Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 34

Through the compassion of Shakyamuni and Amida
We have been brought to realise the mind that seeks to attain Buddhahood.
It is by entering the wisdom of shinjin,
That we become persons who respond in gratitude to the Buddhas' benevolence.

The Rain and The Shade

Just as rain falls on all vegetation, so Buddha's compassion extends equally to all people. Just as different plants receive particular benefits from the same rain, so people of different natures and circumstances are blessed in different ways.1

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Two travellers were walking along a bare and dusty road in the heat of the day. Coming presently to a Plane-tree, they joyfully turned aside to shelter from the burning rays of the sun in the deep shade of its spreading branches. As they rested, looking up into the tree, one of them remarked to his companion, 'What a useless tree the Plane is! It bears no fruit and is of no use to man at all.'2

This verse of the Shozomatsu Wasan reminds us of one of the verses in praise of Shan-tao. Both verses are inspired by the story of Two Rivers and a White Path. The story is the famous allegory of the man who crossed the rivers of water (yearning and greed) and fire (hatred and anger) to arrive at the Pure Land in the West by means of the narrow white path of faith (in the nembutsu). For a long time I read it often and pondered every aspect of it. It was an endless source of inspiration and strength. Yet, it is Shinran Shonin's imagery that has had the most lasting effect. Mysteriously, the impact of Shinran's treatment of the story is to highlight the synergy that exists between Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha.

In several places, Shinran pictures Shakyamuni and Amida as having complementary roles. Whereas, the two Buddhas are often seen as interchangeable, Shinran seems more inclined to see them as distinct, but supporting each other in the task of leading us out of samsara. For example, his description of them as 'compassion's parents' reminds us of the way that they work together, although in slightly different roles. Shakyamuni plays an active role in sparking our interest in the path to enlightenment. He is a kind of emissary and counsellor. His impact upon us is active and external. We can read the written record of his teaching.

On the other hand, Amida Buddha, works within the heart. He acts by means of his very existence; silent and sublime. We hear him by inference, and intuition, but when we hear his voice, it is unequivocal. When he speaks, it is in spontaneity, taking the form of Namu-amida-butsu. He describes it in this way:

'Going among the masses with a lion's roar'. 3

The story of Two Rivers and a White Path tells us of the 'voice calling from the western bank'. Shinran identifies this as 'kimyo' - the calling of the Primal Vow, which commands us to trust it. In the experience of nembutsu followers, this call ultimately comes from somewhere deep within their hearts and minds, at a depth that cannot fathomed, deeper even than the darkest depths of the afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas).

Amida Buddha has form, and is a person, at least in the experience of ordinary men and women. We know from T'an-luan's writing that he would have it so, for our sakes. But what of Shakyamuni? What kind of Buddha is he?

Shakyamuni is usually described as the 'historical Buddha'. Although this phrase is somewhat vexed, most people mean by it that Shakyamuni is known to have lived and taught in the world that we know, the world of the five defilements; the world that we, ordinary men and women, endure. It has been difficult for scholars to fix a date for Shakyamuni's birth and death but most people recognise that it would be disingenuous to claim that he did not exist. It is thought that he lived for eighty years at some time during sixth, fifth and fourth centuries before the Common Era. There is tanglible evidence for his birth-place and more clear evidence that he lived in Benares.

When we survey the tradition of the Buddha Dharma we find that Shakyamuni is viewed in slightly different ways within each tradition. He is cast along a spectrum that ranges from austere mendicant to the majestic and eternal figure that is described in the Lotus Sutra. Interestingly, it seems to me that the Pure Land tradition is much closer to the austere perspective that is found in the Hinayanistic traditions. I think that Shakyamuni's story is best told in the Buddhacarita of Ashvagosha. It is a great epic poem; a great treasure.

The Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha) originally closed shortly after Shakyamuni's Enlightenment and his teachings have been written elsewhere in vast collections of sutras. The way the story is told sits well with the Shakyamuni that we hear speaking in the Larger Sutra of the Pure Land tradition. Here is a person of entirely human provenance, who has indeed attained enlightenment, and become a Buddha, by himself.

In the Larger Sutra I always seem to hear a gentle voice, the essence of Compassion, telling us of something wonderful that he has discovered in his Enlightenment. The opening of the Sutra always leaves me with the distinct impression that Shakyamuni's Compassion is such that he is bursting with delight and simply cannot wait any longer to tell Ananda about Amida Buddha.

There is a marvellous and mysterious way, in which Amida Buddha appears as the projection of Shakyamuni's eEnlightenment, not the reverse, as we are sometimes told. We are reminded of Shakyamuni's immortal words:

He who has seen me, has seen the Dharma
He who has seen the Dharma, has seen me.

It seems to me, for I discovered the Buddhacarita and the Larger Sutra at the same time, that the Compassion of Shakyamuni is like rain after drought. His is the voice that nurtures all and provides us with inspiration and sustenance for growth and development.

The Compassion of Amida Buddha is like the shade of a Plane tree. He invites us into his embrace so that we can rest in his coolness amidst the heat of our afflicting passions (bonno). Many people fail to appreciate him because he seems to be of no practical use to them. Only when they are beginning to despair of ever finding relief from their inner turmoil will they seek the embrace that is his shade.

Nevertheless, he waits there, his branches teeming with life. And... look up! There, beyond, is the clear, blue sky of emptiness and the wisdom that fills all things.


1. Saddharmapundarikasutra, BDK

2. Æsop, tr. V.S. Vernon-Jones

3. Larger Sutra

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