Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 4

During the right, semblance and last ages,
Amida's Primal Vow has spread.
At the end of the semblance and in this last dharma-age,
Good practices have all gone into the naga's palace.


Here I declare: One thousand five hundred years after, two monks in the land of Kausambi will fall into dispute with each other and finally kill each other. As a result, the teachings will be stored in the naga’s palace.1

Kaushambi is on the Yamuna River in the Gangetic Plain, in the north-western part of the Indian sub-continent. To the south and south-west are the rising slopes of the central plateau and in the north east lies the Gangetic plain. The prophecy about Kaushambi does not seem to have been literally fulfilled, although the sutra that contained it dominated Buddhist expectations for an entire millenium - from about the first century of the common era to the time of Shinran Shonin. Subsequently, it has fallen out of use. The overall legacy of the sutra has been - or, so it seems to me at any rate - to leave the Buddhist world uncertain as to the precise significance of the dharma ages. Needless to say, at a popular level in the Asian countries, which have had long association with the dharma, it is almost universally accepted that we are certainly in a final and declining phase of the dharma.

The anxiety concerning external attack from 'demons' - undoubtedly a reference to the ravaging hordes of invaders, which washed into northern India from the time of Ashoka onwards - and internal conflict within the sangha, ensured the popularity of the sutra and the ideas that it upheld. However, although the precise historical events to which it alludes are unclear, the fact remains that the two destructive influences - outside attack and internal conflict - are a reality within the Buddhist commununity. The sutra also suggests that the most appropriate response is to 'go underground'. This, it seems to me, is consistent with the Buddhist tendency to non-aggression and passivity in the face of challenge; a not unworthy attitude.

Ultimately, the degeneration of the dharma (meaning, the 'teachings' of the Buddha in this instance) is something that has been predominantly an internal problem, which, as wise men like Xuanzang saw clearly, is due to the natural distintegration that occurs with the passage of time. Indeed, the axiom that all things are subject to change (Sk. sarva sankhara anitya) is a fundamental Buddhist principle.

Many commentators are mystified by the way that the Sangha has, throughout history, had a powerful sense of anxiety about the inevitable decline of its teaching and way of life. It seems odd that a great universal faith like Buddhism should be so pre-occupied with such an oppressive idea. Needless to say, it seems to me to be abundantly clear that a religion, which has an idea that is so integral to it as 'all things are subject to change', should not see its inevitable decay as quite natural in the scheme of things. The decline of the dharma is evidence of the truth, after all. It is also important to remember that the dharma is a vehicle. Once full realisation has been attained, it can be discarded. So, it seems to me, that these two important themes play into a sense that there is something right, proper and understandable about the ultimate decline of the dharma.

As one might expect, modern historians tend to the view that the Kaushambi prophecy is a report of a known past event, which is then extrapolated to the future. This is not an uncommon feature in all human discourse and in no way invalidates the significance of such prophecies. It is natural for us to expect that things we experience now will redevelop in the future. In any case, another problem is that neither historical nor literary criticism of the texts, which relate this prophecy, have been able to point to an actual event which included an external threat and internal violence within the Buddhist community.

Concerning the question as to whether or not the prophecy was literally fulfilled, the prophecy itself suggests an event occurring around the eleventh century of the Common Era. Some have suggested that it was the incursion of Islam into northern India but this is nonsense since Islam was initially introduced to India and Central Asia by peaceful Sufis.

Whatever its origins and motivation, the most important message of the Kaushambi story, however, remains the notion that the sutras - and, concommitantly, the practices - are taken away from us by fiat. The sutras intended here are those of the path of sages. It reminds one of a cautious parent removing a dangerous toy from the clutches of her child. It is not only the Pure Land path that is comfortable with this idea. It is well known that the Zen (Sk. dhyana) tradition - for a long time closely associated with the Pure Land way - also seeks direct realisation without the mediation of the sutras. So the first thing that I always call to mind, when I am challenged by the 'Kaushambi prophecy', is that it is not only the Pure Land tradition that draws upon it for insight; it is also implicit in the Zen tradition as well. In other words, the prophecy is valued by several traditions of the Buddha Dharma.

Very often apologists for Pure Land dharma suggest that the basis of one's discipleship ought to be a sense of one's own personal failure. The Kaushambi prophecy and the fact that its concepts are common property for both the path of sages and the Pure Land way points to a different reality. The Pure Land way, and other paths that no longer depend on the sutras of the path of sages, are now our only option. This is not - in the first instance - due to our personal characteristics but because the sutras have simply been taken away; to protect them from the inevitable abuse that is integral to those of us, who live in the age of the five defilements.

In the age of declining dharma, we tend to read the sutras through the lense of ignorance and prejudice. Sources of blessing and truth to the wise, the sutras can become dangerous toys in the hands of the ignorant.

1: Mahamaya Sutra, CWS, p. 246.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next