Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 13

With the advent of the age of the five defilements
Both monks and laity have fallen into contention;
When they see persons who have entrusted themselves to the
      nembutsu,
Filled with suspicion, they slander and attack them.

Causes of Conflict

Shinran Shonin seems to be describing irrational and almost primal attacks on people of nembutsu. In this verse he continues to draw on Shan-tao's Fa-shih-tsan. However, Shan-tao refers only to assaults upon 'the teaching of sudden attainment.' The Dhyana (zazen, Ch. ch'an) School could also be included in this group, so the attacks that are being described by Shan-tao, in his context, could well have been directed to several schools of the Mahayana.

In the concluding passages of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran describes the hostility to the nembutsu way, especially in the form of the person of Honen Shonin, by both monks and laity.

Monks of Sakyamuni's tradition in the various temples, however, lack clear insight into the teaching and are ignorant of the distinction between true and provisional; and scholars of the Chinese classics in the capital are confused about practices and wholly unable to differentiate right and wrong paths. Thus, scholar-monks of Kofuku-ji presented a petition to the retired emperor in the first part of the second month, 1207.

The emperor and his ministers, acting against the dharma and violating human rectitude, became enraged and embittered. As a result, Master Genku - the eminent founder who had enabled the true essence of the Pure Land to spread vigorously [in Japan] - and a number of his followers, without receiving any deliberation of their [alleged] crimes, were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given [secular] names, and consigned to distant banishment.1

In recent times this passage has been cited by commentators to support the view that Shinran was a social critic and reformer. However, these references are obviously concerned with a specific incident. Shinran does not seem to be addressing himself to general principles surrounding political and social concerns. In any case, the suppression of the nembutsu was initiated principally as a result of an appeal to the Emperor by the Kofukuji (temple) in 1205. This was in spite of the fact that Honen publicly denounced unruly behaviour by his followers and bound them to the 'Seven Rule Pledge'. These rules, which enjoin respect for authority and the older Buddhist orders, were signed by Shinran himself.

Consistent with his active acquiescence with Honen's pledge, Shinran's actual writings nowhere suggest that he had any inclination towards social engagement or reform. He was surely more attuned to a sense of the venality of existence in the age of mappo. As a true disciple of the Buddha and a profoundly committed follower of the Mahayana, his inclination leans more in the direction of seeing the world as ultimately evanescent and unreliable.

There are numerous passages in Shinran's writing that attest to this fact, especially the cautions in some of his letters and the fact that the only nonbuddhist resources he used in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho were Confucian. In his own writing, Shinran emerges as a person who had a strong inclination towards the maintenance of harmonious relations between conflicting interests. By the time we have reviewed the section of the Shozomatsu Wasan that deals with Shotoku Taishi, we shall understand Shinran's social attitudes with greater clarity.2

Nevertheless, Shinran was obviously stung by the injustice of the suppression orders against the nembutsu: 'Without receiving any deliberation of their [alleged] crimes, [they] were summarily sentenced to death or were dispossessed of their monkhood, given [secular] names, and consigned to distant banishment.' In conjunction with this verse, we can see that he sees the hostility to the nembutsu way as essentially irrational and based on suspicion, rumour, rage and anger. Emotion plays a significant rĂ´le in the conflict. We are left with the distinct impression that the monks, scholars, authorities and members of the ruling classes, who were attacking the nembutsu, were afraid of something. Their aggression arises from fear and panic.

In many ways Shinran's sense of the unfairness of the suppression of the nembutsu is very understandable. In fact, there were widely divergent views within the nembutsu community itself. Although claiming allegience to Honen, there were indeed many followers who engaged in unruly behaviour. It seems clear to me, from his ultimately conciliatory attitude, that Shinran did not want to be identified with these disorderly people. His view of the unjust nature of the charges that were laid against the nembutsu way could have been due, in part, to the fact that he did not associate with these unruly elements.

At that stage of his life, Shinran's voice was not heard. The only evidence of his views that we have is the fact that he signed the Seven Rule Pledge. It also seems likely that Shinran's sense of the unfairness of the treatment meted out to Honen contributed, in part, to his strong motivation to publish doctrinal documents, like the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which clarified the true purport of the nembutsu way that Honen had taught.

