Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 105

A sign of the age of five defilements and perverted evils
Is that the titles of 'monk' and 'dharma teacher'
Are used for slaves and servants, so that
They have become established as lowly titles.

Slaves and Servants

Although at first sight the meaning of this Wasan seems obvious, there is a deeper significance, which I would like to explore later on. Shinran Shonin is actually quoting a passage from in The Candle of the Latter Dharma (mappo tomyo ki), attributed to Saicho (dengyo daishi, 767-822) who was the founder of the Tendai School in Japan. The essential thesis of this work is that monks and nuns of the Dharma-ending Age wear the robes of monks and shave their heads, but, in every other way, they are monks and nuns in name only. If this is the case, then Shinran would have seen himself as a striking example of this state of affairs, declaring that he was neither a monk nor a layman. In view of this fact, it seems likely to me that his intention in this Wasan is more profound than it seems to be.

Furthermore, as I have pointed out previously, Honen Shonin, Shinran's teacher, was a monk of high reputation and virtue. He dressed like a monk and lived like a monk. He was a Vinaya Master and diligently adhered to the clerical precepts. Indeed, it is hard to find examples of decline in the life of the Buddhist monastic communities in Shinran's Japan. Famous monks who were roughly Shinran's contemporaries, like Dogen Zenji, Nichiren Daishonin and Ippen Shonin, do not seem to provide empirical evidence in support of his claim.

It is no doubt true that there were many monks and nuns who engaged in worldly activities and political intrigue; some, no doubt, were occupied in servile roles. In any case, it seems to me that Shinran's generalisation clearly does not apply, by any measure, to all of the monks and nuns of his time. The movements that were initiated by Dogen, Nichiren and Ippen attracted huge numbers of followers and there is little evidence to suggest that they demonstrated the level of corruption that Shinran is speaking about; they were the antithesis of it.

The use of the terms 'slaves' and 'servants' (nubi bokushi) is intriguing, however, and invites further exploration. Slaves and servants are ministers; that is to say, they do the bidding of others. In other words, there is a suggestion here that monks and nuns no longer taught the Dharma in a truthful way, but compromised their roles in order to please those who sponsored and supported them. It seems very likely to me, from Shinran's writing elsewhere, that this is what he had in mind.

It is actually very hard to avoid that kind of corruption; after all, 'He who pays the piper calls the tune.' Perhaps most monks and nuns had adopted comfortable lives, which were sustained by the contributions of supporters. Presumably, they had abandoned the traditional ways of maintaining financial independence, which would have enabled them to be faithful to the Dharma without compromise. Their supporters no doubt contributed to their welfare as a way of gaining merit for themselves. It is conceivable that those clerics who received their patronage would be careful not to offend their benefactors or risk alienating them.

The Buddha Dharma has always been very conscious of the potential danger that arises when its teachers become economically dependent on others. In many places in the Tripitaka, we are reminded that the Buddha Dharma is 'difficult to understand, and difficult to accept'. It is a theme that appears in a diverse genre of the sacred literature. For example, the Larger Sutra and the Dharmapada both contain this idea. The reason for this is that, in order to find liberaton, it is necessary to let go of attachments to objects and ideas, which serve as hindrances. Nothing is more difficult than this.

There is always an ever-present risk that those who come to hear the Dharma will be uncomfortable with some of the teaching and may even feel a need to withdraw from it for a while. However, if a teacher has, as his principal objective, the desire to keep his hearers happy so that they keep on supporting him financially, it is inevitable that the teaching will be compromised. It seems to me that anyone who qualifies as a teacher will need to have accepted and surmounted, to his or her own satisfaction, the challenges that the teaching manifests along the way.

A teacher must be as honest as possible with himself as well as with those who come to him or her for guidance. It is one thing to admit that one does not understand something but quite another to say that because one does not understand it, it is therefore wrong. It is even worse to say that the teaching does not contain a particular element because there is a risk that someone will be tempted to dispense with the teacher's services. It is worse still to distort the teaching in order to maintain a secure livelihood.

It is extremely difficult to avoid these blandishments. If a teacher knows that someone, who is listening to him, is strongly attached to a point of view, which may be challenged, it is very easy to succumb to the temptation to modify the teaching so as to make it more palatable. In the case of the Dharma this is sometimes called 'skilfull means' (hoben) but that designation can be disingenuous and perilous. The teaching is as difficult to impart as it is to receive. The Dharma needs to experienced at first hand, and - because one needs to 'prove' it for oneself -, teacher and pupil are both students.

As students, teacher and pupil will always be tempted to avoid confronting things that they may find unsettling. Yet, the goal of the Buddha Dharma is nothing less that final liberation and those who seek this goal need to face difficulties squarely and with courage.

The process by which the teaching is assimilated is well known. It involves three steps. First we need to consult the Sutra. In our case this is mainly the Three Pure Land Sutras. From our perspective the rest of the Tripitaka is understood in terms of these three Sutras. If we find our answer in the Sutras, then that is all that is necessary; our enquiry is closed. If the Sutra does not satisfy our enquiry, then we are enjoined to consult the commentaries. If, at that point our needs have been met, then we do not need to pursue our query any further. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho it is plain to see that Shinran always follows this method and is happy with it.

If, after consulting the Sutras and Commentaries, we are still unable to resolve our question, then we are encouraged to discuss it with a Dharma friend or teacher. In Jodo Shinshu mere scholarship, academic achievement or ordination do not necessarily qualify a person as a teacher. Rennyo Shonin exhorted even priests to seek faith by joining with others to discuss the Dharma. He also said that the strength of the Jodo Shinshu community lies, not in the number of members or the depth of their knowledge, but in the presence of just one person of faith. The best teacher is the person of faith: the person who has first-hand experience of the Dharma, and who has awakened to the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha.

Finally, having followed this three-step procedure, we decide for ourselves, in any case. In view of this, it makes sense that, at every stage of this process, everyone involved is free from undue pressure. This is especially the case when it comes to the teacher, who must be ready to give an honest answer.

Slaves and servants, then, are students and teachers of the Dharma who are primarily motivated by interests other than the Dharma: for example, their own authority, or their comfort, or their popularity. The mark of Mappo-ji is that teachers who are supposed to be expounding the Dharma, prefer to teach only those things that will please their hearers. Such people are true slaves and servants. They will never be free themselves, and will never help others to be free.

- May 26, 2006.

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