Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 108

The sorrow of this evil world of the last dharma-age
Is that Buddhists of the southern capital and northern peak
Call servants 'palanquin-carrier monks' and 'serving
        dharma-teachers'
To show deference to high-ranking priests.

Only the dharma

One of the most striking features about Shinran Shonin is the purity of his Buddhism. Surely, this is a mark of his settled faith, his entrusting heart. Of all the Buddhist teachers and writers that I have ever encountered, Shinran is the least prepared to compromise the Buddha Dharma with anything else. He cast aside altogether every other teaching and distraction. Indeed, as we see in this verse, Shinran saw the accommodation of the dharma with popular beliefs, and its identification with cultural norms in ways that compromise the purity of the teaching, as a sign of the destruction of the dharma.

In the last section of the The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, Shinran strongly advises us to abandon astrology, the worship of spirits, Taoism and all religion that is not strictly the teaching of Buddha. In the last verses of Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, he seeks to distinguish cultural elements that have become associated with the dharma, and to critique them. Here, he is lamenting the way that the Sangha has mistaken worldly concerns for the pure dharma. In this specific case, it is demonstrated by the use of spiritual titles like 'dharma teacher' and 'priest' for clerics who are engaged in secular pursuits.

Shinran sensed that these signs of abuse and compromise were not only evidence of the last dharma age, but signs of the contempt that the general populace had for the dharma. In my view we face similar dangers. If we use the dharma for superstitious, political or secular purposes, we are falling into the same trap that Shinran warned us against. 'Palanquin-carrier-monks' and 'serving dharma-teachers' are people who use the dharma for secular purposes. In our age those specific designations do not exist, but it seems to me that the use of the dharma as a means to further current humanist or political ideologies is precisely the same thing.

I do not intend here any broad-ranging critique of 'engaged Buddhism', for who could object to people acting in practical ways to help others? The Buddha Dharma has a long history of the hospitality of monasteries, and of leaders, like Ashoka and Shotoku Taishi, who were inspired by Buddhist principles to contribute to the material welfare of others. It is always a source of delight to contemplate the fact that many characteristics of civilisation, from universities to street trees (planted for the comfort of people and animals) were first established by Ashoka, who, in turn, was inspired by the dharma.

The problems begin when spiritual authority is used to exert secular power. In Buddhist history such abuses have occured from time to time: in T'ang China (618-970), in some aspects of Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868). The secularists of Shinran's time were engaged in the petit politics of the court. In our democratic political environment, the wordly use of the dharma takes on a more popularist hue. In any case, it is worth remembering that these concerns are only part of the Shinran's pure and untrammelled dedication to the Buddha Dharma, and to its purposes and objectives alone.

The Buddha Dharma is first and foremost concerned with 'suffering and the release from suffering'. Speaking metaphorically, it accepts neither symptomatic relief nor radical surgery. It rejects both self-indulgence and asceticism as ways to relieve spiritual pain. It recognises just two ways of addressing these concerns.

The way that is relevant for us is the 'imitation of the Buddha', as it were. This is to follow the way that the Buddha followed. It is the bodhisattva vocation, which is taking the way of seeking enlightenment for the sake of all suffering beings.

Such a life is predominantly the life of a householder, although it includes monastic followers. It was Shakyamuni's most enduring way - of necessity, since it was his first way. The bodhisattva way is the primary form of the Buddha Dharma. The Larger Sutra makes it clear that Shakyamuni was following a timeless, true and well-trodden path. Shakyamuni also revealed to his disciples that his own course of spiritual development was as a bodhisattva: from his first resolution to follow the bodhisattva way under the the Buddha Dipamkara to its culmination under the Bodhi tree, about 2,500 years ago.

It is this way, to the exclusion of all others, that Shinran also adopted. Indeed, there can be little doubt that he was the first person in Buddhist history to demonstrate, so convincingly, that the householder life is the principal and purest way to follow the Buddha Dharma. His inestimable contribution was to show, by his way of life, and - to the best of his ability - in his writings, that the true venue for the dharma is actually the harsh and uncompromising context of a person in worldly life. The true field of the Buddha Dharma is the lives of those who are beset with the longings, deprivations, stresses, sacrifices and the uncertainty of everyday life. Living like that, Shinran's dedication to the Buddha Dharma was uncompromising and absolute.

It is little wonder that he was dismayed by the disreputable disorder that he saw in the monastic community, which had become parasitic. He saw that those who were considered to be the exemplars of the dharma were nothing of the kind, while many of those who are the most despised in society were single-minded in their pursuit of the way.

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