Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 84

The great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the world saviour,
Manifests himself as Prince Shotoku,
Like a father never forsaking us
And like a mother always accompaying us.

Queen Shrimala

Readers will remember that Shinran Shonin regarded his Dharma teacher, Honen Shonin as a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Both Mahasthamaprapta (Amida Buddha's light or wisdom) and Avalokiteshvara (Amida Buddha's compassion) are traditionally linked with Amida Buddha in Pure Land iconography. In Jodo Shinshu the picture of Amida Buddha is a graphic representation of namu-amida-butsu, which is based on the account, in the Contemplation Sutra, of the Buddha's appearance to Queen Vaidehi. In this case, the Buddha appears alone, without the bodhisattvas. When the Buddha is accompanied by the bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara is on his left and Mahasthamaprapta is on the his right.

The three persons of the 'Amida triad' can be shown either standing or seated. The presence of the bodhisattvas reminds us of Amida's wisdom and compassion. The Bodhisattvas also represent the active component of Amida Buddha's reality. However, in Jodo Shinshu iconography the bodhisattvas, as Amida Buddha's active aspect, are shown by the Buddha's mudras (manual gestures) - depicting assurance and the call of the Buddha. His forward inclination reminds us that Amida Buddha is active in the world, 'going among the masses and teaching the Dharma with a lion's roar', as the Larger Sutra tells us.

Since Shinran thought of Honen as a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta, it makes sense that he would consider Avalokiteshvara to have appeared as Prince Shotoku, because the prince appeared to Shinran at Rokkakudo and directed him to Honen, the two bodhisattvas working in symphony. It is easy to understand why Shinran would think that these two bodhisattvas who, in turn, are manifestatons of Amida Buddha, would be working together to assist in drawing him to the Pure Land and to Nirvana. With Shinran, I also think that these two bodhisattvas appear in the form of our teachers, acquaintances, loved ones and friends - and even those who hate and revile us - in association with experiences and events that propel us towards the Buddha Dharma.

It is hard to find a sufficient number of superlatives that we can use to sing the praises of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. I did my best when writing about him on our way through the Jodo Wasan. This bodhisattva is known throughout the Buddhist world, in both Theravada and Mahayana countries. It is well understood that Avalokiteshvara is the universal figure of the Buddha Dharma, wherever it takes root. He is celebrated for his unlimited compassion for all suffering beings; for his active involvement in human affairs by taking the form of living men and women in order to apply skilful means (Sk. upaya) to help us to find the Dharma.

The Lotus Sutra even goes so far as to tell us of Avalokiteshvara's active intervention in human affairs, to manifest his power to save people from disaster and despair. However, Jodo Shinshu does not accept this claim. It rejects any petitionary prayer to greater powers, which seek intervention in ways that go against the law of karma.

So it is, that in Shinran's assessment, Avalokiteshvara, the Kuse Kannon (World-saving Avalokiteshvara) is a father and mother that took the form of Prince Shotoku, who lives even now to help and advise us.

In China, Avalokiteshvara takes a feminine form as Guanyin, where she is immensely popular, even amongst non-Buddhists. Furthermore, Shinran tells us that Prince Shotoku, and by implication, Avalokiteshvara, appeared at Ayodhya Palace during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, where he took the form of the royal princess, Queen Shrimala:

In India, Prince Shotoku
Was born as Queen Shrimala,
And in China appeared
As Master Hui-ssu. (CWS, p. 435)

The story of Queen Shrimala's conversion to the Buddha Dharma is retold in the Shrimala-devi-simhanada-sutra. According to the sutra, she received a letter from a court attendant, which told her about the virtues and teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. The Queen received Shakyamuni as her guest and eventually took bodhisattva vows. Shrimala was the princess, and her vows and determination to follow the Dharma are a perfect example of a person who aspires to lead others, and to take on affairs of state. In the course of their initial conversation, Shakyamuni assures Shrimala of her ultimate Enlightenment, and that she will become a Buddha.

In response to this assurance, the Queen took ten vows. These include her firm intention never to give rise to anger, to eschew all envy of others for their wealth and appearance, to seek to be the benefactor of all who are disadvantaged, and, if humanly possible, to restrain others from hurting people and animals. Even greater virtue on Shrimala's part is demonstrated by her promise never to be 'parsimonious about anything spiritual or material' and never to amass wealth for herself. It must be admitted that these are very unusual qualities for someone who holds political power, where, these days, the dark ethics of the Florentine wit Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) tend to hold sway.

When Shakyamuni had accepted these ten vows, Queen Shrimala made a further three solemn vows, which include attaining the wisdom of the Dharma and then tirelessly teaching it to others. In a further response to these three solemn vows, Shakyamuni imparted to the Queen 'the power of mastering the Dharma'.

Of the eleven verses on Prince Shotoku that are included in the Shozomatsu Wasan, five refer to Shotoku's timeless activity in seeking to lead us to the Dharma. Queen Shrimala is one clear example of such activity and the virtues that she established in her vows in the presence of Shakyamuni Buddha are strikingly evident in the life and teaching of Shotoku Taishi.

- December 30, 2005.

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