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

Koso Wasan 107

The ordained retired emperor of the Jokyu era
Revered our teacher Genku;
Monks of Shakyamuni's tradition and scholars of the
      Chinese classics
All alike awakened to and entered the Pure Land way.

The Scholars

In this verse we learn that Confucian scholars (jurin) were among those who took refuge in the Pure Land teaching of Honen Shonin.

The teaching of Confucius was introduced to Japan, along with Buddhism, during the sixth century. Prince Shotoku enshrined the ethos of both traditions in his Seventeen Article Constitution, which I think is one of the most enlightened and humane of all such works. It is relevant to all people and is universal; it is a great ethical and social document.

The Pure Land tradition has lived in tandem with Confucianism since the time of the White Lotus Society in fifth-century China. In fact, in its role as the most common school of the dharma within east Asian society, it can frankly be said that for ordinary men and women, the Pure Land way is dharma and the way of Confucius is the basis of personal demeanour and social relations.

It was Confucius who gave us The Golden Rule, a rule which will never let us down throughout our lives as a 'rule-of-thumb' in determining conduct. 'Do not treat others in a way that you would not like to be treated yourself.'

Confucius lived at roughly the same time as Shakyamuni. However, we should remember that the evidence for the dating of Confucius is stronger than it is for Shakyamuni Buddha. The details of his life are sparse but we know that Confucius was born in Shantung in 551. He lived to 73 years of age. His career as a great humanitarian teacher began when he was fifteen years old at the time that he sought to further his own education. He had wide experience of life, initially working as a stable-boy and a public servant. He sought out highly qualified teachers and mastered the 'Six Skills' - mathematics, archery, ritual, calligraphy, music and horse-riding.

Shortly after he turned thirty, Confucius began his formal life as a teacher. He believed that education was a universal human right and that it ought not be restricted to the wealthy or to the elites. His didactic method focussed on self-cultivation, and he emphasised the idea that true nobility was determined by one's demeanour and behaviour and not by the accidents of birth. His life was not always easy and he seems to have been temperamentally inclined to solitude.

Confucius' legacy for humankind is utterly immeasurable. His initial teaching has developed over time and, as often seems to happen, it has been qualified and sometimes taken a course that, perhaps, he would not have approved. Some of his followers, like Mencius, have been outstanding scholars and important reformers. Confucianism has tended to absorb Taoist influences and instead of being an entirely ethical system, mystical and religious elements have sometimes overwhelmed it. It has also been used to justify oppressive behaviour by people in authority. In fact, the teaching of Confucius is very moderate - neither radical nor conservative. Confucius claimed that he was merely affirming - and ordering - existing custom.

Confucian scholarship consists in mastering five literary classics. Some of these, like the Histories and the book of Poetry, were drawn from outside the tradition and show that the Confucian spirit is wide-ranging and universal. The Book of Changes teaches divination, numerology and ethics; it is essentially metaphysical in emphasis. The Book of Politics focuses on humane governance, while the Book of Poetry celebrates human sentiment and the emotions that are associated with relations between people. The Book of Society outlines a vision of human communities as being contractual and supported by trust and good communications. It supports a structured order in society that is made up of four classes: merchants, artisans, farmers and scholars. The Spring and Autumn annals comprise the Book of History. Its purpose is to establish the events of antiquity as social norms.

In my view an acquaintance with the teachings of Confucius, especially the Analects and the Histories, is integral to our education as civilized human beings. Translations of excerpts from the Confucian canon abound. For example, there is a very loving and careful translation of the Book of Changes by Arthur Waley, which has become an English-language classic in its own right. A lot of silly assumptions are made about Confucianism, but, like all great teachings, Confucianism lends itself to manifold interpretations from its rich matrix.

Confucian classics were among the non-Buddhist sources, which Shinran Shonin quoted in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. The second section of the Larger Sutra in our Pure Land tradition addresses the problem of human evil and, in doing so, draws on ideas and sentiments, which are both Confucian and Buddhist in feel: such is the spread of Confucius' influence in the world at large. Confucius' ideas spread to India - in various ways - about two hundred years after his death.

Shinran was also selective in the way that he viewed the teaching of Confucius. The phrase 'monks and scholars' (shakumon jurin) refers to both the followers of Shakyamuni and Confucius. We are told that both of these groups took refuge in the Pure Land way, through the agency of Honen. Shinran obviously applauds this, but he is critical of the scholars, both Buddhist and Confucian who do not follow suit. In the Epilogue of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, he says:

Scholars of the Chinese classics (jurin - i.e., Confucian scholars) in the capital are confused about practices and wholly unable to differentiate right and wrong paths.1

And in his Hymns on Prince Shotoku, Shinran emphasises that the Confucian way becomes distorted and unjust without being tempered by the Three Treasures. He critiques the way that it can be used as a force for oppression, when it is not imbued with the non-discriminating wisdom of the Buddha:

The petitions of the wealthy
Are like putting stones into water;
The claims of the poor
Are like putting water into stone.2

CWS, p. 289.

CWS, p. 446

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next