To a very special person

Pink and White Lotus
Pink and White Lotus, a fourteenth century Chinese silk scroll.

In the first fascicle of the sixth chapter of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin tells us that there are three kinds of people who say the nembutsu.

People of the nineteenth of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows view the nembutsu as one practice among many. These people uphold many other religious practices as necessary to attain deliverance. These practices are described as ‘meditative and non-meditative good’.

The Pure Land Buddhism of the nineteenth Vow is called ‘The Essential Gate’.

Then there are the people of the twentieth Vow for whom the nembutsu is the greatest possible good. These people are certainly dedicated nembutsu followers, and they direct the merit that they accrue from saying the nembutsu towards birth in the Pure Land.

The Pure Land Buddhism of the twentieth Vow is called ‘The True Gate’.

Finally, there are the people of the eighteenth Vow. Shinran describes this Vow as  ‘The Ocean of the Selected Vow’.  (CWS, p. 240) The eighteenth Vow is also called ‘The Vow of Sincere Mind and Entrusting’ and the follower of this Vow is ‘The Person in the Stage of the Truly Settled’. Even on formal celebratory occasions, like their daily observances, the nembutsu of the  people of the eighteenth Vow is a joyful and spontaneous expression of  ‘sincere mind and entrusting’ – faith of the Primal Vow.

Of Amida Buddha’s forty-eight Vows, the eighteenth is especially the Primal Vow. It is the Vow in which the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) is selected as the vehicle for birth in the Pure Land.  The intrinsic quality of this nembutsu is that it is an outward expression of what is within –  shinjin, or entrusting heart, transferred by Amida Buddha.

You will probably have a sense of being embraced by the inconceivable light of Amida Buddha’s compassion. Your nembutsu is uncluttered by any motive to attain an outcome – a person of single-minded nembutsu. You will never take to any other path and will continue in the nembutsu way as long as you can.

We read about such a person in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

‘Third, the person who continues in the nembutsu is a truly rare person; there is nothing that compares with such a one. For this reason, the white lotus is used as an analogy. The white lotus is called “the excellent flower among people,” or “the rare flower,” or “the best among the best,” or “the wondrous excellent flower.” What has traditionally been called the “blossom bearing the white tortoise” is none other than this flower. The person of the nembutsu is the excellent person among people, the wondrous, excellent person, the best among the best, the rare person, the very finest person.’ (CWS, p. 121)

To become a person of the eighteenth Vow is a simple matter. Shinran describes it perfectly towards the end of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, and Rennyo Shonin encourages us to take this step in every one of his letters:

‘I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in  the Primal Vow.’ (CWS, p. 290)

If you have not yet done so, why not follow Shinran’s example? Why don’t you accept Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin) and say the nembutsu?

Namo Amida Butsu!

On being human

lavender‘At one time [a group of disciples] told the Buddha that they did not speak to each other at all during the [90 day] retreat.  Then the World-honoured One addressed all the disciples and gave the following teaching: “My disciples, these disciples, while actually living uneasy lives, thought that they were living lives of tranquility and peace. Living like animals, living like wild sheep, living like mutual enemies, they thought  that  they lived lives of tranquility and peace. Why did these disciples follow this precept of being deaf and dumb, in imitation of those who follow other teachings? Such action is not befitting a disciple of the Buddha.’ (BD, p. 115)

This remarkable passage from the Vinaya makes clear that the Buddha Dharma is a movement that cherishes humanity, and what it means to be human. In contrast to the common image of the Dharma as a silent practice, Shakyamuni Buddha enjoins conversation and communication.

There is of course, ‘Noble  Silence’. As I have already pointed out in these posts, Shinran Shonin came to his wonderful understanding of the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow by contemplating it. But his teaching is nevertheless a conversation, a verbal communication and a discussion with us.

One of the great marks of what it means to be human is our complicated and sophisticated use of speech, to teach, guide, grow in understanding of each other and the mysteries of life. We also express our anxieties, pain and distress through speech.

And, of course, we can use speech to lie, hurt others, and distort truth.  This latter is a common use of speech, but usually we know that it is evil and that it has an egregious purpose.  By contrast, we do not feel soiled and demeaned when we use speech truthfully.

