Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 9

Sentient beings' wrong views grow rampant,
Becoming like thickets and forests, bramble and thorns;
Filled with suspicion, they slander those who follow the nembutsu,
While to use of violence and the poison of anger spread widely.

Thorns and Brambles

What are we to do about the bitterness and even violence that is engendered by religious and ideological struggle?

Although this verse is the third of four verses that are inspired by a passage in the Hoji San, it is remarkable how Shan-tao's words foreshadowed the tumultuous events of Shinran Shonin's time. Although Shinran's writings are the source of all our inspiration, this verse also tells us a lot about the structure of the conflict that is associated with ideas that are strongly held. At first glance it seems that Shinran's views are as intractable as those who opposed him; in a way, solidifying the irreconcilable differences between groups that make rapprochement inconceivable.

On closer inspection, however, we need only to remember the historical facts as we know them. The attacks upon the followers of the nembutsu came from left field, so to speak. They were uninvited and they were not deliberately provoked. Indeed, Honen Shonin went to great lengths to appease the anger of his detractors; they were self-styled enemies who selected the nembutsu followers as their targets. They sought to punish, destroy and oppress the nembutsu way that Honen taught.

Shinran discouraged his followers from retaliating when attacked.

Nevertheless, since the prohibition of the nembutsu led to the arising of disurbances in society, on this occasion I hope that everyone will, deeply entrusting themselves to the nembutsu and firmly embracing prayers [for peace in the world] in their hearts, together say the nembutsu.1

The anger and rage of those who opposed the nembutsu way did not shake Shinran's commitment to it. He was not convinced by the arguments against Honen's teaching. Instead, the underlying rage served as proof for him of the truth of the age of declining dharma.

At this point we probably ought to re-iterate just what it is that we mean by mappo. As we have already seem, Shakyamuni was born into a cosmos, a kalpa that was reaching the end of its cycle. This declining age is the world of the 'five defilements' and it is well on its way to corruption.

The precise Sanskrit equivalent of mappo (ma-fo in Chinese) is a matter of conjecture. Since the second character in 'mappo' is 'ho' (Sk. dharma), the term would need to include the term 'dharma'. I am no scholar, but I find the arguments against the traditional Sanskit equivalent for mappo, saddharma-vipralopa, unconvincing. Sanskrit terms that mean merely 'latter age' surely cannot describe 'mappo' as it has come to be understood by east Asian Buddhists. The world was well advanced in the 'latter age' of the current universe (Sk. kalpa) in Shakyamuni's time. Now, in addition to this fact, the dharma that he revealed is itself also in decline.

The most commonly accepted treatise on mappo is a text entitled The Candle of the Latter Dharma (mappo tomyo-ki) attributed to Saicho, the founder of the Tendai lineage in Japan. It seems clear to me, since so much of this book is quoted in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, that Shinran took the ideas that it canvassed very seriously. The principal thesis of the book is simply that, by and large, we have lost the will and the capacity to engage effectively in the practical effort that is required to attain nirvana by our own efforts.

We first encountered the concept of mappo in the course of our thinking about the life and teaching of the Chinese and Japanese dharma masters. We discovered that the essential feature of Mappo is that the Dharma is in decline: reaching the end of its ascendency within human society. Once again this seems to be confirmed by the facts.

The extent and influence of the dharma reached its apogee at around the ninth century of the Common Era, almost fifteen hundred years after Shakyamuni's appearance in the world. The decline was steady, as Buddhism first died out in the place of its origin, India. Then the peoples of central Asia gradually converted to Islam. The expansion of European colonialism did not have a particularly deleterious effect upon the dharma. Indeed, as we have already seen, contact with the west resulted in a brief revival in the dharma's fortunes.

However, during the second half of the twentieth century, the decline of the dharma accelerated significantly. It is now all but extinct in mainland China; Australia has a higher percentage of Buddhists than China does. In both Korea and Mongolia people are converting to Christianity at a rapid rate. Similar changes are emerging in Sri Lanka. Japan, now increasingly seen as the first Asian nation to have become a true bastion of the values of the European enlightenment, has become predominantly secular.

