Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 103

They are no different at heart
From non-Buddhists, the followers of Brahman
    and Nigrantha;
They always wear the robes of the Tathagata,
And revere all supernatural beings.

The Wilted Flower

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Nigrantha Jnatiputra is listed as one of the six teachers of wrong paths. The passage that contains this reference is from the Nirvana Sutra. Interestingly, although Shinran quotes the first few words of the passage about Nigrantha Jnatiputra, he does not include the content of his teachings. Nigrantha Jnatiputra was the founder of Jainism, which still thrives and is, along with Buddhism and Brahmanism, one of the three oldest religious movements in India.

I know that the Buddha Dharma takes exception to the fatalistic interpretation of karma that is supposed to be part of the Jaina teachings. However, it may be the strong tendency within the Jain religion to more extreme forms of self-denial, which also causes offence to Buddhist sensibilities. Jaina sages are known as 'naked ascetics' and practice a very strict form of ahimsa, non-harming. To avoid accidentally swallowing small air-borne animals, for example, Jain ascetics may wear masks. By contrast, Buddhist mendicants were originally permitted to eat meat if it was given to them, although many Mahayana schools - especially those that emphasise meditation - encourage followers to maintain a vegan diet.

One wonders what Shinran could have had in mind when he mentions 'followers of Brahman' along with Jains, but it is most likely to be the fact that they worshipped gods and spirits, possibly appealing to them for help: something that Shinran thought to be especially incompatible with the Buddha Dharma. Above all, however, it seems to me that Shinran felt that anything other than the simple acceptance of the Primal Vow and its expression, namu-amida-butsu, was unecessary.

I have often contemplated the significance of this verse, and the previous one, in the light of Shinran's own experience. He wrote these verses when he was eighty-six years old. Within the space of a few years he had confronted two opposing attitudes amongst his followers. On the one hand was the problem of 'licensed evil' and on the other hand was the attempt to excercise overbearing authority.

When Shinran was eighty years old, he wrote from his home in Kyoto to the Nembutsu followers in the Kanto, where most of his family continued to live, expressing his disappointment at the fact that many of the Nembutsu community had given way to the expression of their faith in terms of antinomian behaviour ('licensed evil', zoaku muge).

I must admit that 'licensed evil' as a way of expressing the life of Nembutsu - on the basis that we need only depend on the Primal Vow - seems to be a very obtuse idea. It is rather like throwing stones at someone who has saved one's life, but it probably also points to the nature of life in that time and place. Licensed evil seems to lack any sense of personal liability in human relations. Nevertheless, we can be sure that it was a serious problem among the Nembutsu people of the Kanto. Shinran's references to the problem in his letters leave one in no doubt about the gravity of the situation.

Frustrated by the fact that the people involved in these offences were disinclined to heed Shinran's censure, he sent his son, Zenran, to deal with the problem. However, as things developed, it seems that Zenran did not have the moral authority to inspire the Nembutsu people, to whom he had been sent, to behave with due decorum. It is then that the situation began to deteriorate, because Zenran appealed to secular authority to intervene on his behalf.

In order to try to draw attention to the authority invested in him by Shinran, Zenran went on to claim that because of his filial relationship he had special secret knowledge of the Nembutsu Way, which had not been publicly taught by Shinran himself. Worse, according to Shinran (as we read in one of the letters disowning his son), Zenran even went so far as to describe the Primal Vow as a 'wilted flower' (CWS, p. 583.). Clearly, Zenran hoped to curtail licentious behaviour by adding a new layer of demands on Nembutsu followers. Indeed, he seems to have conjured up the old canard of zenjishiki danomi, faith in the teacher, as a way of addressing the chaotic state of the community.

In the Mahayana the two main streams of Buddhist thought vary in practical ways that reflect their respective emphases. These, of course, derive from the ancient aphorism, repeated by Shakyamuni:

He who has seen me has seen the Dharma;
He who has seen the Dharma has seen me.

For obvious reasons, those schools, which approach intuitive wisdom (prajna) by the way of negation (for example, Tendai and Zen) need to involve a training process that incorporates strong input and control by a guru, a teacher who has absolute authority in the training environment. The schools that approach wisdom by affirmative means (for example, the Garland and Pure Land schools) do not need authority figures of that kind, since the Dharma is manifest in a tangible form. It is clear from the writings of Shan-tao, for example, that teaching authority resides in the publicly accessible Sutras - especially the Three Pure Land Sutras.

To suggest that the Nembutsu Way is dependent on devotion to a guru is to derange both the authority of the Sutras and a relationship with the living Buddha, Amida. Perhaps that is what Zenran meant by describing the Primal Vow as a 'wilted flower'. His intention was to displace its authority with his own. In other words, Zenran was saying that the Primal Vow needed to have something added to it, implying that it is inadequate to the task of carrying us to Nirvana.

To submit to a teacher is to submit oneself to control by another. This is, surely, a kind of asceticism, because it involves a measure of deliberate self-effacement. So, I wonder if Shinran was attempting to altert us, once again, against the other side of licentiousness, which is to submit to ascetic restrictions. I wonder if the bitter lessons that derived from the incident of licensed evil and the attempts to assert power by Zenran, did not suggest to Shinran that such wavering is inimical to true shinjin.

I wonder if his verses are not redolent with a sensibility that takes a form, which suggests that the Primal Vow is indeed the Middle Way, yet we are always tending to see it as a 'wilted flower', and not quite adequate. Both the tendency to licensed evil and the addition of unnecessary disciplinary practices involve a belief that 'we must do something' or 'react in some way' as evidence that we accept the working of the Primal Vow, whereas acceptace in namu-amida-butsu is sufficient of itself. In the corruptions that are represented by both licensed evil and the disciplinary approach, which Zenran represents, did not Shinran need to confront, even within the Shinshu community, the decay that is an integral part of the Age of Mappo? Are we not nominally followers of the Middle Way, but inwardly enticed by a wish to 'act upon' the Primal Vow in some way?

Shinran also described Nembutsu followers who accept the faith of the Primal Vow as 'true disciples of the Buddha'. There are those, rare though they be, who are 'white lotuses among us' (myokonin): those who accept the Nembutsu in the Primal Vow without equivocation or complication. Is this a contrast with those who 'are no different at heart from non-Buddhists'?

Not necessarily. We may experience echoes of those habits of thought, which we have abandoned and left behind us. Yet, in acknowledging the fact that such is the way of bombu, 'the embrace that does not forsake' - the wisdom of the Buddha - will ultimately hold sway.

- May 11, 2006.

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