Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 98

As our teacher Genku appeared in the world
And spread the One Vehicle of the universal Vow,
Throughout the entire country of Japan
Favourable conditions for the Pure Land teaching emerged.

Shinran and His Teachers

In 1201, Shinran Shonin 'entered the gate of True Thusness', awakenning to the Other Power's shinjin. This was the very moment that he met 'Genku', Honen Shonin.

I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201.1

The collection of verses that make up the concluding section of the Koso Wasan feature Shinran's praises of Honen. These verses reveal a striking and even unexpected insight into Shinran's attitude to his dharma master. All mention of mappo disappears, and the verses are suddenly full of light. Furthermore, Shinran does not make more than a passing reference to Honen's teaching and its content. This is consistent with the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, in which only two brief passages from Honen's major work are included. In other references to Honen's work, Shinran tells us that Honen granted him permission to copy it. Then, he commends it to us:

Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow was compiled at the request of the Chancellor, an ordained layman (Lord Tsukinowa Kanezane, Buddhist name Ensho). The crucial elements of the true essence of the Pure Land way and the inner significance of the nembutsu have been gathered into this work, which is easily understood by those who read it. It is a truly luminous writing, rare and excellent; a treasured scripture, supreme and profound. Over the days and years, myriads of people received the master's teaching, but whether they were closely associated with him or remained more distant, very few gained the opportunity to read and copy this book. Nevertheless, I was in fact able to copy it and to paint his portrait. This was the virtue of practicing the right act alone, and the manifestation of the decisive settlement of birth.2

It is interesting that Shinran laboured over many years to write the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, while at the same time, declining to make copies of - and propagate - Honen's Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow. Yet, Shinran acknowledges, towards the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, that very few people had read it. At the same time he commends its value and virtue to us. Shinran did not copy Honen's book and neither did he mimic its outline in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho nor quote extensively from it. It is significant that Shinran's praise for Honen focus on him as more than a mere teacher: he is a sublime personality, the manifestation of several great Pure Land masters that had gone before and, above all, the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, the embodiment of Amida Buddha's wisdom.

Simply put, for Shinran, Honen was literally the activity of Amida Buddha. For Honen taught 'the Nembutsu selected in the Primal Vow'. Through the Name in the Vow, shinjin was transferred directly to Shinran. Thus nothing mediates the dharma since it is embodied in the Name selected in the Primal Vow, as Honen taught. There is also a very important sense, in which it could be said that all of Shinran's writings canvass the princpal thesis of Honen's teaching to the extent that Shinran was a follower of the exclusive practice of the nembutsu. It was, after all, Honen who had established this teaching as a distinct school of the Buddha-dharma.

People often speak of Shinran's close relationship with Honen, but there is nothing in Shinran's own writing that indicates anything other than his awed respect for the power of Honen's message itself. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran does not advocate that his readers become followers of Honen but that they heed his message and take up the nembutsu way themselves, finding support for this in Honen's writings. Shinran seems to me to emphasise that we are all 'fellow followers of the way' (on dobo, dogyo) and that Amida Buddha alone is our guide. It is certainly clear that Shinran's relationship with Honen transcended the usual master-disciple pattern. Shinran does not see Honen as a man but as the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. His association seems distant and awed.

When Shinran praises Honen in the verses that follow this one, he alludes over and over again to supernatural signs that were associated with Honen and witnessed, for the most part, by others. In this way there seems to be a certain distance between them. Yet, at the same time, Honen allowed Shinran to copy his major work and he wrote words of commendation on Shinran's copy. Shinran placed great significance in these events and saw them as authenticating his religious experience.

From that time onwards, Shinran continued on his own way, developing and maturing as a man of faith, and living his own life. To some extent this was a necessity because of the fact that secular authorities sought to disband Honen's society of nembutsu people, and Shinran was caught up in these developments. As the years passed, Shinran's insights deepened and he began to live in the way that ordinary people do, going to the extent of raising a family and living as a householder. His decision to do this was clearly motivated by Honen's teaching that the purpose of life is to say the nembutsu (shomyo). Honen had said that if we could not follow this way married, then we should become a monk or a nun; if we cannot follow this way as a monk or nun, we should find a marriage partner. Shinran chose the latter path.

As time passed, Shinran's perspective began to move - to reposition itself. By the time of Honen, it had become clear that the Pure Land lineage was transferred in leaps and bounds throughout history; not by way of immediate person-to-person transmission, but by way of the writings of distant masters. Honen, was typical of this process, since he clearly stated that his teacher was Shan-tao, a man who had lived many generations earlier and many thousands of kilometres away. Shinran's association with Honen seems to have been vital, pivotal, fundamental, essential and powerful; yet, it was a portal on the way to the discovery of the key focus of Shinran's lineage with its close attention to the Madhyamika Master T'an-luan.

As we begin to explore the verses aout Honen, we will discover that, in Honen, Shinran met the light (wisdom) of Amida Buddha - a light which, for Shinran, shone principally in the words of T'an-luan, great master of Other Power shinjin.


1: CWS, p. 290.

2: CWS, p. 290f.

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