Needless to say, I do not think that the Buddha-dharma will become extinct in the near future. There is a globalising trend in the world these days, which suggests that there will be an increase in pluralism. There are also signs that liberal values - by which I mean personal and economic freedom, underpinned by Utilitarian ethics - are gaining popularity everywhere. In spite of media hyperbole about 'fundamentalism', the liberal trends seem to be gaining ground, even in countries that have traditionally sustained conservative, faith-inspired systems of governance.

It seems to me, however, that the dharma will eventually settle down as a minority faith but it will, perhaps, be geographically quite widespread. It seems very likely that a variety of religions will co-exist in most places, eventually including even Africa and South America. As people become more affluent there will be an amelioration of extremist tendencies. There will always be people who continue to maintain the Buddhist tradition as a family inheritance, and there will continue to be many who are temperamentally suited to it and profess a voluntary allegiance.

I agree with the growing perception amongst students of comparative religion that there is convincing evidence of a tendency to move away from communal religion to forms of faith and practice that inspire individual virtue, rather than collective obedience to divine law. The Buddha-dharma is well suited to this ethos.

However, I am inclined to the view that the Buddha-dharma will never again command the allegiance of the majority of people in any particular community or geographical region. I think it will also tend to be strongly influenced by popular - but transitory - movements and ideas. Of course, this is a common feature of all elements of society. For example, since the middle of the nineteenth century, the persuasive influence of Marxism has inspired religious movements to engage in social activism and adversarial politics - either radical or conservative - as a way of attempting to retain a sense of relevance. This is one of several tendencies that have now found a home in the Buddhist movement.

It can be argued that these insertions are appropriate, given modern expectations and preconceptions - especially the tacit acceptance of materialism in today's world. Even so, this tendency, in itself, is introducing competitive, controlling patterns into the dharma. Inevitably, they have already become a source of conflict within Buddhism and contribute to the noisesome sense of fin de ciecle, which adds weight to the aura of mappo that so besets the dharma at this time.

From the point of view of those who, like Shinran, simply want to be quiet and contemplate the dharma with clear minds and tranquil hearts - free from the irritation that is caused by the extraneous noise of attackers and detractors - it already seems that the cacophony of views expressed in this verse have come home to roost.

Needless to say, Shinran clearly had more serious matters in mind than a simple desire to be left alone. He uses very strong language to describe the self-styled enemies of the nembutsu way, saying that they have 'false views' which 'rage and spread'. He seems very certain of himself and quite uncompromising. He even sounds like the kind of person that we would describe, these days, as 'fundamentalist'. However, there are many things to keep in mind before we make inapt assessments of Shinran's motives.

Fundamentalism is now increasingly seen as a psychological phenomenon that is widely regarded as a symptom of a narcissistic personality: someone who regards themselves as 'the measure of all things' - 'I am right, you are dead'. Such people have little empathy for the feelings of others. Their religious beliefs are entirely focussed on themselves; they have no concern for others.

We can see, from innumerable passages in his writings - especially the wasan and the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - that such attitudes have nothing whatever to do with Shinran. His primary - indeed, only - concern was with the well-being of others. His own self-assessment was frank and penetrating; he did not see himself as having any authority in his own right. He described himself as 'outwardly wise, inwardly foolish'.

Then, what is the basis for his certainty that those who attacked the nembutsu way had 'false views that rage and spread', causing mayhem and destruction like an uncontrolled bushfire? The answer lies in the fact that the perpretrators of the official campaign against the nembutsu were prepared to distort the truth and twist the dharma to suit their own ends. As one who lived within the nembutsu community, Shinran knew its followers on a personal basis and he had intimate and personal knowledge of Honen's teaching; he knew at first hand that the accusations were false.

Shinran clearly feels very strongly about these matters. He is obviously shocked that those who held positions of authority and trust within the sangha and the government were so jealous of the popularity of the nembutsu that they were prepared to lie about the dharma and spread false rumours about Honen and his followers - lies and rumours that were very destructive and hurtful.

What we see here is a far cry from a 'fundamentalist' personality. Instead, Shinran is a decent and sincere man, who found joy in the way of nembutsu. He knew in his mind and in his heart that the calumnies were simply wrong; he was a witness to the damage that is caused by the false speech that results in distorted belief and understanding. And he realised from the vicious nature of the attacks that the age of the decline of the dharma was a proven fact.


1: CWS p. 560

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