreats there, during the rainy season, with his fellow monks (Sk. bhikkus) and sages (Sk. arahants). For two and a half millenia, this striking location has born silent witness to his noble presence. The famous Chinese seventh century pilgrim Xuanzang was just one among many to visit the spot and to hold it in awe. Rajagriha is quite close to ruins of the celebrated Buddhist university at Nalanda, where Xuanzang spent some time. Since the time of Shakyamuni, it has been largely neglected but, recently, a large and beautiful stupa has been built within sight of the peak by some devout followers of the dharma from Japan.

Although Vulture Peak held a special place in Shakyamuni's life, it is also sacred to Jainas, whose founder, Mahavira, was Shakyamuni's contemporary. Mahavira also lived in Rajagriha in the time of Bimbisara. There is some conjecture as to whether or not Shakyamuni and Mahavira ever met each other; only Jainas claim an association. In any case there are many Jaina temples located around Vulture Peak. In and around the knoll itself there are many flat, platform-like areas, where there is room for people to congregate - and there are several quite large caves. Some say that, in one of these, the first Buddhist Council was held.

The Lotus Sutra, which has played such an important part in the development of the bodhisattva vehicle is recorded as having been delivered there. Of more significance for us is the fact that the Larger Sutra on Amitayus, which Shinran Shonin identified as conveying the essential meaning of the Buddha-dharma, is also identified with Vulture Peak. My feeling in this regard is that Shakyamuni's close relationship with - and concern for - the people and rulers of Rajagriha provides us with a clue.

The focus of these important sutras is the spiritual life of non-monastic men and women. We see this pattern expressed very clearly in another sutra from our stream that is associated with Vulture Peak: the Contemplation Sutra. This sutra begins with the harrowing story of the degeneration of family relationships within the royal household; and describes the way in which Shakyamuni descends from Vulture Peak in order to intervene and assist those who are the victims of these unhappy events.

In the Larger Sutra we learn that it was the monk Ananda who caused the sutra to be delivered. Ananda was to become an elder and a leader in the dissemination of the Buddha-dharma after Shakyamuni's parinirvana. It was he who asked Shakyamuni about the reason for his radiant demeanour following a time of absorbtion in deep meditation (Sk., here, samadhi). In response to these questions, Shakyamuni revealed the virtue of Amida Buddha, upon which the Pure Land way depends.

The Larger Sutra describes a very diverse audience for the Larger Sutra, when it was delivered by Shakyamuni at Vulture Peak. It names many great bodhisattvas and elders. Which one of these was to become Genshin, fifteen hundred years later? Although the idea that Genshin was present at the teaching of the Larger Sutra at Vulture Peak is said to be mere legend, nevertheless, I like to think that he was there. If so, then, who was he?

The Larger Sutra is very specific in its description of those who heard it for the first time. We are told that in the crowd there were 'sixteen lay bodhisattvas'. Perhaps, Genshin was one of these. I say this, because from what I know of his teachings, Genshin seems to have come to the realisation that the perfect fulfilment of the way of the bodhisattva depends on the nembutsu. He taught that the way to live for the benefit of 'ourselves and others' was to adopt the nembutsu as one's way of life. And I don't think that people turn to the nembutsu until they have spent æons in the struggle to free the world from suffering.

People come to the nembutsu after a process of elimination; following a long trail in which they gradually realise that their own effort is of no avail. Joyfully they say the Buddha's Name and - so to speak - put their hands in his; and feel the burden of their struggle slip away.

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