Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 69

Among those practicers with doubt in the Primal Vow,
There are those who are confined in the lotus bud.
They are abhorred for being born in the border land
Or are shunned for falling into the womb-palace.

The Sacred Lotus

This verse is based on a passage from the Ting-shan-i, which comprises the third section of Shan-tao's final work, Kuan-ching-shu. The Kuan-ching-shu (Jp. kangyo sho, A Commentary on the Meditation Sutra) is Shan-tao's major work and includes important Pure Land teachings, and the Allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path. Shinran Shonin drew heavily on this work and re-organised the content by moving some parts of the book to the sixth volume of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - the Book of the Temporary Buddha and Lands - while keeping other passages to support his principal teachings in the main body of the work.

The flower of the sacred lotus is one of the 'eight precious things' that are associated with the Buddha Dharma, and it is a main symbol of the Mahayana. Indeed, the lotus-flower is currently the only viable emblem of the Mahayana. The swastika, which was originally the most widely used symbol of all three of the main Indian religions, is now seen as obnoxious because of its association with Nazism during the last century. It is to be hoped that time will ameliorate the odium of past associations and that the swastika will be restored to its rightful place as the ancient symbol of the Mahayana. In the meantime, the sacred lotus will continue to hold first place.

The Dharma-cakra (Jp. horin, wheel of the Dharma) has become popular as a symbol of Buddhism since the second world war, but its origins and meaning are somewhat obscure. It seems to appear on the Indian national flag but the origins of this particular wheel are only loosely connected with the Dharma-cakra. The wheel on the Indian flag stands for the spinning-wheel, in support of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's hope that cottage industry would continue to be the back-bone of Indian society. The most common belief about the origin of the Dharma-cakra is that it was once a weapon that was aimed at the forehead of one's opponent. Such an abrupt shock to one's mental capacity is associated with sudden Enlightenment.

In fact, the Dharma-cakra is more likely to be a symbol of power, that was originally associated with kingship. Since a king had the power to 'make things happen', he was known as a 'wheel-turning monarch'. In keeping with this concept, Shakyamuni's first sermon is called the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. In the Jodo Wasan (5), Shinran speaks of the Light Wheel (korin) of Deliverance. This reference seems to be associated with the turning of the wheel of the Dharma. However, the Dharma-cakra does not appear as one of the 'thirty-two marks' and 'eighty subordinate marks' of a 'great man', which are said to be evident in the bodily features of a Buddha.

There are several kinds of plant that are called 'lotus' but the sacred lotus, which serves as the symbol of the Mahayana, is an amphibious plant of the genus Nelumbo. The Asian species (Nelumbo nucifera) comes in two varieties. The most common is the kind that has a very pale pink flower, but there is an Australian form, which is red. There is another species that is native to North America (Nelumbo lutea), and it has yellow flowers.

Recent studies seem to be showing that sacred lotuses may not actually be water-lilies at all because their vascular system and foliage are rather more shrub-like. Genetic studies have also found that lotuses are closely related to plane trees (Plantanus spp.), the Asian form of which has become a popular street tree in Europe and in Australasia.

Every part of the sacred lotus is edible. Its seeds are very hard and can be used for beads, especially the nenju that we use in Jodo Shinshu. Its significance and symbolism goes well beyond that, however. The best known is the analogy that is drawn between the sacred lotus and the Buddha Dharma. The lotus grows in mud but it is not polluted by it: signifying the way that the Dharma is embedded in the problem of suffering but provides the way to transcend it. Another important theme, which is associated with the Mahayana, is that, when the lotus-flower is closed, the fruit cannot be seen but, when it opens, we can see the seeds. This points to the way that the Mahayana discloses the inner intention of the Dharma, revealing aspects of Shakyamuni's original intent, which had been hidden from view. The Mahayana sutras are characterised as an unfolding of the Dharma.

From the Buddha the twelve divisions of scriptures arise, from the twelve divisions of scriptures the sutras arise, from the sutras the Mahayana sutras arise, from the Mahayana sutras the prajnaparamita sutras arise, from the prajnaparamita sutras the Great Nirvana Sutra arises, just as manda is obtained. Manda is a metaphor for Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. Good sons, for this reason, it is taught that the virtues possessed by the Tathagata are immeasurable, boundless, and incalculable. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, V, 11; CWS, p. 182.)

So it is that the closed lotus, the lotus bud, stands for the problem of incompleteness and lack of clarity; lack of depth and breadth of understanding and awareness: narrow-mindedness. Indeed, we speak of human personality and intellect as 'flowering' when it begins to grow and become creative and productive. So it is, that the open lotus flower is the seat of wisdom. The Enlightened One in all his forms, including Namu Amida Butsu, sits or stands upon an open lotus flower. In contrast to this, the lotus bud represents the failure of something, whether a person or an idea, to reach its full potential.

One of the most telling uses of the symbol of a lotus-bud can be found in the Book of Shin in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It is located in a discussion by Shan-tao on the subject of the Five Grave Offenses that are mentioned in the eighteenth Vow (CWS, p. 148). Although the Vow suggests that those who commit the Five Grave Offences cannot be born in the Pure land, Shan-tao assures us that this is essentially a cautionary phrase. He says that Amida Buddha's compassion is such that even such people as these will be born in the Pure Land. In this specific context, however, we read that such people, will be born in a lotus bud and that their spiritual growth will be arrested, although they will no longer experience suffering of any kind.

Those who awaken to shinjin, of course, attain Enlightenment immediately upon birth in the Pure Land.

In the Pure Land Way, it is lack of faith that results in spiritual diminishment and lack of breadth. In the Way of Nembutsu, when people accept Amida Buddha's shinjin, their hearts open and they become free. Eventually, a full flowering of their true reality comes about. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran describes this latter process in detail in the Book of True Realisation.

- September 16, 2005.

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