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

Koso Wasan 112

Genku himself said, 'Formerly,
I was among the assembly on Vulture Peak;
I practiced austerities with other Shravakas,
And guided beings to the Buddhist path.'


Austerities (Sk. dhuta) are practiced in the Mahayana. In the thirty-second chapter of Discourse on the Ten Stages, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva gives details of the twelve rules of dhuta. He recommends it for those who are at the second of the ten bodhisattva stages. Dhuta is also a Hinayana practice and in this verse we learn that Honen was a 'hearer' (Sk. shravaka), which means that he was not following the Mahayana at that time. The Larger Sutra lists leading Shravakayana monks when it gives details, for example, of those who were present at the time that Shakyamuni delivered the sutra on Vulture Peak.

The famous English bhikshu, Phra Khantipalo, who lived by the dhuta rules in Thailand for a number of years, has documented the experience in his eloquent and engaging book With Bowl and Robe. For those who are interested in learning more of an authentic way of life within the bhiksu-sangha, I strongly recommend it.

In the Glossary of his translation of Nagarjuna's Discourse on the Ten Stages Professor Inagaki lists the twelve rules of dhuta (p. 227):

  1. living in forests or fields;
  2. living on alms alone;
  3. begging alms from house to house without discriminating between rich and poor;
  4. eating food only at one place;
  5. eating from only one vessel;
  6. not eating after noon;
  7. wearing only discarded clothes;
  8. wearing only three robes;
  9. living in a cemetery;
  10. living at the foot of a tree;
  11. living in the open air; and
  12. sleeping in a sitting posture. 1

There is considerable irony in the dhuta tradition within the dharma, because stricter rules were enjoined during Shakyamuni's life-time by his cousin, Devadatta.

Devadatta, who is characterised in the Lotus Sutra as a 'devil's advocate' because he encouraged Shakyamuni to understand his enlightenment in a more profound way than hitherto, was motivated by his desire to control the sangha. At one stage he unsuccessfully conspired to kill Shakyamuni. Ultimately, Devadatta created his own sangha and imposed stricter rules, offering a critique of Shakyamuni's teaching of the Middle Way. These ascetic rules were closely aligned with dhuta and Shakyamuni himself did not accept their validity in assisting aspirants along the path to enlightenment.

It has naturally followed from this that, in the Shravakayana since the time of Shakyamuni, the stricter dhuta rules have been seen as a personal and temporary option, which has a specific purpose: to assist monks and nuns in ameliorating the thrall of attachment and comfort. Dhuta is freely entered into and as freely abandoned. It does not confer on the one who uses it as a spiritual tool for deeper development any kind of additional status.

From what I can tell, however, a bodhisattva, who has entered the second on the ten planes of the bodhisattva career (most of which are transcendent), will be naturally inclined to practice dhuta. Hence, monasteries have traditionally had room for people at varying stages of development. It appears, however, that - in the Bodhisattvayana - once dhuta is taken up it is not subsequently abandoned.

In any tradition, dhuta has remained controversial. Does its rigour violate the ideal of the Middle Way? Generally speaking, the answer seems to have been 'No'. This is especially so in the context of Indian religion. For example, a Jaina monk lives a much more demanding life than a Buddhist practicing dhuta. The Buddha-dharma critiques ascetic practices that are at the extreme forms of torment, and are encouraged in much Indian tradition.

This kind of asceticism is described in western writing, as in the Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian describes naked acetics who suffer privation from cold, heat, hunger and isolation. These latter became the model for the first hermits in the Nestorian religion - a tradition that was the forerunner of other forms of monasticism in North Africa, throughout the Eastern Roman Empire and in western Europe as far as Ireland. Needless to say, by our materialist standards, the Middle Way of the dharma leans in a significantly more ascetic direction than we would be comfortable with - although it is moderate by historical standards.

Honen's insight into his earlier history, as one who practiced dhuta and was a follower of Shakyamuni, is probably a source of dismay for many of us in our time. Whether we are willing to take it at face value is a matter for each of us but we ought not lose sight of its underlying significance. As we shall see, when we come to consider the next verse (Koso Wasan 113), the capacity to see into a non-evident realm, like past lives, is a skill that is only available to Buddhas.

The purpose of the claim in this verse is to underscore the fact that Honen was no ordinary man. It was not only widely believed, but here we see - what his contemporaries saw as proof - that Honen was Amida Buddha. That idea, in itself, raises interesting questions about why he would have been a dhutanga bhiksu at the time of Shakyamuni and speaks volumes of the way the dharma views the passage of time and the constant relevance and interplay between the past and the present.

The nembutsu way is the antithesis of dhuta. Rather than the quasi-ascetic solitude of life in the open, depriving oneself of worldly comforts and contacts, the nembutsu way has found its home in the bustle and confusion of urban life, directly involved with - and in - the pain of ordinary men and women. By contrast with the blissful isolation of dhuta it is really we who are the poor and the dispossessed. It is Namu-amida-butsu that calls to us from the deep reflectiveness of the forest and immeasurably enriches the lives of we, who are so spiritually poor.

1: Nagarjuna's Discourse on the Ten Stages, tr. Hisao Inagaki, Ryukoku Literature Series, Vol. V, p. 227.

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