Even more remarkable is our relatively recent skill of preserving speech in writing. So, from Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, conceived in silence, the Dharma took form as the basic concepts of the Dharma – the law of co-dependent arising (pratitya samutpada) and the Noble Truths (ariya satya). Having these in mind, the first thing that Shakyamuni did on ‘returning to the world’ in the Deer Park was to express them in words.

The deep knowledge that came to Shakyamuni from the Dharma found form and could be shared with others! Eventually, after a long time, the descendents of those who first heard him, wrote them down; and so they come to us.

So, when shinjin arises, it is only human for it to take a tangible form in speech, Namo Amida Butsu.  Furthermore, if anyone would interrogate this joyful sound, we are, as human beings, impelled to explain it. Yes, it may fall on deaf ears, or elicit an evil, hurtful and untruthful response; but there are, indeed, ears that will hear, and inner spaces that will be filled.

The witness of Buddhas

Part of the 'Many Buddhas' mural in the Ajanta caves.
Part of the ‘Many Buddhas’ mural in the Ajanta caves.

‘Master Shan-tao, calling the Buddhas to bear witness,
Led us to overturn the two minds of meditative and non-meditative practices;
Presenting the parable of the two rivers of greed and anger,
He ensured the safeguarding of the shinjin of the universal Vow.” (Shinran Shonin, Master Shan-tao, Twenty-six Hymns based on his Writings, CWS, p. 379.)

It is all very well for us to commend the nembutsu teaching to others, but we are still beings of karmic evil, subject to the kleshas, bonno.  Buddhas, on the other hand, are completely free from defilements and they can be trusted.

In the sutra to the Kalamas, Shakyamuni Buddha cautioned those who came to him to seek out his sage advice not to accept religious teachings just because they are ‘hearsay, legends, contents of sutras, speculations, likes and dislikes, or things that are said even by those you respect.’ (BD, p. 165) Instead, he advised them to trust only the word of ‘the wise’.

I have seen this passage from the sutras used to support the idea of open enquiry, but Shakyamuni made no such proposition. There are strict limitations on our enquiry. Something is worthy of our acceptance only if it is ‘good, free of defilements of evil, welcomed and liked by the wise, and sure to bring about benefits and happiness.’ (BD, p. 165)

Buddhas are truly wise because they are free of defilements. It is perilous to accept anything that they do not commend and approve.  So it is important for us that all the Buddhas of the ten directions commend Amida Buddha’s Dharma, the nembutsu way.

‘Sariputra, just as I am praising the incomprehensible virtues of Amitayus Buddha, buddhas as numerous as the sands of the river Ganges, in the ten directions, each in his land, praise his virtues with the voices of truth and says, ‘You should trust in this Dharma called the Favour of All Buddhas, that all buddhas protect.’ (BD, p. 615)

There are other teachings that more than one Buddha supports.  One of the most well known is the ‘Precepts Commonly Taught by the Seven Buddhas':

‘Do not commit evil; perform a multitude of good acts;
Purify your own mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.’ (BD, p. 39)

Although the Pure Land teaching was conveyed to us by Shakyamuni Buddha and innumerable other Buddhas, it was passed down through history almost always as one among many Dharma teachings that we could enlist in the cause of our liberation. However, it was especially the Chinese Dharma Master Shan-tao (613-681), who encouraged exclusive practice and faith in the nembutsu.

A strong and almost exclusive focus on the nembutsu was considered to be very risky in Shan-tao’s time. We can see from the story of the Two Rivers and the White Path (CWS, pp. 89-91) that people who chose that way initially endured much self-doubt, as well as criticism from others.

When Shan-tao was reaching the maturity of his profound spiritual journey through life,  he ‘asked for the revelation of the Buddhas in order to know if his writing was in accord with their true intention.  He experienced the Buddhas’ guarantee and a Holy priest’s guidance in dreams for three nights in succession.  Thus he gained more confidence about what he had expounded in his commentary, and closed all of the chapters with the line:

‘”Since the Buddhas’ guarantee is given, even a single phrase or letter should not be changed.  Those who want to copy this book should treat it as a sutra.”‘ (WN, p. 75)

The testimony of the Buddhas commends the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, the way to nirvana that is free of all discrimination.

