Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 86

Prince Shotoku has compassionately
Urged and led us to enter
The Vow of inconceivable Buddha-wisdom
So that we now dwell in the stage of the truly settled.

A Detective Story

Readers will remember Shinran Shonin's repeated references to the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom in the last few verses of the verses on doubt. The original source of this emphasis on the Buddha-wisdom is found in the Larger Sutra.

The Buddha-wisdom is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Those who use self-power as a vehicle for enlightenment within the Pure Land Way are shunning the Buddha-wisdom, which Shinran urges us to accept - entrusting ourselves in the Name.

Unfortunately, I am not sure of the specific details that would show how Shotoku encourages us to 'enter the Vow of the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom', so I will need to explore the resources that we actually have at our disposal, in order to see if we can come up with an answer. Let us begin by looking at the three sutras for which Shotoku composed commentaries.

We are told, in the longer collection of verses in praise of him, that Shotoku Taishi delivered commentaries on three specific Mahayana Sutras: the Lotus, Shrimala and Vimalakirti Sutras. Shotoku's selection of the Shrimala Sutra is difficult to explain, apart from Shinran's understanding that Prince Shotoku and Princess Shrimala are the same person. Indeed, their biographies are similar, since both were dedicated disciples of Shakyamuni and regents, or princesses - not quite having full authority. Both modelled their ideas of governance on the the principles of the dharma. The appearance of a vast 'historical' gulf between Shotoku and Shrimala was not the kind of concern that would have perturbed a soundly based follower of the dharma, like Shinran.

The Lotus Sutra is well-known. It shines as a beacon of truth by proclaiming the Buddha-vehicle, the bodhisattva way and, above all, the eternal enlightenment of the Buddha. I also think that we struggle when we read other sutras, unless we are familiar with the basic teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Yet, even so, it does not specifically proclaim the call of the Primal Vow.

It is not hard to understand why Shotoku would compose a commentary on the Lotus Sutra. Its primary value is self-evident. The essential tenets of the Buddha Dharma are proclaimed within it: the sutra makes it clear that Shakyamuni was the appearance - in time and space - of the eternal Buddha, and that Avalokiteshvara is the quintessential bodhisattva, who 'Hears the Cries of the World.' These are the foundational realities upon which all other truths depend - the enlightenment of the Buddha and that his wisdom is active in his compassionate advance into the realm of suffering. Surely, Shinran would have felt that Shotoku was well-qualified to deliver a commentary on this great work, since he regarded him as a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara.

Those who have read it will know that the Vimalakirti Sutra is also a wonderful celebration of the essential features of the dharma. The sutra has powerful dramatic qualities. Furthermore the main protagonist, Vimalakirti is a lay householder who manifests greater wisdom than the monastic disciples of Shakyamuni. Although Vimalakirti is lying ill at home, the monks will not visit him in his sickness because their wisdom is so shallow, when compared to his, and they find that state of affairs to be humiliating. Ultimately, Manjushri Bodhisattva is the only person who is qualified to discuss the dharma with Vimalakirti, and in the course of the visit, the deep truth unfolds.

Yet the Vimalakirti Sutra does not specifically discuss the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, either. However, in this case too, it is easy to see why Shinran would have been inspired by the fact that Shotoku delivered a commentary on it. Like Vimalakirti, Shotoku was a lay disciple. Clearly Shinran was aware that his wisdom was greater and deeper than most of the monks who formed the clerical class of the bhiksu sangha. Shinran, who saw himself as 'neither monk nor one in worldly life', would also have felt a strong propinquity with Shotoku on that score.

How, then, is Shinran able to say that Shotoku encouraged us to enter the Vow of the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom, when he delivered commentaries on sutras that did not specifically mention it?

It seems to me that the answer to this question lies in the Shotoku's proclamation of the Seventeen Article Constitution. Much of it would be unappealing these days, of course, since, for historical reasons, we are currently disinclined to accept the rule of any kind of hereditary monarch. Monarchy stands as a clear principle in Shotoku's Constitution, which sought to bring about a unified state that recognised only one sovereign, in the way that China was governed at that time. The Constitution also espouses Confucian morality in the matter of leadership. Indeed, it is - and was - regarded as a fine document for its purposes, even though much of its content was not enacted until after Shotoku's time.

There is, however, one shining article in the Constitution, which would have given much comfort to Shinran. This was the clause that said that the well-being of the nation and of the world could only be under-pinned by the 'Three Treasures' of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The force of this clause is unequivocal; very strong and precise. Although, strictly speaking, Japan has never been an exclusively 'Buddhist' country, it seems to me that there can be little doubt that Shotoku's direction to his people that they adhere to the Three Treasures was the key principle of the Constitution and his most important injunction from Shinran's point of view.

As readers will know, Shinran understood clearly that the single most decisive fact of faith was the refuge-taking that begins the verses on the Pure Land by Bodhisattva Vasubandhu: 'I, with the mind that is single, take refuge in the Buddha, whose light fills the ten quarters.'

The unequivocal nature of Shotoku's injunction and the single-mindedness that is characteristic of the settled mind of the nembutsu way come together and manifest a clear mandate for us to 'enter the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom.'

Even so, there is an over-riding theme in all of Shinran's writing that we forget at our peril. I speak of an underlying disposition that overwhelmed Shinran's heart and inspired his interpretation of the dharma, along with his deep appreciation of Shotoku Taishi. For the last sixty-one years of Shinran's life, everything he did, everything he said, and everything he wrote was founded upon, and moved by, his gratitude.

Ah! 'Gratitude!' Such a bleak and pathetic word to describe the overflowing love, serene joy, obligation, indebtedness and self-awareness that filled Shinran's heart. It is the very ink of every brush-stroke in his writing from 1201 until his departure for the Pure Land on January 16, 1262. It is his blood; it is his bones; it is his marrow. His gratitude overflowed and embraced everyone and everything - his friends, the seven dharma Masters, Shotoku, Shakyamuni, Eshinni Sama and even his detractors and persecutors.

Shinran did not think, do or say anything - not one word, not one action - that was not inspired and driven by Namu-amida-butsu, by his grateful heart.

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