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

Shozomatsu Wasan 35

It is by the power of Dharmakara's Vow
That we realise the nembutsu that is wisdom;
Were it not for the wisdom of shinjin,
How could we ever attain nirvana?


After my death the Dharma shall be your teacher. Follow the Dharma and you will be true to me.1

The the Bhiksu, having heard the Buddha's exposition of the glorious pure lands and also having seen all of them, resolved upon his supreme, unsurpassed vows. His mind being serene and his aspirations free of attachment, he was unexcelled throughout the world.2

Shinran Shonin only rarely uses the name of Dharmakara, which is Amida Buddha in his bodhisattva stage. Dharmakara means dharma-store and it is a name that holds great significance.

When it comes to the bodhisattva career of a Buddha, the Mahayana has tended to see the path itself as enlightenment. It is especially in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Lotus Sutra that we hear Shakyamuni revealing to his disciples the fact that his bodhisattva stage was already, itself, a manifestation of his enlightenment. Instead of being an unfamiliar awakening, Shakyamuni's enlightenment is manifested in his entire history and continues forever.

The devas, humans, and asuras in all the worlds all think that the present Buddha, Shakyamuni, left the palace of the Shakya clan, sat on the terrace of enlightenment not far from the city of Gaya, and attained the highest complete enlightenment. However, O sons of virtuous family, immeasurable, limitless, hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of kalpas have passed I since I actually attained Buddhahood.3

The time-frame here is so long that it signifies that Shakyamuni's life in samsara, both as a bodhisattva and as a Buddha, represents the unfolding of things that are somehow implict and intrinsic in all of existence. The Lotus Sutra is careful to remind us that developments occur - and deeper understandings are discovered - only when we are ready for them. It seems to me that this is absolutely integral to the Buddha Dharma from the beginning.

A prime example of this tendency is the Fourfold Noble Truth. The first part of the Truth is that 'all existence is painful' (sarva dharma dhukha). 'Pain', of course, is a generic term, meaning existential suffering and unsatisfactoriness, struggle and discomfort, the pain of loss or aversion. Nevertheless, the Truth only has meaning and significance to those for whom it rings true. The Fourfold Noble Truth is not a credal formulation that people are obliged to accept against their will. The person who has no sense that 'all existence is suffering' cannot learn much from the Buddha Dharma. The Buddha Dharma exists for those who are ready for it.

The Buddha Dharma is more like a plant. The entrance of Shakyamuni into our sphere of existence is like the sowing of a seed. It contains everything that is intrinsic to the dharma but it unfolds to reveal new levels of insight as those who hear it grow in understanding. Shakyamuni said that he 'did not teach with a clenched fist'. This means that new levels of understanding are always implicit in the core assumptions of the dharma.

Shinran knew this well and he did not hesitate to include this passage from the Nirvana Sutra in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

Good sons, it is like taking milk from a cow, rendering cream from the milk, rendering curdled milk from the cream, rendering butter from the curdled milk, and rendering manda from the butter. Manda is the finest. The person who partakes of it is freed of all illnesses. It is as though all medicines were contained in it. Good sons, it is such with the Buddha. From the Buddha the twelve divisions of scriptures arise, from the twelve divisions of scriptures the sutras arise, from the sutras the Mahayana sutras arise, from the Mahayana sutras the prajnaparamita sutras arise, from the prajnaparamita sutras the Great Nirvana Sutra arises, just as manda is obtained. Manda is a metaphor for Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. Good sons, for this reason, it is taught that the virtues possessed by the Tathagata are immeasurable, boundless, and incalculable.4

For this reason, there is a very simple and firm rule of thumb that is used to determine those writings that are authentic and those, which are not. The 'milk' which the dharma refines is assesed on whether or not the teaching that is given is free of any idea that personality is comprised of a single enduring entity, like a soul. In other words a statement or a concept is inconsistent with the Buddha Dharma if it is not free of ego. According to the Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam, there can be no final liberation where the path that is being taught contains an idea of a soul.

This standard of orthodoxy is often expanded into the 'Four Signs' of authentic dharma. These are those things that conform, first and foremost, with not-self (anatman). In addition to this there are also impermanence (anitya), suffering (dhukha) and that idea that there is no bliss except nirvana. Anything that does not conform to these Four Signs is fiction. The unfolding nature of reality is an aspect of impermanence; the bodhisattva path is a quest for 'not-self' - and so on.

Above all, the Mahayana insists that the dharma is not a closed and fixed formulation. It cannot be set down and locked into a written law. Instead it is a living reality that adapts and develops in accord with the times. These 'times' of course are not fleeting centuries; the dharma is not a prisoner of passing fashion. The unfolding of the dharma is vast in its time-scale. Furthermore, as an 'unfolding' it cannot change radically. That is literally to root it out of its source, which must always be kept in sight.

In the history of the dharma there have been several quite radical departures that have eventually been ruled inauthentic. One of these was the quite large Hinayanistic movement that came to be known a 'Pudgalavada'. This School tried to restore belief in the re-incarnation of the soul of the individual from life-to-life. Such a school of thought is so radical, in terms of the dharma, that its teachings cannot possibly be recognised as the word of the Buddha. All schools of the dharma, including Jodo Shinshu, keep a close watch on tendencies which could endanger the ultimate well-being of followers by asserting - and causing to be entrenched - ideas that fly in the face of the basic kernel of the Four Signs.

In Dharmakara, the Store of the dharma, we witness the unfolding power of transcendent wisdom. Whereas, in Shakyamuni we see the life and action of a man living and teaching the practical implications of the dharma, in Dharmakara and the power of his forty-eight Vows, we see the very heart of the dharma: its motivation. We see it being moved by the suffering of the world and setting out to develop the very best vehicle for its salvation. We see it, in a sense, at its inception, which is a moment that is so profound and primordial that it is lost in time.

Yet this motivation re-emerges incessantly every time a man or woman is so moved by the suffering of the world as to begin the arduous path of a bodhisattva. It is a motivation so pure and selfless that its power is unbounded.

1. Agamas, Mahaparinirvana Sutra

2. The Larger Sutra, tr. Inagaki & Stewart

3. The Lotus Sutra, Numata, 1993.

4. CWS, p. 181f.

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