Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 2

It is now more that two thousand years
Since the passing of Shakyamuni Tathagata.
The right and semblance ages have already closed;
So lament, disciples of later times!

On Sadness

In the age of the last dharma the relationship between nirvana and samsara has become attenuated; darkness has become darker, light has become brighter and contrasts have become sharper. The only bridge between the two now, is the work of the Primal Vow, the shinjin of Amida Buddha. The full implications of this fact was first realised by Tao-ch'o and his student Shan-tao. That is why Shan-tao was able to present such an incisive interpretation of the nature of shinjin as 'the two aspects of deep faith' (nishu-jinshin). Alientated to a stage at which the identity between samsara and nirvana is at breaking point, enlightenment cannot reach us except on its own terms, since in our own reality we are entirely alienated from truth.

Delusional and defiled sentient beings cannot, here, see Buddha-nature, for it is covered over by blind passions.1

What was true 1,400 years ago is even more critical now.

When Shakyamuni came into the world, he introduced the Fourfold Noble Truth. The first part of this was the truth of suffering, then, the causes of suffering. The third item reveals that there is an end to suffering and the last aspect of the Fourfold Truth describes the way out of suffering. However, in the intervening time, suffering has deepened to alienation, the cause has become located more in ignorance (Sk. avidya), rather than 'thirst' (Sk. tanha). Consequently, the 'way out' now requires a 'turning of the mind' (eshin), which is radical rather than incremental. Incremental stages of development have become too weak to be efficacious. This is not to say that the Fourfold Noble Truth is now meaningless, or anything of that kind. Indeed, no developments over time have negated its truth. Things have just moved to a higher intensity; it is a matter of degree.

The fact is that alienation is so integral to our existence that instead of the course involving a gradual movement from darkness to light, so to speak, it is now necessary for the light to move towards us. Any attempt in gradual development results in either marking time or a descent into self-delusion. Naturally, people who do not follow the Pure Land way deny those facts, but for us the truth lies elsewhere. Sadly, very sadly, it seems incontrovertible to us. It is often a view we come to with great reluctance, but the evidence is just too strong. My observation is that people who follow the Pure Land way, like Shinran, tend to be at the raw edge of life, and see things - unwelcome truths - in stark relief.

The sutras themselves are a prime example. Clearly, when they were first delivered, they needed no explanation. For a while those who heard them knew intuitively what was intended and what was being said. Soon, however, at the dawn of the age of semblance dharma, the sutras could not be understood without the use of commentaries. Now, the sutras have been largely abandoned - as have the commentaries. We have become wholly dependent on the interpretative genius of people like Shinran. We are unable to comprehend, without help, a single word of the dharma - in anything but the most rarefied, cerebral terms. There are also many who read modern concepts and ideas into the sutras; but, when we do this, are we talking about the dharma or about ourselves?

But why should we weep? What is the source of our sorrow?

People like Shinran, whose heart was filled with the joy and the love of dharma, have an appreciation and sense of debt that knows no bounds. Yet, as Shinran reveals later in the Shozomatsu Wasan, few there are who share these deep and powerful sentiments. Shakyamuni himself said that of all the rare things in the world, gratitude is the rarest thing of all and hard to find in any person. 'Gratitude' is a weak word, because it clearly carries also, for Shinran, a sense of joy, thankfulness and indebtedness. It is this deep appreciation and love that is, at once - and pardoxically - the greatest source of sadness. It is impossible, if we are people who have found the dharma and tasted even some of its wonderful and liberating power, not to know deep sadness to the point of tears when we see the evidence so strongly before us in support of the idea that the current dispensation of the dharma is coming to an end.

Shinran saw all around him the signs that the dharma was dying: in the hypocrisy of the clergy, the superficiality of most of those who professed to follow the dharma and their lack of genuine commitment to its teachings. He deplored the way the dharma was used for superstitious and magical purposes and the obvious fact that many clergy had become self-serving bureaucrats and servants of those in power. We shall come to a clearer understanding of this as we draw to the end of this series of essays near the close of the Shozomatsu Wasan. In the treatment meted out to his beloved teacher Honen Shonin by the ecclesiastical authorities, he also saw signs of the degradation of the dharma.

If it was evident to Shinran that he had cause for sadness and tears, how much more do we? We live in times during which the dharma is clearly in rapid and striking decline. Everywhere, people are abandoning the Buddha-dharma for other faiths or for pseudo-Buddhist beliefs. There is a rising static of confusion about Buddhist teaching. It is being over-coded with narcissistic ideologies that tend to colonise the dharma for their own objectives. Thus, humanism, psychotherapy and materialism, among others, are recasting the dharma into something quite other than itself. Where this happens, it will be the dharma that will fade into the background in the way that 'yoga' has become a mere adjunct to fitness regimes.

It is probably not possible to resist or reverse these developments and we can only marvel at our remarkable good fortune at being able to hear the dharma before it completely breaks down. These trends may yet prove to be part of a cyclic pattern and the number of those who follow genuine dharma may soon increase for a while, but there can be no doubt that there is an overall downward spiral, when it is remembered that the dharma once was a universal religion that claimed the allegiance of the whole of Asia. It was once the largest religion in the world.

Aching sadness is driven by the realisation that our loss is self-inflicted. Shinran saw an internal decay occurring within the Buddhist community as is accelerating now; he did not blame outside causes, and nor should we. All that most human beings crave is happiness and an end to suffering. That, too, is the mission of the dharma.

It is not that the dharma is irretrievable, but that we are. It is we, who have moved away from the dharma, not simply in an intellectual way, but at the very core of our being: organically. Nevertheless, for those who hear the call of the Primal Vow, in these times of deepening darkness, there is still joy and light to be glimpsed through the tears.


1: CWS, p.202.

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