Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 112

In order to spread it easily
Moriya called it 'hotoke'
So that all non-Buddhists of those days
Came to call the Tathagata 'hotoke'.

Words

With regard to relying on the meaning, meaning itself is beyond debate of such matters as, like against dislike, evil against virtue, falsity against truth. Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. Consider, for example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger. [To take words to be the meaning] is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, 'I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?' Similarly, words are the finger pointing to the meaning; they are not the meaning itself. Hence, do not rely upon words. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho VI, 71; CWS, p. 241.)

Mononobe Moriya was the leader of the anti-Buddhist faction at the time of the arrival of Amida at Naniwa in the seventh century. On touching the statue of the Buddha he discovered that it felt hot. Thinking that the statue had contracted the fever (hotoorike), which was raging throughout the region at the time, Moriya is said to have thrown it into a pond to cool it. Shinran Shonin associates the word hotoorike (fever) with hotoke, which is a Japanese word that is commonly used in place of the foreign term butsu (Buddha).

Although Shinran himself never seems to have used the word 'hotoke' for 'butsu', 'hotoke' is now commonly used in that way. It is even used in such venerable Shin Buddhist documents as the Seikatsu Shinjo - the daily pledge. While Shinran felt strongly about the word's origins, such a sensibility does not seem to have carried down to later generations. Like the adoption of French words into the English language in the eleventh century, Japanese has incorporated foreign words like 'Buddha' but frequently uses a Japanese alternative, even when 'Buddha' is signified in the written form.

The verses that are concerned with 'hotoke' make an assumption about the etymology of the term, which may not be correct. In fact 'hotoke' could have evolved from the word futoke, since futo, in keeping with the Chinese pronunciation, was the transcription for 'Buddha'. It seems to me that this origin is also a distinct possibility. Perhaps Moriya was using irony in his anti-Buddhist rhetoric.

When we think about etymology and the definition of words, it is always worth keeping the use of language in perspective. As Shinran reminds us, in the last part of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (by using the quotation at the top of this essay, from Nagarjuna's Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra), we need to use language with care, and in the understanding that the words themselves are signs and not the thing in themselves.

I have used this quote in these essays a couple of times, and, as we approach the end of the Sanjo Wasan cycle, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of the danger that abides in an undue attachment to words themselves: to literalism. Words always signify something deeper and more complex than is immediately apparent. A topical example of this problem is the way that, in translating the Shin Buddhist scriptures into English, the translation committee at the Hongwanji International Center initially decided to leave the Japanese work 'shinjin' untranslated. This practice has since been abandoned.

In using this quotation from Nagarjuna, Shinran is not suggesting that langauge has no use at all. Far be it from Shinran to embrace axioms like the famous one that appears in the Tao-te-ching: 'He who speaks does not know; he who knows d oes not speak'. This aphorism is very un-Buddhistic, since, of all the world's religions, the Dharma is the most literary and voluble: it is built upon a careful analysis of reality, and the definition of terms.

Shinran is not suggesting that we fall silent but that all discussion about the Dharma warrants careful thought and consideration, as we seek to move away from carelessness in hearing the Dharma to an attitude of deep introspection and reflection.

Neither does seeking the meaning of words mean that we must descend to mere reductionism. In the case of Jodo Shinshu, it is remarkable how common it is that people, who are new to the teaching, seem to find similarities between Jodo Shinshu and Judaism - especially Christianity. Yet a careful examination of the definitions, intentions and context of the words, will reveal significant differences and quite clearly point to religious traditions that bear not even the remotest relationship to each other, in the way that birds and bats may look similar in flight but belong to entirely different families of animals.

Language and the use and meaning of words is a critical aspect of the transmission of the Dharma into a new linguistic context. Such potential misunderstanding and confusion was evident in the behaviour of people like Moriya; similar problems arise in the process of transmitting the Buddha Dharma from its east Asian to European languages.

Let me say, at this point, that I do not think that nationalism or 'culture' bear any great importance in the process of transmission. Cultural differences are, in my view, greatly exaggerated. I think that all human beings, without exception, share the same aspirations, hopes and needs, irrespective of cultural background. If that were not so, it is hard to understand why so much that once had a specfic cultural origin becomes of universal value. I think, for example, of the way that there seems to be an inexorable move, throughout the world, to the adoption of basic principles like 'human rights'. These ideas easily find new homes in unexpected places, without too much difficulty.

I completely and unequivocally abrogate the obscurantist rhetoric of people who claim that some special preliminary and organic acculturation process is needed for those who seek to understand and follow the teachings of Shinran Shonin. Such chauvinism does not seem to beset the creators of Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse, when peddling their products in non-American countries.

I know of no Coca Cola or Disney appreciation schools in China or India. All human beings experience thirst, and a love of sweet things and fantasy. East Asian people who are skilled in golf, do not need to learn gælic, and neither do they need to study Scottish geography. In introducing new ideas into fresh linguistic contexts, it is true that grotesque misunderstandings are always possible, but, as long as we keep before us a sense of caution in interpreting language, we will eventually come to a full and clear understanding.

The story of Moriya and 'hotoke' is a perfect example of two tendencies in interpreting words, when we first meet the Buddha Dharma. Moriya made rash assumptions, thinking that 'futoke' meant 'fever'. Having latched onto this irony he sought to exploit it against the Buddha Dharma. The correct approach is caution and the habit of looking beyond the mere linguistic superficialities to their deeper meaning.

Jodo Shinshu is a universal teaching that has its roots in ancient India. Its teaching has remained remarkably constant throughout its long history. For it seems to me that Shinran was a true reformer, who sought to call us to return to our original sources, and especially to the intrinsic significance of the Larger Sutra.

Furthermore, the content of the teaching is relevant and accessible to all human beings. An understanding of it is not restricted to any kind of clerical or academic elite. Indeed, the proper role of academic research is not to seek to obscure the teaching but to help it to be more easily and properly understood by ordinary men and women. In this process, the work of translation is the most valuable endevour. It is the task that was carried out with such skill by the scholars who translated the Collected Works of Shinran.

The Buddha Dharma will easily find a home in our hearts, just as long as we keep free of legalistic interpretations and maintain a listening heart. We should neither be attached to the words themselves, nor jump to hasty conclusions about their meaning. If we do that we may fall into Moriya's trap, and make grave errors, and identify the teaching with something that is quite unlike its reality.

- July 6, 2006.

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