Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 92

In praise of persons of single practice,
He teaches that not one in a thousand will fail to attain birth;
In admonition of persons who perform mixed praxis,
He states that not one in ten thousand will be born.

Genshin's Admonition

Shinran Shonin is again drawing on a quotation from Genshin's Ojoyoshu, which, in turn draws upon the writings of Huai-kan.

Because the experience of being admonished by another is often very painful, it seems to me that this verse affords an opportunity for us to consider the question of how and why an admonition may be given. The previous verse is the first of three verses, which explore the relative values - in terms of outcomes - concerning the two ways that we can understand the concept of the Pure Land. Having covered the main theme of this question in the last verse, we can, perhaps, pause to think about aspects of our relationship with one another in the context of lives that are guided by the Buddha-dharma.

The experience of being corrected or admonished by another can be a source of hurt because our assumptions and habits are being called into question. We all know that this is quite a common experience. When we are children, we are open enough to be able to react honestly: frankly exhibiting our pain. When we become adults we are more inclined to see ourselves in a parental role - as being the people who admonish those for whom we are supposed to be 'responsible'. In the feudal world our masters had the kind of power that is assumed by employers in today's world. It was their right to exact obedience and to chastise those who acted in ways that were inconvenient or disruptive for them.

This model of human relationships has never been suited to the Buddhist understananding of human relationships. In the Buddhist setting, parental admonition has usually been inclined towards compassion: its objective being, not the exertion of power or control, but seeking to warn another of impending danger. This compassion is not sentimental tolerance, in the way that it is commonly understood these days, but is derived from a considered awareness of the needs of the other person. While it is true that the feudal model has sometimes been used in Buddhist countries, it is inconsistent with this ethos.

Shakyamuni's most famous parental admonition was to his son Rahula. The account of this discussion between father and son is to be found in the canons of all major Buddhist lineages. In the sutra, usually known as Advice to Rahula, Shakyamuni castigates his son for careless and potentially hurtful behaviour. In the course of his admonition, Shakyamuni suggests an approach, which is based on a sense of respect and kindness. This approach is that we ought to decide our actions after we have asked ourselves three questions. 'If I do this, will it hurt me? Will my intended action hurt another? Will it hurt both myself and another?' The weight of our action is determined by the numerical value of the positive answers to the questions that we ask ourselves. It is a mistake to hurt ourselves, even though we may not hurt others, but it is worse to hurt another, even though it may not hurt us. To hurt both ourselves and another lends a weight to our actions that makes them utterly inadvisable.

We can also use Shakymuni's advice to his son as a guide in the matter of giving advice or castigation to another. A correction is not a wholesome thing if all that will result from it is hurt to ourselves but it is worse if, although it does not hurt us, it hurts another. Even more damaging is an outcome that causes hurt to both.

This way of thinking suggests a reserved attitude in the matter of admonition and absolves those who receive the admonition from taking it seriously if it causes them genuine pain. It seems to me that this is truly wise advice because the castigation of one person by another - especially when it is in the context of a relationship between two adults, or equals, is surely given more often than not, with a view to forcing another to adjust his or her behaviour in a way that suits us. If we are genuinely concerened for the well-being and happiness of another our concern would be heartfelt and obvious but if it is motivated by the desire to control, it will only result in resentment and pain - thus hurting both ourselves and others.

The purpose of these comments has been to demonstrate, in some way, just how we ought to see Genshin's admonition. It cannot have been given in a way that would be inconsistent with Shakyamuni's advice to his son. It also seems to me that an unenlightened person like myself is not really qualified to admonish others. Although children - since they are lacking experience - obviously need external restraint by way of training for the demands of life and society when they mature into adults, I doubt my own capacity to admonish others. I am inclined to the view that, where possible, it is better to withdraw from uncomfortable or threatenning circumstances. This, at any rate, is my preferred option. It is preferable to call upon people's sense of self-regard and discuss problems as equals, rather than to engage in admonitory tirades.

The question of just who is qualified to admonish his or her peers is an important one within the Buddhist community (kyodan, Sk. sasana). In the Vinaya, Shakyamuni makes it clear that a monk and his disciple are equals in this matter. If the disciple (Sk. shramana) believes that his teacher is behaving in a way that contravenes the rules, he is obliged to admonish him. The teacher, on the other hand, should look after the welfare of his disciple and care for him. This assumes gentle and kind admonition where necessary. In Jodo Shinshu all of us are - to use Shinran's phrase - ondobo, dogyo: friends in nembutsu and fellow travellers on the way. Shinran disavowed any claim to have disciples. Hence, there is no admonitory relationship in Jodo Shinshu; only mutual respect and reverence.

Genshin, however, is not our equal. Strictly speaking the sangha of Jodo Shinshu is made up of the seven dharma Masters - the focus of the Koso Wasan. They are monks and we are their disciples. In spite of their own sense of inadequacy these men were adherents of the Vinaya and had undoubtedly adopted the four universal vows of a bodhisattva. Therefore, they are more advanced in both wisdom and compassion than we are. Furthermore their writings and insights have been accepted for countless generations as reliable guides. Any admonition that they might give is derived from a deep understanding of the principles laid down by Shakyamuni to Rahula.

If Genshin was moved to admonish those of his readers who felt the need to take up 'mixed practices' instead of the 'single way of the nembutsu', it seems to me that - at the very least - we would do well to listen closely to what he has to say.

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Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


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