Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 102

The titles of 'monk' and 'Dharma-teacher'
Are said to be venerable ones.
But like the five perverted teachings of Devadatta
They are now used for the ignoble.

Devadatta

Devadatta is a most important figure in the life of Shakyamuni. Apart from being a relative, he represents everything that can go wrong in our spiritual lives. He was envious of other people's attainment; he sought to use religion as a way to excercise power over others; he was mischeivous and divisive; he was a bearer of stories and slander; he strove to excel in ways that would make others look small; he was argumentative; he believed in the imposition of ascetic practices. It is reported that, during his adolesence, he manifested a cruel streak when engaging in competitive activities with his cousin, Siddhartha Gautama.

Devadatta's cruelty extended, on more than one occasion, to plotting to assasinate his cousin, who had, by then, become the Buddha. In the first attempt, he hired professional killers but they could not bring themselves to carry out Devadatta's plan. On another occasion he rolled a rock off the side of a mountain, aiming it at Shakyamuni. In his final attempt to kill the Buddha Devadatta organised the release of a crazed elephant during the time that Shakyamuni was on his alms round. All of these appalling activities were undertaken by someone who was garbed in the robes of a monk. As Shinran Shonin understood, the status of a mendicant does not necessarily indicate pure motives. In any case, all of Devadatta's attempts on Shakyamuni's life came to nought.

Eventually, Devadatta sought to set up a religious order that was intended to rival Shakyamuni's. His activities were based in Rajagriha, near Vulture Peak, where both the Larger and the Contemplation Sutras were delivered. He built a vihara near the palace. He befriended the sixteen year old Prince, Ajatashatru. Impressed by Devadatta's display of supernatural powers, Ajatashatru became an exceptionally generous disciple. The Contemplation Sutra tells us that it was not long before Devadatta was encouraging him to usurp the throne of his father, Bimbisara. Ajatshatru achieved this objective by imprisoning his father, and, later, ordering his death. These tragic events became the occasion for the delivery of the Contemplation Sutra and Shayamuni's revelation of the Nembutsu Way.

In spite of all this, Devadatta is remembered, above all, for his attempts to take over control of the Buddha sasana ('Buddhist religion'). He garnered influence and supporters, including those at Ajatashatru's court. When he assessed that his support was strong enough, he approached Shakyamuni and suggested that he resign. Of course, the Buddha refused.

It always fascinates me that, despite the encouragement of his disciples, Shakyamuni refused to argue with Devadatta, generally keeping his distance. This seems to me to be an excellent way to deal with the kind of religious bullying that Devadatta embodies.

Religious rivalry and bullying is a completely nonsensical phenomenon but it is suprisingly common. In Jodo Shinshu the writings of both Shinran and Rennyo Shonin remind us not to engage in that kind of behaviour. Yet, how often does one encounter people who make claims like 'You are not Buddhist if you don't engage this or that practice,' or something similar: trying to make others feel uncomfortable or guilty for something that we think is important?

Few people would disagree that this kind of bullying is wrong-headed. A person is a follower of the Buddha if he or she 'takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha' - or takes refuge in the Buddha alone, as Nembutsu followers may. A person becomes a Buddhist by just such an act of commitment. Beyond that, there are 84,000 Dharma gates and no one ought to insist that another person necessarily practice as they do.

Devadatta proposed that Shakyamuni's teaching was not strict enough and suggested that more stringent conditions ought to apply for everyone who chooses to adopt the homeless life (bhikshus, or mendicants). Instead of two meals a day - one in the early morning and one before midday -, Devadatta proposed a limit of one meal a day. He suggested that robes be made entirely of waste material and not gifts from the laity, and that mendicants live in the open, rather than under the shelter of a roof. These changes suggest a move towards asceticism and away from the practical application for the Middle Way. Asceticism is one of the two extremes that was rejected by Shakyamuni. In this verse, Shinran describes it as 'ignoble': iyashiki, the practice of the poorly gifted.

Interestingly, in the Discourses on the Ten Stages, Nagarjuna lists twelve dhtuanga precepts, which bear a close resemblance to Devadatta's rules. Dhutanga is still followed in both the Hinayana and the Mahayana, however, adherence to the rules is voluntary, even down to whether or not one chooses to follow all, or, only one or two of them. Devadatta's intention was to make them mandatory, imposing them on everyone. Compulsory asceticism, it seems to me, is a form of violence. I imagine that it was the intention of complusion that so appalled Shakyamuni.

It is intriguing to ask ourselves why it was that, in this and the next verse of the Wasan, Shinran selected the teachings of Devadatta and Nigrantha Jnatiputra as examples of ways in which our discipleship is distorted, or 'perverted', as the translation has it. Nigrantha Jnatiputra was the founder of the Jaina movement. His teaching was also strongly inclined to mandatory asceticism. Shinran's choice of these teachers is even more interesting when it is remembered that, some eight or so years earlier he had written to castigate Nembutsu followers who encourage self-indulgent behaviour, believing that it was proof of total reliance on the Primal Vow.

Although there is no reason to think that Shinran was deliberately intending to correct his earlier injunctions, it nevertheless remains a striking fact that, towards the end of his life, he identified an inner inclination to asceticism as a sign of the latter-day distortion of the Dharma. It seems to me to be worthy of note that Shinran was conscious of the fine balance that is inherent in the Buddha Dharma, and that asceticism was as detrimental as its opposite, unfettered self-indulgence.

Again, it seems to me that the specific allusion to teachings that endorse ascetic behaviours in these two verses draw our attention back to the significance of the Buddha Dharma as the 'Middle Way'. It is a way that has become unclear and corrupted in the Dharma-ending Age. Those who would bully fellow followers into adopting harsh regulations or practices are damaging the teaching, when they think that they are improving it.

Worse, it is also we ourselves who think that the Dharma needs our intervention so that it can be improved. This endemic problem is both cause and symptom of the malaise that infects us in these times. It represents an unavoidable intrusion into the teaching magisterium of the Buddha Dharma and serves as a stern reminder that there is no longer any teacher upon whom we can confidently rely.

The joyful fact for all of us is that Amida Buddha abides as the Light and as the Teacher, whose activity and presence - as we shall soon discover - is manifest in the form of namu-amida-butsu.

- May 5, 2006.

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