Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 26

Bodhisattva Maitreya must pass five billion,
        six-hundred and seventy million years
Before attaining Buddhahood,
But the person who realises true shinjin
Will attain enlightenment with the end of this life.


In Buddhist tradition Maitreya Bodhisattva is expected to become the next Buddha in this world, the next in succession to Shakyamuni Tathagata, who appeared in Bihar about two and a half thousand years ago. It is said that Maitreya currently dwells in the Tushita Heaven. Heavens belong to the realm of desire (kama dhatu) but Pure Lands, like Amida Buddha's Land of Bliss (anraku, Sk. sukhavati) transcend samsara altogether.

Because Maitreya is so close to his final realisation of full enlightenment, he is often portrayed as a Buddha, rather than as a bodhisattva. In this verse, however, it is suggested that a very long time must elapse before Maitreya actually returns to join us in our earthly extistence. In religious literature a numerical value like five billion, six-hundred and seventy million years is more evocative than literal in intent; suggesting an almost incalculable time. Of course, as a being, who is dwelling in a heaven, Maitreya is still entrapped in samsara.

The themes of time and the sense that the world is now settling down to an almost unendurable wait for the advent of the next Buddha to dwell amongst us, adds a sense of pathos to the sorrowful yearning for a better - more enlightened - age than the present, whether in the future or in the past. Our lot is to be bereft of the guidance of a living Buddha and severed in time from both the most recent Buddha, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya, whose advent is a vastly long way off.

Maitreya is a particularly suitable figure for the age of mappo. We are waiting; he is wondering what to do about us; things just keep getting worse. How awful, how painful, how deprived of wisdom and compassion we are in the time that must pass until the time of Maitreya, the loving one!

It seems to me that the story of Maitreya is analogous to the way that the world really is. Although we learn that Shakyamuni was kind and compassonate - and that the bodhisattva way sees compassion as its primary obligation - there is little kindness in the world. The history of human relations is marred by episodes of cruelty and violence. Meantime, as people suffer at the hands of others, kindness lies hidden in our hearts; just as Maitreya is hidden in the vast recesses of the Tushita heaven.

In the section on shinjin in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin draws our attention to the comparison - as in this verse - between Maitreya's status and that of people with adamantine faith, the mind of Amida Buddha. In this passage, Shinran draws on many elements of the tradition of Maitreya.

Truly we know that because Mahasattva Maitreya has perfectly realised the diamondlike mind of the stage equal to enlightenment, he will without fail attain the stage of supreme enlightenment beneath a dragon-flower tree at the dawn of the three assemblies. Because sentient beings of the nembutsu have perfectly realised the diamondlike mind of crosswise transcendence, they transcend and realise great, complete nirvana on the eve of the moment of death. Hence the words, As such, the same.

Moreover, the people who have realised the diamondlike mind are the equals of Vaidehi and have been able to realise the insights of joy, awakening, and confidence. This is because they have thoroughly attained the true mind directed to them for their going forth, and because this accords with [the working of] the Primal Vow, which surpasses conceptual understanding.1

The stage (Sk. bhumi) that is equal to enlightenment is the tenth and final phase of a bodhisattva's career. Sometimes the ten bhumis are reckoned to include an extensive preparatory phase and - if I am not mistaken - some extra intermediary stages. In that case the 'stage that is equal to Thathagata' is the fifty-first. In any case - to refer back to the ten stage system (dasa bhumi) - the tenth stage (Sk. dharmamegha [Dharma-cloud] or parama-vihara [Ultimate abode]) - is characterised by the perfect accomplishment of the bodhisattva path, including minute knowledge of 'worlds', 'power(s)' (Sk. balas) and unlimited kinds of meditative realisation (Sk. samadhis). It is of especial interest, given its essentially Hinayanistic association, that bodhisattvas of the ninth and tenth stages have an intuitive knowledge of the Abhidharma! In the case of the tenth stage, they are able to determine exactly how the dharmas appear and disappear.

The theory goes that the most important aspect of the tenth stage is that a bodhisattva at this level of attainment has a profound insight into the innumerable Buddha characteristics. He or she has reached such a profound level of the perfection of knowledge (Sk. jnanaparamita) that there is little distinction between such an accomplished bodhisattva and a Buddha. In short, a bodhisattva of the tenth bhumi has full comprehension of a Buddha-mind. In most, if not all respects, he or she is already a Buddha.

We read in the Larger Sutra, the passage that tells of the fulfilment of the eighteenth Vow, that those who deeply accept Amida Buddha's shinjin are born in the stage of the truly settled. In this way they are in the same stage of becoming as a bodhisattva of the tenth stage, like Maitreya. 2

Readers will remember the distinction between vertical and crosswise transcendence. The 'vertical' is the way of the Path of Sages, in which the disciple plies a long and arduous journey - step by step - to realisation. The Pure Land way is 'crosswise', entailing a leap that transcends the slow lengthwise process. The leap occurs in surrendering one's effort and accepting the mind of the Buddha. This acceptance of the Buddha-mind, or shinjin, is remeniscent of the condition of a bodhisattva of the tenth stage.

Most of this discussion, so far, has been thinking at a purely theoretical level that does not touch us greatly. We have also been working in an area of the dharma, which only has relevance as a metaphor for the experience of shinjin. The story of Maitreya is not of any great significance in the Pure Land tradition, since our Buddha is the Infinite Light, Amida, and he is present now in his Name. We need to go on to the exploration of more pertinent questions, for example:

  1. What is the existential and experiential significance of being 'equal to Tathagatas'?
  2. How should we regard this status, when for all practical purposes, we are bombu, ordinary, foolish beings?

Shinran continues this theme in the next verse... and so shall we.

1. CWS, p. 123

2. CWS, p. 80

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