Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 93

He declares that births into the fulfilled Pure Land
Are not numerous,
And teaches that sentient beings born into transformed lands
Are not few.

Popularity and Truth

I once read an article, which proposed that Shinshu is 'the truth' and that it is 'not popular' for that reason. However, terms like 'truth' are very complex and perplexing. Another thing that ought to be kept in mind is that Pure Land Buddhism is, obviously, not 'popular' in communities that have a European or Middle Eastern background, but it is without question the largest Buddhist School in east Asia, and is thriving again in China.

Shakyamuni, who expounded the truth of the dharma, continues to be the most popular religious teacher that the world has ever known. Of course, he is seen in different ways by those who revere him. Koso Wasan 93 presents a contrary view. In it, Shinran Shonin continues the themes that he introduced in the last two verses. Here, he is reminding us of Huai-kan's view - repeated by Genshin - that the temporary Pure Land is more popular than the True Pure Land. The temporary Pure Land is not false, it is real enough in terms of experience, but it is not the final destination, it is not complete.

So we can also say that, something that is popular is not necessarily true. In this case, it does not mean that it is a lie or deception. It only means that it is an expedient, incomplete and temporary - mutable. The temporary Pure Land is still part of the rule 'that all things are changing'. It is not final transcendence.

In the case of the Pure Land it is mediocrity that is the alternative to truth. The temporary Pure Land is a mediocre objective for those who follow the dharma but it is available through the power of the Buddha's Vow for those who are unable to surrender their final liberation entirely to Amida Buddha.

It seems to me that there is a debased idea of truth in our world. There are many facets of this tendency. One of them is that truth is something that is accepted as true by popular acclaim. Another is that truth is associated with the material world. If something is not tangible, it is not seen by many as having any truth. Yet it is surely the material and the apparent that is forever changing and lacking any enduring substance. The proof of this seems to me to be right before our eyes: it is implicit in visual perspective, the fact that memory becomes fixed and distorted within a few seconds of an occurrence, it is there whenever anybody dies, or predictions fail to eventuate, or we lose sight of the exact nature of the things that occur to us, or that people and societies are inherently unstable - we can go on forever. Yet, in spite of this, these things are frequently described as 'true' at a factual level, while the implicit reality is ignored.

Death is a particularly piquant example of this tendency. It is treated as a superficial fact, while the questions that it poses are rarely explored in modern discourse. Yet, from the very beginning, the Buddha-dharma has recommended a serious contemplation of death and its implications for our illusory sense of life and of individual integrity. One of the most famous and charming allegories of death and its significance for us as living things is the comparison of personality with a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms have a full life-cycle and an individual 'personality' that is derived from myriad atmospheric factors. At a suitable distance, we become very conscious of the way that there is blue sky before and after the thunderstorm but the 'person' of the thunderstorm has dissolved, leaving bushfires in some areas, pools of water in others - and a wonderful fragrance.

It seems to me that this is the perfect analogy of life-and-death and that the first and last reality is the clear blue sky - or in religious terms the light and life of Amida Buddha, tathata, dharma nature: nirvana. Needless to say, few people are willing to contemplate death in this way because there is a modern prejudice that resists the contemplation of underlying meaning and reality and a strong preference for the material, the concrete and the apparent: the immediate and obvious.

So, we have come full circle. Truth is the very suchness, the unconditioned: it is light, like space. If we will permit it to do so, this only truth resonates in our lives - and in our hearts and minds - as Namu-amida-butsu.

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