The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Koso Wasan 1

Our teacher, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, abundantly praises
      the Pure Land in the west
In such works as his commentaries on the Perfection of Great Wisdom Sutra
And the Ten Bodhisattva Stages,
And urges us to practice the nembutsu.

Our Teacher

Nagarjuna Bodhisattva

Nagarjuna probably lived between 150 and 250 in southern India. During his first thirty years Marcus Aurelius - the last of the five great pre-Christian Roman Emperors - died, and in the east the reign of the Han dynasty drew to its close.

Although a rather facile form of the Buddha Dharma had already begun to capture the interest of the Chinese, time would eventually show that it was to be Nagarjuna's teaching that would provide an enduring contribution to Buddhist practice there and in the rest of east Asia. Nagarjuna would be hailed as the patriarch of eight schools. Jodo Shinshu honours him as the first dharma master.

Nagarjuna was born in central India. Shinran Shonin tells us that he was called 'Nagarjuna' ('Naga-[serpent]-tree') because he was born beneath a tree and raised by a naga-king.

Although he was raised as a Brahmin priest, there are many stories about Nagarjuna which support his clear penetration of the Buddha Dharma and his extraordinary genius in recapturing its original vision in his interpretation of the texts that make up the praj├▒aparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature. This corpus of literature forms the basis for the conceptions of the Madhyamika, or school of the Middle Way.

Nagarjuna's objective was to question the theoretical basis of both dogmatism and logic in the Hindu and Buddhist scholastic tradition by seeking to demonstrate that any affirmative assertion was untenable and that every philosophical construct is beset with manifold inner inconsistencies. His system is metaphysical in scope. It is mainly a practical method of mental training designed to inculcate an outlook entirely governed by the principle of emptiness (Sk. shunya ta), thus freeing the disciple from all attachments to ideas. In this way, Nagarjuna was able to inspire a truly profound and enduring revolution within the Buddhist world and return understanding of the dharma to its original principles, especially the insight into 'not-self' (Sk. anatman) and impermanence (Sk. anitya).

Of the nine key texts attributed to Nagarjuna, only four still survive in Sanskrit. The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra and The Ten Bodhisattva Stages are the only two that Shinran specifically mentions here. In both the hymns and in the Shoshin Nembutsu Ge, Shinran celebrates Nargarjuna's genuis in setting the Buddhist world on a corrective course back to the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha's original teaching of the Middle Way (Sk. madhyamika pratipad): between extreme and unorthodox views that could be described as 'eternalism' and 'nihilism'. Both trends had become current by Nagarajuna's time.

Nevertheless, Shinran's focus is not Nagarjuna's metaphysical system. He is primarily concerned with Nagarjuna as a sage of deep devotion: a model of the Pure Land way and a teacher of the Pure Land dharma.

Shinran mostly selects those passages in Nagarjuna's treatises which allude to the nembutsu. With consummate skill he hangs the warm, devotional side of Nagarjuna's personality upon the pillar of the regard and reverence with which Nagarjuna is rightly held in the wider Buddhist community.

Nagarjuna, then, is our first noteworthy teacher of the nembutsu way.

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