Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 109

A sign of the contempt for the Buddha's teaching
Is that 'monks' and 'nuns' are slaves,
And so the honourable titles of 'Dharma-teacher' or 'monk'
Are used as appellations for help.

In the above sixteen wasans, I have tried to express my deep sense of grief concerning the indiscriminate use of the titles 'teacher of the Dharma', 'priest', 'monk', and 'nun'. This is surely an indication that people no longer respect the Buddhist way. I, too, am very annoyed with the so-called monks and teachers who reside in temples and monasteries.

Written by Shaku Shinran.

Shaku Shinran

Monks of Shakyamuni's tradition in the various temples... lack clear insight into the teaching and are ignorant of the distinction between true and provisional... (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho VI, 117; CWS p. 289.)

In this way, Shinran Shonin commences his account (at the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho) of the events, which led to the exile of Honen Shonin and his close disciples, including Shinran himself.

Very often, one reads accounts of Shinran's grief at the recalcitrance of monks, which assert that his concern was associated with the the political and social turmoil of is time. However, I am strongly inclined to the view that Shinran saw the historical events of the world that surrounded him as simple evidence of the Dharma-ending Age. Apart from encouraging us to take refuge exclusively and single-mindedly in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, it seems to me that Shinran never suggests practical remedies for social or political ills. His critique of the behaviour of the clergy has little to do, if anything, with secular matters.

Another perspective that I have in mind is the importance of letting Shinran speak for himself. There are many thinkers and teachers who see in Shinran an example of this, or that, attempt to address social ills. Although he married and raised a family, Shinran tells us literally nothing of the mundane part of his life - or even as an example of convential morality.

In fact, there can be no question that his primary focus in that regard was to see himself as 'neither monk nor householder'. While it may be true that his life manifested the practical need to be concerned with secular matters, which beset us all, these things remain entirely peripheral to his commitment to the Dharma of the Buddha - 'suffering and the relief of suffering', and to his writing. In fact, I think that worldly matters are peripheral; life cannot be lived to the full unless that is so.

While it is true that Shinran alludes to depolorable conditions in his society, he never seeks to address or control them. Instead, he is sorry about the failure of the clergy to distinguish between the 'provisional' and the 'true' ways. Although he remarks (in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho) that secular authority was open to corruption, it seems clear to me that he saw this as inevitable. Indeed, I think it is.

So it is that Shinran never specifically suggests ways in which we can address these persistent conditions. He does not take issue with their reality. Rather, he wants us to take refuge in Amida Buddha and accept the final transcendence, which this impulse offers. Shinran thinks of the nembutsu (namu-amida-butsu) as the emergence of reality into the domain of our consciousness

The Jodo Shinshu kyodan is a liberal order, which is able to find room for a plethora of experiences and expressions of faith (shin). In spite of this, its tradition has worked hard to delineate errant views from a normative rule of thumb, which is developed thoroughly in the classic work, the Anjin Rondai. Few members are concerned with these preoccupations, of course, but I am always grateful that the kyodan has room for people like me, who are are mainly concerned with the teaching of Shinran.

Many of us feel quite comfortable with the sense that Shinran is an instance of Amida Buddha's self-discloure within our saha realm. This is a rather traditional understanding of Shinran but I think it is very engaging, for, without Shinran, much that is proposed within the scope of the Buddha Dharma is beyond my intellectual and emotional reach. The upshot of this is that Shinran's writing is my principal field of exploration: the way I 'listen to the Dharma' (chomon). As a fellow human being, Shinran is living evidence of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow working in the world.

When we happen upon verses like this wasan, most people probably feel disturbed by the strength of Shinran's expression. Yet, we ought not. Those who do find the verse and the sub-script to be confronting, probably do so because they are not thoroughly familiar with the contours of Shinran's thought.

Is Shinran making a comment about the political or social views of the clerics who held power? Is he complaining about the persecution of Honen Shonin and his disciples? Such historical considerations often dominate discussion about these questions.

In my view, given the central themes of Shinran's writing, I think that Shinran is merely reiterating his untiring message, which is that religious 'practice' is self-defeating and that utter reliance on Amida Buddha is our only option. The 'monks' and 'nuns' of the powerful institutions were purveyors of complicated and difficult religious practices, which were beyond the capacity of ordinary men and women.

If we survey the full scope of Shinran's writing, we will discover that, of all things, this is his principal concern. There are many places, too, in which we will find reinforcement of this outlook. Within the broad horizon of Shinran's literary corpus, we will discover his main preoccupations.

Shinran devotes a significant amount of space in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho to the description of the true disciples of the Buddha. From a close examination of this resource, we will find that, from Shinran's perspective, to 'true disciple of the Buddha' is one who is established in faith and, consequently, is the 'equal of Tathagatas'.

Shinran's lament is directed at those who teach otherwise.

- June 16, 2006.

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