Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 85

From the beginningless past down to the present,
Prince Shotoku has compassionately
Watched over us like, like a father,
And stayed close to us, like a mother.

Timeless Nurture

Very often, we discuss the Buddha Dharma in purely abstract terms, and are unwilling to speak of it in an intimate, personal way. Here, Shinran Shonin speaks in personal, parental terms when he contemplates the nurture of Amida Buddha through the agency of Shotoku Taishi, since 'the beginningless past'.

It seems to me that this reticence about personal allusions is so common because of the traditional Buddhist proscription against teachers mentioning their own experience, when discussing the dharma. This is a convention that Shinran clearly disregarded on occasion. His decision was wise, since such a prohibition only serves to distance the dharma from everyday experience. It tends to cast it into the realm of mere theory, which is not grounded in real life experience.

Although the process of teaching the dharma becomes tedious if it consists of constant references to the teacher's own experience, a balance can be found between the personal and the abstract; between experience and theory. It seems to me that Shinran strikes the right balance. In the main, he places his emphasis on important theory and only counter-balances this with intimate references to his own experience - and his personal relationship with the dharma - at critical points in his narrative.

You will remember, for example, that Shinran's departure from the 'true gate' of the twentieth Vow to enter the 'ocean of the selected Vow'1 - the eighteenth Vow - is couched in terms, which are at once profoundly theoretical and intimately personal. The very core of his teaching is, for him, ratified in the utterly tangible events of his own life. Is Shinran's example possible for us? Should not we be able to explain entrusting heart in personal terms? 'This is me, and this is where I stand, and this is how it is for me.'

In this verse, Shinran is, in effect, saying that the history of the dharma is also his history. Shinran obviously thought that Shotoku Taishi was a manifestation of Amida Buddha's tireless work: to lead to the dharma, not only Shinran, but those who are his fellow followers of entrusting heart. History for Shinran is not only abstract; it is personal as well. Do we share Shinran's sense of familial relatonship with key figures of the past, like Shotoku? Are we able to say, with him, that Amida Buddha's history is our history?

Rennyo Shonin says that the very first condition that leads us to the dharma - in this existence - is the ripening of good from the past. Although, in another place, he suggests that adherence to the five precepts has contributed to past good, Shinran always emphasises the role of Other Power. Past good is Amida Buddha's good. The ripening of good is due to the parental guidance of Amida Buddha from the beginningless past, leading us to this present point. It is, therefore, impossible for us to speak in purely abstract terms, when we come to discuss the dharma. We are talking about something that is intimately bound up with our very being. Such intimacy cannot be meaningfully discussed only in objective terms.

Neither is our relationship with Amida Buddha restricted by geographical or ethnic boundaries. Although Shinran speaks occasionally of his wonder at the way that the dharma has spread to 'these millet scattered islands', he never suggests that such is its limit. Rennyo, in his turn, speaks of the dharma of the Primal Vow as spreading to all the world. For Shinran the timeless parentage of Amida Buddha, qua Shotoku Taishi, is intimate for all of those who find themselves to have been endowed with entrusting heart of the Primal Vow. Furthermore, the agency of Shotoku Taishi is universal. It will will cause a response in us that serves to

... spread the Tathagata's twofold
    merit transference
Broadly and extensively throughout the ten
    directions.'2

Having found oneself to be the beneficiary of the 'good from the past', which leads one to the point of hearing the dharma, the parental relationship becomes part the equation with even greater force. According to Rennyo there is, first, the good from the past, then there a meeting with a good teacher. Following this is the 'light of the Buddha', and the arising of the entrusting heart that is manifested in Namu-amida-butsu.

Throughout the Hymns, Shinran reminds us of Amida Buddha's timeless work in nurturing our commitment to the dharma. It is not only Shotoku Taishi who has appeared as Amida Buddha's agent throughout the timeless past, but T'an-luan, Shan-tao and Honen, and an endless succession of nameless parents, siblings, and other living beings. Amida Buddha transforms himself over and over again to remind us, teach us and set us an example of the power of the dharma to transform and enlighten us. He takes the form, endlessly of the 'good teacher of the way'. Shinran shows us that he is our true parent, our tireless guide and teacher.

The meeting with a good teacher is an intimate moment when we suddenly hear, with understanding, the words of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Larger Sutra. The good teacher, according to Shan-tao, is Shakyamuni and, according to Rennyo, the teacher is one who one who calls upon us to entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; that is to say, one who says 'Namu-amida-butsu'. Again such a person is either Shakyamuni himself, or his emissary. In either case it is part of the nurture and care that leads us to the dharma.

Shinran's emphasis on the intimate, familial relationship of the Buddha with people of nembutsu is vitally important for an understanding of who we are and what is the nature of our relationship with the dharma. Once we begin to see that we have been nutured since the beginningless past, we begin to realise that the dharma calls each one of us in terms of his or her own unique reality. This is a significant part of Shinran's perspective on the call of the Primal Vow.

For Shinran sees himself, and us, as belonging to a family. It is an eternal family, one that has been raised with infinite care and concern. We are not bricks in the wall of an institution. We are not a featureless mass. Nembutsu people throughout time and space belong to a family. We are siblings, brothers and sisters, who have been uniquely raised, since time immemorial, to the point at which we respond with joy to the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha.

Nutured from the timeless past by our parents Amida Buddha and Shakyamuni, we graduate to behold our ultimate vocation, literally, in the 'call (vocation) of the Vow': in Namu-amida-butsu.

It is a personal and intimate reality. Why should we not be prepared to express it in that way?


1. CSW, p. 240.

2. CWS. p. 419.

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