The vehemence of the charges against Honen and his followers does beg the question: What was the essence of the fear and panic that the authorities betrayed? Is it possible, for example, that the nembutsu way contains egalitarian tendencies that undermine secular and religious authority? We can certainly say that the nembutsu path - especially in the way that it was expounded by Shinran - does, indeed, disregard social distinctions. Shinran is unequivocal in his assertion that in the nembutsu way there is no distinction between rich and poor, good and evil, diligent and lazy or monk and layman.3 Above all, full participation was completely open to women, who were otherwise permitted only limited involvement. Could it be this attitude that people in authority found to be so threatenning?

There is nothing in Shinran's writing to suggest that this was the case. In the passage from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that I have quoted above, Shinran sees ignorance of the teaching - and its provenance - as serving as the basis for the attacks on the people of nembutsu. If the egalitarian nature of the nembutsu way was the cause of the attacks, then it must follow that, since Shinran says that the authorities were ignorant of the teaching, the idea that the nembutsu way is egalitarian would have been a misunderstanding on their part.

However, the conditional equality of those who follow the nembutsu way is a clear and distinguishing feature of the path. In other schools of the dharma, there are grades of attainment, but in the Pure Land teaching there are no constraints, social or otherwise, in the awakening of shinjin, except doubt. Our status in society has nothing to do with it. There is not even a distinction between species.

The Tathagata gives [his] sincere mind to all living things, an ocean of beings possessed of blind passions, karmic evil, and false wisdom.4

It seems to me that the specific attack upon the nembutsu way, with its sense of fear, unreason, injustice and emotion - and to which Honen and Shinran both fell victim - came from the burgeoning following that it had gained, coupled with the official ignorance of the content of the teaching that fuelled the confusion of ideas within the nembutsu movement itself. In other words, there had been a failure in communication. Neither Honen nor Shinran seem to have encouraged any kind of outright attack upon the established order. Indeed, Shinran is rather prepossessing in his attitude to those in authority, encouraging his followers in his letters to seek peaceful relations even with those who were hostile to the nembutsu.

Teachers of the past have stated that practicers of the nembutsu should act with compassion for those who commit such obstruction, feel pity for them, and earnestly say the nembutsu, thereby helping those who seek to hinder them. You should carefully ponder this.5

When, as seems to have happened in this case, we make instant adversarial assumptions about the ideas and intentions of others, we wrong-foot relations at the outset. We can see from the above passage that Shinran was obviously shocked by the way that those who decided to persecute the nembutsu did not bother to even attempt to understand it. It seems to me that Shinran felt that, had they tried to do so, they would not have taken an oppressive course. Had the monks and scholars taken the trouble to explore the nembutsu way in a genuine and honest way, Shinran seems to think that they would have been more favourably disposed towards it; indeed, they may have even seen its truth and accepted it for themselves.

Shinran seems to be quite bewildered by the strength of feeling that accompanied the attack on the nembutsu. He is certain of the truth and soundness of the teaching and cannot understand why others would not see its truth for themselves. The underlying theme of his comments about these unhappy events is a plea for mutual respect and understanding.

A surprisingly high proportion of conflicts, at both a personal and communal level, seem to arise from misunderstanding and lack of accurate information. This kind of 'ignorance of the other' tends to generate a fear that eventually takes control of the situation. Shinran describes these developments most eloquently in this verse. He could well have believed that, had a desire to understand the views and motivations of the nembutsu followers been present from the outset, the injustice and conflict may have been avoided.

The tragedy is, however, that in the age of mappo, wilful ignorance and misunderstanding have greater force in human relations.


1: CWS, p. 289

2: Typical of Shinran's attitude to the world is this passage from the Afterword of the Tannisho: "I must confess that we are all ordinary beings beset by defiling passions and that everything in our world is as transient as a burning house. All things are illusory and delusive and have no truth in them. The Nembutsu alone is true." [BDK English Tripitaka 105-II.]

3: CWS, p. 107.

4: CWS, p. 95.

5: CWS, p. 564.

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