Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 18

With the advent of the semblance and last dharma-ages,
        and this world of the five defilements,
The teachings left by Shakyamuni entered into concealment.
Only the compassionate Vow of Amida becomes widely known,
And attainment of birth through the nembutsu spreads.

The Right and the True

Fa-chao was born in eighth century China. He was regarded as the successor to Shan-tao; although he lived more than a hundred years later. Shinran Shonin took two passages of his writing and included them in the second book (Practice) of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. To my mind it suggests a suitable commentary on this verse.

In this quote from Fa-chao we discover that he seems to be differentiating between the right dharma and the 'true teaching' (shin-shu). At first glance this may seem strange but we only need to remember that the sangha's sense of mappo was already deepening. The term 'Shozomatsu', the title of the book of verses that we are currently surveying, refers to the three dharma ages: sho is the age of right dharma; zo is the age of semblance dharma; matsu is, of course, the dharma-ending age, as Harold Stewart translates it - a rendering that I like a lot.

Shinran reminds us here that Shakyamuni's teaching has become hidden since the dharma semblance and the dharma-ending ages have come into play. We have already encountered this idea in an earlier verse of the current wasan collection (number three). Shinran seems keen to remind us of this again, at this time. It must have been something that he felt very keenly. He was not alone, however, because Fa-chao seems also to have had a sense that the 'right dharma' was no more:

Hymns according to the Sutra of the Life of the Buddha by Fa-chao:

What is to be called the right dharma?
What accords with truth is the true essence of the teaching.
Now is the time to determine and select right from wrong;
Test each particular one by one and allow no indistinctness.

The right dharma surpasses all things of the world!

Observance of precepts and seated meditation are called the right
      dharma,
But attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the
      true essence of the teaching.
Doctrines that do not accept the Buddha's words are non-Buddhist
      ways;
Views that reject the law of cause and effect are nihilistic.

The right dharma surpasses all things of the world!

How can precepts and meditation be the right dharma?
Nembutsu-samadhi is the true essence of the teaching.
To see reality and awaken to mind, this is Buddha;
How could nembutsu-samadhi not accord with truth?1

In spite of Shan-tao's late preference for recitative nembutsu, in Fa-chao's time it still had strong meditative connotations. Shinran tends - or so it seems to me, at any rate - to be quite comfortable with the idea of fixing the term 'nembutsu' into the meaning that was relevant for his context, that is to say 'shomyo' - 'saying the Name'. This is certainly because, by Shinran's time, the dharma had deteriorated to such an extent that any meditative practice was severely qualified. Shinran's teacher, Honen Shonin deprecated meditation altogether.2

Fa-chao's thought pattern seems to move from an assertion and celebration of the right dharma to a conclusion that the 'true teaching' (shin-shu) is the perfect distillation of it. The right dharma is no longer accessible; the 'true teaching', its epitome, is the way we should follow now. Instead of being an accessory, the nembutsu is now a better way:

Observance of precepts and seated meditation are called the
        right dharma,
But attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true
        essence of the teaching.

The right dharma is hidden. Good and necessary as the right dharma is, the essence of it - the true teaching, the way of nembutsu - is the way forward. The evidence was all around Fa-chao and Shinran, as it is for us today. Sutras are being used for disputation, morality has become elevated into a competitive form of self-affirmation and meditation clearly becomes, for many, either mental irritation or delusion. This must have been acutely evident to Shinran. Buddhists who professed 'the right dharma' - precepts and meditation - were manifestly quarrelsome and hypocritical, full of hatred, (especially when it came to the nembutsu) and seekers of power or personal ease.

Hence Shinran easily interpreted Fa-chao's poem in an 'either-or' way. That the right dharma was hidden (that is to say, obscure or unclear) was - and is - manifestly true. It is not that there was anything 'wrong' with the right dharma, it is just that its age had long gone.

As an aside, let me point out that in our time the 'teachings of Shakyamuni' are largely shunned - indeed, actively shunned. Very few people read and study sutras. To be honest, I would have to say that I have met many Buddhists who frankly abhor them. This is a most intriguing phenomenon. Is it because they make us question our comfortable assumptions, cast a shimmering light upon our nagging anxieties and remind us of our inner pain and mortality? I think it is, because that was the impact that they had on me when I first met them. Yet to delve deeper - and to persevere - eventually uncovers truly exhilarating insights that bring us pure refreshment of heart and a glimpse of ultimate liberation. It is the 'teaching', which is the core and heart of the Buddha Dharma. Without it there can be no 'true practice'.

It is true to say that the dharma now is largely associated with ritual, talismanic superstition, and 'meditation' that is not informed by the profound riches of the Tripitaka, giving sway to the prevalence of the 'five defilements'. It is hard to argue with the proposition that the Buddha Dharma is almost everywhere now regarded as a synonym for 'meditation'. However, this is a focus so narrow that it renders the entire structure groundless and without good foundations. In point of fact the Buddha Dharma is first and foremost the teaching of the Buddha.

This fact was a source of lamentation for Shinran, as it is for us. Yet, when he came to contemplate the true teaching, he realised that its epitome was certainly in one of the thousands of sutras that Shakyamuni had initiated during his life-time. The first words of the first book of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho ('true teaching') read...

Reverently contemplating the True Teaching...

Shinran then goes on to demonstrate that the 'true teaching' is the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life, and quotes from it - and several other recensions - to illustrate this fact. Furthermore, in the Larger Sutra we read that, when all other sutras have passed away, this one will remain for a further 500 years. As I have said above, the evidence is that the sutras are no longer of interest to most people.

The true teaching expounded in the Larger Sutra is the way of shinjin, the way of nembutsu. In Shinran's time, and in ours, this teaching has reached its zenith; the right dharma - precept and meditation - has fallen out of sight, into its nadir.

Something that cannot be seen or known, cannot be practiced well.


1: CWS, p. 40.

2: The Promise of Amida Buddha: Honen's Path to Bliss, tr Jôji Atone & Yôko Hayashi, 2011, 329.

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