Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 83

Through the benevolence of Prince Shotoku
We learn of the Vow of the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom
And enter the assembly of the rightly determined
Like Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be.

Shotoku Taishi

Umayado was born in 574 CE at Yamato, the second son of the Emperor Yomei. Empress Suiko was the country's first ever empress, and her nephew and regent Shotoku would be the first person on record to officially designate his country 'the Land Where the Sun Rises' (nihon). On the accession of the Empress in 593, when he was just nineteen years old, Umayado became Prince Regent (taishi) 'Shotoku'. He married Udodonokaidako, who was the daughter of the Empress.

Shotoku was one of those rare geniuses whose life serves to elevate their country and their countrymen, and his legacy has endured for some fourteen centuries. He was a man of extraordinary breadth of vision. Open to new ideas, he was a ruler-sage. During his tenure as Regent, from 593 to his death at the age of forty-eight (622), he introduced Chinese culture and administrative ideas to Japan. He is even known for the interesting fact that he helped to found the world's oldest surviving commercial enterprise, the Kongo Gumi, which was a business that was established with a family of Korean immigrants, who came to Japan to oversee the building of the Horyuji near Nara. I understand that this temple is, arguably, the world's oldest surviving wooden structure.

It was not only the Kongo family that Shotoku brought to Japan to assist in great public works; he encouraged very large numbers of other itinerant and migrant civil servants and artisans to come to Japan to ply their trades and teach their arts. His administration undertook vast public works, which included a network of highways. He was responsible for the construction of many significant buildings, including temples. He compiled the first history of Japan.

It was not only physical work that he undertook. Shinran Shonin tells us that he 'compiled commentaries on the Lotus, Shrimala and Vimilakirti Sutras.' In this way, Shotoku devoted himself to the study of the Buddha Dharma and to its promulgation amongst his people. It is certainly true to say that it was the patronage of Shotoku Taishi that laid the foundations of the Buddha Dharma as one of the principal features of Japanese life. We can ge grateful to him, because he ensured the flourishing of the Mahayana. In this way he unwittingly laid the basis for the development of the T'ien-t'ai (tendai) scion, which we now know as Jodo Shinshu. There can be little doubt that, without Shotoku Taishi, both you and I would be ignorant of the Dharma and would not have heard of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; we would be destined to turn in samsara for yet more endless æons!

In his personal life, Shotoku Taishi is said to have been a man of remarkable grace, presence and beauty. Of far greater significance for all of us is the fact that he is known as an exemplar of lay Buddhist life. He combined the life of a profound student and exponent of the Buddha Dharma and the business of the court and of his country. He was a householder, who followed the conventional mores of the Confucian way. Thus, he emulated a model that was first set by Hui Yuan (334-417 CE)- the founder of the White Lotus Society, which is well-known as one of the most important early developments in the Pure Land stream.

The most significant fact about Shotoku for me, however, is the extraordinary regard that Shinran had for him. These present verses on Shotoku Taishi in the Shozomatsu Wasan number just eleven but Shinran also composed the Kotaishi Shotoku Hosan and the Dai Nihonkoku Zokusan O Shotoku Taishi Hosan, making up a total of a further 189 verses. The first of these two volumes is included in the Collected Works of Shinran, and we will explore these as we make our way through the eleven verses that now engage our attention. The extent of Shinran's regard for Shotoku is marked by the fact that he included him in the list of Dharma Masters at the end of the Koso Wasan and also the way that Shotoku's image was frequently revered by members of the early Shinshu community (kyodan).

Many theories have been contrived to explain the level of Shinran's devotion to Shotoku Taishi. One of these is that Shinran had been a 'wandering ascetic' (hijiri) who was an exponent of a cult that was based on the image of Amida Buddha at the Zenkoji (temple), where there is also a strong emphasis on Shotoku Taishi. Speaking for myself, I find this idea implausible because Shinran's Nembutsu teaching seems to specifically exclude an emphasis on Buddha images. Shinran did, after all, discourage their use, because Amida's form is light.

It is the greatest of errors to say that one must not say mugeko butsu [Buddha of unhindered light] in addition to Namu-amida-butsu. Kimyo corresponds to Namu. Mugeko butsu is light; it is wisdom. This wisdom is itself Amida Buddha. Since people do not know the form of Amida Buddha, Bodhisattva Vasubandhu, exhausting all his resources, created this expression in order that we might know Amida's form with perfect certainty. (Mattosho 14; CWS. p. 543.)

Furthermore, it is suggested that this hijiri phase of Shinran's life was during the time of his sojourn in the Kanto but, if that is so, one wonders why Eshinni does not mention it in her letters.

There is another theory about Shinran's devotion to Shotoku that suggests that he was born at a time, which Shinran estimates to have been the beginning of the Dharma-ending Age. It seems to me to be very likely that this is the case to some extent but I think there is a yet more profound reason for Shinran's devotion to Shotoku. It seems to me that it is more likely to have been because of the direct rôle that Shotoku played in Shinran's conversion to the way of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, the way of absolute Other Power (zettai tariki).

I believe that Shotoku Taishi was responsible for the construction of the Rokkakudo near Mt Hiei, the centre of the Tendai School, which was Shinran's alma mater. Spiritually exhausted and at the end of his tether, when he was twenty-nine years of age, Shinran undertook a one-hundred day retreat at Rokkakudo, where Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is enshrined. Eshinni Sama, Shinran's wife tells us that

[Shinran] left Mt Hiei, remained in retreat for one-hundred days at Rokkakudo, and prayed for salvation in the afterlife. Then at the dawn of the ninety-fifth day Prince Shotoku appeared in a vision, revealing the path to enlightenment, after reciting a verse. Thus, he immediately left Rokkakudo, before dawn, and called on Honen Shonin to be shown the way of salvation in the afterlife. (tr. Ann Unno, 1970)

It seems clear to me that, for Shinran, Shotoku Taishi was the equivalent of Prince Ajashatru's uncle Jivaka. As readers will know, the story of the events that befell the royal family at Rajagriha castle play a pivotal role in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. I believe that Shinran sees himself as a latter-day Ajatashatru, just as he identified himself with all evil people and pariahs who awaken to shinjin and enter the company of the truly settled. Jivaka led Ajatashatru to Shayamuni Buddha, to the entrusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna-citta), which brought him a new life and progress towards Enlightenment. Shotoku played the same role for Shinran in leading him to Honen.

Furthermore, it seems to me that, for Shinran, the 'spiritual life', as we would call it, was more significant and important than anything else, because, like Shakyamuni, he knew where the true source of reality and ultimate freedom lay. All of the events of his biography that mattered to him are referenced in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and sometimes in his other writings. So, even in the case of his devotion to Shotoku Taishi, it was not affairs of state that mattered, not questions of life-style or secular vocation. All of the resoucres that are available to us suggest that Shinran always sought to find the spiritual significance of things for himself and for his fellow human beings.

We will discover that this is how it was in the case of the life and example of Shotoku Taishi.

- December 23, 2005.

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