Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 42

Sentient beings who slander the nembutsu
Plunge into Avici hell
And suffer great pain and affliction without respite
For eighty thousand kalpas; thus it is taught.

Mean Minds

Yuan-chao, master of the Vinaya school, states:

It goes without saying that in his great compassion our Buddha revealed the Pure Land way, and with loving concern widely spread it through the teachings of the great vehicle. Though we see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears, we give rise to doubts and slander. We are self-complacent in our own sinking and drowning, without longing to overcome and rise. The Tathagata taught for the sake of such pitiful beings as ourselves. Truly our doubts arise because we do not realize that this dharma is unique and beyond the ordinary. It does not discriminate between wise and foolish; it does not differentiate between priesthood and laity; it does not question the length of one's performance of practice; it does not take into account the weight of the karmic evil one has committed: only definitely settled shinjin is required as the cause-seed of birth.1

Yuan-chao lived in the eleventh century of the Common Era. He was a master of the Vinaya School. This school focuses on Rules of Conduct as a path to liberation. As most readers will know, the Vinaya is primarily a compendium of rules for monastics, both male and female. There are usually two hundred and fifty rules for men and over three hundred rules for females. Most of the Rules seem to have been developed in a casuistical way and are based on incidents in which the behaviour of monks and nuns came under the scrutiny of the population at large. As well as this, of course, the Vinaya takes account of restrictons that reflect a desire to avoid deleterious actions (Sk. akusala karma), which would inhibit progress along the way and may lead to an undesirable karmic outcome. Because it consists of these several elements, it can be said the the Vinaya is essentially a code of ethics.

It seems to me that it makes sense for anyone who is a student or practitioner of the Buddha Dharma to familiarise themselves with the Vinaya. As far as I know the variations between the various traditions are not very great. The Vinaya is the first 'basket' of the Tripitaka, which is the the Buddhist Canon of Scripture. It is not a large document; the smallest basket of the Tripitaka.

The translation of the Vinaya that I originally read was a volume in the Sacred Books of the East series. It was a translation of the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada school. It is actually a very interesting book to read, and it is important because it gives a strong sense of the ethical ethos of the Buddha Dharma, with its emphasis on non-harming (Sk. ahimsa), respect for the sensibilities of other living things and personal integrity and restraint.

As everyone will know, Buddhist ethics is one of the three 'learnings' that summarise the Noble Eightfold Path of the Path of Sages. These are shila, prajna and samadhi, which are broadly translated as 'morality', 'wisdom' and 'meditation'. However, as I understand it, the Vinaya School (ristsu shu) actually gives great prominence to the Rules (Sk. pratimoksha), even going to the extent of suggesting that they can serve as the vehicles of enlightenment.

The way of life of a person who sets out to follow the Pratimoksha in a strict and literal way would be very arduous and demanding and I am, therefore, always struck by the unusual and remarkable magnanimity of Yuan-chao when he commends to us the Pure Land way. Yuan-chao lived in the eleventh century and would know that Shan-tao had begun a trend towards an emphasis on saying the Name of the Buddha exclusively, as being the most important and preferred practice. We can see from this quotation that he was quite sure of the value and veracity of the Pure Land way.

The Pure Land way was often taken up by men and women who were part of the Path of Sages, yet it can include those who do not follow the disciplinary rules of the Vinaya. This suggests that Yuan-chao saw the Buddha Dharma as, quite definitely, providing a path even for those who had not even the remotest connection with the Vinaya. He is quite clear, in the passage quoted here, that the nembutsu way 'does not discriminate between wise and foolish; it does not differentiate between priesthood and laity; it does not question the length of one's performance of practice; it does not take into account the weight of the karmic evil that one has committed.'

The Buddha Dharma does not necessarily tell us just what actions lead to a shocking outcome like birth in the worst possible of hells, like Avici. Birth in hell (Sk. niraya) is, of course, one of several karmic outcomes that the realm of birth and death may have in store for us. In addition, because all dharmas are impermanent, life in a hell does not last forever. Nevertheless, the most salient aspect of Avici is its violence; it is a place of extreme fury and aggression. This is perhaps, something of the reason why a person who 'slanders the nembutsu' is creating karma that will result in birth in Avici. Such people exhibit rage and banality, both qualities of hell. Needless to say, the sutras warn us that 'the range of karma' is beyond our understanding, so we are not in a position to speculate about karmic outcomes.

Most notable, though, is the way that Yuan-chao commends the Pure Land way to us from the perspective of his own self-awareness. 'The Tathagata taught for the sake of such pitiful beings as ourselves,' demonstrates that, although he belonged to the most exalted school of the dharma, with its focus on ethics and rectitude, he knew how far he fell short of its standards. It is a supreme irony that an understanding of one's own infernal destiny is very often the catalyst that serves as the motive, as for Yuan-chao, to take up the nembutsu.

This was not only the case for Yuan-chao. Shinran and Rennyo Shonin both seem to have had a strong sense that they were bound for hell, even though, on the face of it, there were no obvious reasons for them to think that way. Yuan-chao also had a personal sense of karmic inadequacy, yet he was known to be an exemplary monk.

When we survey the Vinaya and other ethical standards of the Buddha Dharma, it becomes obvious to some people that, no matter how 'good' we may appear to be, there is little if anything that we think or do that is not motivated by greed, anger and delusion. The higher our standards the more obvious this becomes. It is also characteristic of people who have this kind of awareness, within the context of the dharma, that they almost never fall into the trap of making dogmatic assertions about people in general. They tend to see the problem as their own.

The awareness of our hellish destiny is so remarkable, that it can only have been generated within the wisdom of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light - and, the awareness is concommitant with a sense of the certainty and security of the compassionate embrace of Amida Buddha.

Shinran's use - in this verse - of a quotation from Shan-tao's Fa-shih-tsan (hjoji-san), which condemns to hell all those who slander the nembutsu, would seem vindictive, except for the fact that he was so acutely aware of his own shortcomings. Perhaps, those who seek to create hell for others, by stopping them from accepting the faith of Amida Buddha in the nembutsu, are the creators of their own hell. Generosity (Sk. dana) is the highest virtue in the Buddha Dharma, since it is an active manifestation of non-self (Sk. anatman). A wish to deny liberation to others is an extreme violation of this principle.

In any case, it seems clear to me that the violation of dana lies at the heart of Nagarjuna's statement in the Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra:

If, out of attachment to the dharma he follows, a person speaks ill of the dharma of others, he will not escape the sufferings of hell, even if he is one who observes the precepts.

Rennyo quotes this passage in his Ofumi (I-14) because Jodo Shinshu followers were themselves criticising other traditions of the Buddha Dharma. Perhaps, too, Yuan-chao, who observed the precepts scrupulously, understood the import of Nagarjuna's warning. We do well to remember that mean-mindedness is not the exclusive province of those who 'slander the nembutsu'. Most of us are prone to envy and spite - and we all teeter on the brink of hell.

A parsimonious disposition in one's attitude to other religions is a destructive habit. It is well past the time for human beings to give it up; and the place to start is right here, within our own hearts.

1. Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, II, 48: CWS, p. 45f.

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