Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 87

Those who attain the faith of the Other Power,
In order to repay the Buddha's benevolence,
Should spread the Tathagata's twofold merit-transference
Broadly and extensively throughout the ten directions.

A Universal Way

Although Socrates (c. 470 - 399 BCE) was born and died in Athens, never venturing outside the city, he considered himself to be a citizen of the world. Shotoku Taishi (574 - 622), the Prince Regent of Japan, who inspires this verse of the Shozomatsu Wasan, was also physically tied to his own country but he looked well beyond its boundaries. He brought engineers, teachers and workers from overseas to help in his wide-ranging construction work; he promoted philosophy and ethical ideas that came from China; he encouraged devotion to a great religion, the Buddha Dharma, which had originated in distant India. Shotoku, like Socrates, was a citizen of the world.

This verse suggests that we ought to repay the Buddha's benevolence by disseminating Jodo Shinshu around the world. In Shinran's view, the Buddha's benevolence was mediated by Shotoku Taishi. It is easy to draw the connection here, between Shotoku's cross-cultural vistas and the way we may repay our debt for his gift of the Dharma. In this verse, Shinran makes clear that Jodo Shinshu - the religion of the Tathagata's two-fold merit transference - is universal. We are invited to spread it 'broadly and extensively' in every direction. Nevertheless this universal outlook did not initially endure.

Since the century, which followed the revival that was wrought by Rennyo Shonin, followers of Jodo Shinshu became wary about its propagation outside of Japan. It was not until the advent of such remarkable leaders as the late Monshu Shonyo Kosho Otani (1912 - 2002) and his successor Sokunyo Koshin (b. 1945), who inspired a return to Shinran's original hopes for the Nembutsu teaching - as expressed in this verse of the Wasan -, that followers have been encouraged to engage in a wider, international presentation of the 'Tathagata's two-fold merit transference.'

Even so, the hopes of these two great leaders have been met with some resistance. For example, it is claimed (in defiance of Shinran's teaching and the fact of its Indian and Chinese origins) that Jodo Shinshu cannot be 'translated' into other cultural contexts. I think this is a very serious error because modern Japan is nothing like the context in which Shinran's teaching first met the light of day.

Shinran's Japan was an unsettled and rather disordered environment. In every way, including linguistically, it is almost as difficult to translate Shinran to modern Japan as it is to convey the teaching in modern Australia. Both tend to be passive, secular and consumer societies. Such conditions are inimical to the personal openness, courage and longing for freedom that Jodo Shinshu often requires. In any case, the suffering, which Jodo Shinshu addresses - no less than any legitimate tradition of the the Buddha Dharma -, is common to all sentient beings, of all climes and of all times. Suffering is common to all, and so is its remedy, whether the particular features of practice were refined in India, Tibet, China or Japan.

It seems to me that 'translation' requires only that individuals within any given context 'attain the faith of the Other Power' (to quote this verse of the Wasan). Once that happens, the translation process is complete. Since faith (shin) is the work of Amida Buddha, and since his light 'shines unhindered throughout the ten quarters', there can be no doubt that people anywhere, and under any conditions, can awaken to it. Furthermore, the vehicle of transmission, which Shinran deliberately gave us, was the Wasan. People hearing the Dharma, through the vehicle of the Wasan, can awaken to Amida Buddha's faith without a shadow of a doubt. The Wasan can be rendered into any language, and understood by repeated reading and contemplation.

The Wasan contain many concepts, which need interpretation, but most of them, if not all, are Indian in origin. They are accessible to anyone who knows something of Indian thought and the Buddha Dharma. The Wasan are remarkable for the skilful way that they render doctrine into poetry. The proof of this amazing method can be found in some modern translations of the Wasan, which use non-Indian terminology, yet remain remarkably faithful to Shinran's original meaning. Rennyo's ofumi (letters) perfected this method and serve the same purpose. The ofumi can be understood by anyone who can read the popular press.

To my mind the universal nature of Jodo Shinshu is incontrovertible. Jodo Shinshu is a world religion, of Indo-Chinese origin, which has been rendered accessible through the sublime exegesis of the Japanese masters Shinran and Rennyo. Its origins are universal and it can take its place comfortably alongside all the other faiths that make such claims, and has the potential to eclipse them. It only needs the spark, which is the awakening to faith of the Other Power, in order to be born into new cultural contexts. As it becomes better known, with the passage of time, the current parsimony that is characteristic of some of its self-appointed guardians will become irrelevant.

The universality of Jodo Shinshu is of a special kind. In the case of Jodo Shinshu we mean that it transcends differences in 'outward conditions' (gegi no sugata, 'manners', cf. Koso Wasan 96) - of class, culture, ethnicity, education, occupation and gender. Yet, universal may also convey an idea of totality: 'the whole', or 'general'. However, Jodo Shinshu is not a mass religion. In the first place, unless we awaken to Nembutsu-faith we will, as Shinran says, continue to be lost in the round of rebirths; oppressed by samsara indefinitely. More powerful, however, is the seminal allegory of The Two Rivers and the White Path.

This story was promulgated by Shan-tao as the quintessential parable that portrays the awakening of faith in the Nembutsu Way. In it we see the disciple as a completely isolated and unique individual who steps away from the blandishments and oppression of mass culture. Furthermore, he responds to the call of the light, of truth, in the crushing awareness of the fact that he has no other choice, even though his senses and his reasoning screech out against such a move. This theme is a powerful and fundamental part of the Pure Land way, from the Larger Sutra to Rennyo, who said that the Dharma is not transmitted as a mass movement but painstakingly, one person at a time.

There is one more question we ought to explore in our consideraton of this verse: 'What is the twofold merit transference' that we are required to spread? It is simply the way of entry into the bodhisattva vehicle by faith of the Other Power. This way is the Nembutsu of ancient provenance: 'Nembutsu jobutsu kore Shinshu' - 'Becoming a Buddha through the Nembutsu (which cannot be isolated from Amida Buddha's faith, transferred to us) is the True Teaching' (Shan-tao). The teaching is principally expounded by the three Chinese Dharma Masters, T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao. Shinran simply consolidated the teaching and presented it in a way that everyone could comprehend. That was his genius.

Shinran actually celebrates these three Dharma Masters in his remarkable poem called Nyushutsu Nimon-ge, Song of the Two Gateways of Entrance and Emergence. In the section of T'an-luan he says:

To practice fully in accord with reality
Is to be in correspondence with the significance of
    the Name and with the Buddha's light;
This is shinjin, which is called 'the mind that is
Foolish beings possessed of blind passions
Attain nirvana without severing blind passions;
This is the virtue of the land of happiness, which is
    the spontaneous working [of the Vow].
Concerning 'blossoms from the muddy ponds,' the [Vimalakirti] Sutra states:
'The lotus does not grow in the solid ground of lofty
But in the muddy ponds of lowland marshes.'
This is an analogy meaning that foolish beings,
    while in the mud of blind passions,
Put forth the blossoms of the Buddha's perfect
This indicates the inconceivable power
Of the Tathagata's universal Primal Vow.
Thus, the two gates of entrance and emergence
    are taught as Other Power.
(Nyushutsu nimonge, CWS p. 627.)

- January 20, 2006.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next