A Story of the Tanni Sho

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout forty years ago I wrote to the Ryukoku Translation Centre and asked if I could buy a copy of Shinran Shonin’s Jodo Wasan. I waited and, after about a week, I received an invoice. Only a short time passed and I had a copy of the Ryukoku Translation Centre edition of the Jodo Wasan, Hymns on the Pure Land. Before long, I had also purchased a copy of the Koso Wasan, Hymns on the Patriarchs, from the same source.

After many years of thinking about Shinran’s sublime and timeless understanding of the Pure Land way, I still believe that these two books stand out as among his finest accomplishments.  A few years later, the Ryukoku Translation Centre published the Shozomatsu Wasan, Hymns on the Last Age.  This made up the complete set of Shinran’s Hymns on the Pure Land way.

The Ryukoku Translations are of special value because they present the original kana and kanji, a transliteration of the text in romaji and an English translation. As if any more was needed there are copious footnotes. These are of immense value, which has been heightened because it seems clear that Shinran’s intention in writing the Hymns was to render into an accessible form his great work the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.  The Hymns reference this work all the time.

Not long after the Shozomatsu Wasan, which was published in 1980, I bought the Ryukoku Translation Center’s publication TheTanni Sho, Notes Lamenting Differences – a new edition also published in 1980. I bought it because it seemed to be popular. Unfortunately, having become imbued with the joyful and luminous spirit of the Wasan, I found it, on a first reading, to be  depressing – querulous in tone and joyless. Since this first reading the Tanni Sho, I have not really paid much attention to it.

I have read several commentaries, some of which are outstanding, but there is also a way in which the Tanni Sho can be used as a template in the pursuit of a variety of idiosyncratic interpretations of Jodo Shinshu. In addition to this, some of the contentious issues that it addresses are not as relevant as they were when it was written. We are confronted by new concerns, these days, especially secularism, materialism and relativism, which create their own tensions with the Pure Land way and can subtly derange it.

During the last year, however, our little sangha has taken time out at the regular Dharma meetings to read the Tanni Sho, and we are nearly finished. As time has passed, I have begun to understand why the Tanni Sho is so popular – even in Japan, where major temples, like the Hongwanji and Bukoji, draw on the Tanni Sho in their brief introductions to Jodo Shinshu on their respective web sites. I can say that my paltry exegesis at our Dharma meetings has not done it justice.

When one looks deeply into the Tanni Sho, and ponders its depths, something really critical emerges. That is the deep humanity, lively intelligence, and integrity of its author. Clearly, his association with his Dharma Master, Shinran, brought him such joy and redemption that we can understand why he found the misrepresentations of Shinran’s teaching distressing.

The author of the Tanni Sho, Yuien, is not at all querulous and joyless, as I had, at first, thought. Because he knows the joy of liberation through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, he is clearly saddened by the evidence all around him: that there are people who, to serve their own self-interest, are ready to turn the radiant spirit of Jodo Shinshu into fruitless drudgery.

I am coming to cherish the Tanni Sho, now, as never before. It is not something one reads: it is something one savours. Reading it sequentially, with an over-riding rationalisation of its content will not be as spiritually satisfying as accepting it as a gift from a loving friend; something to be received in great gratitude and reverence at such extraordinary kindness, – and held in the heart, committed to memory, and treasured.

In praise of the Pure Land School

sainenji2
Sainenji, Ibaraki

There is something in the air we breathe that convinces us that sectarianism is a symptom of bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This, in part, drove me, for many years, to try to broaden my understanding of the Buddha Dharma, so I have read very widely.

But, is any of this really necessary? Is sectarianism a problem? Is there anything wrong with having a narrow focus? Some years ago I concluded that it is perfectly acceptable to be narrow in one’s focus.

Unless we commit ourselves unconditionally to a path, there is little point in following it at all. Commitment in the religious  sphere is properly a life-or-death choice because life itself is a life-or-death matter. Trying to be expansive may just be equivocation.  I am reminded of a quote in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

‘If your adherence to nonbuddhist paths is great and your adherence to the Buddha-dharma is light, you are possessed of wrong views. If your adherences are equal, your state is indeterminate, corresponding to neither good nor evil. If your adherence to the Buddhist path is strong and your adherence to the path of Lao-tzu is slight, you possess pure trust. “Pure” means immaculate both on the surface and within; all the grime and defilement of ignorance has been completely eliminated. “Trust” means to entrust oneself to the right and be free of wrong views. Hence, one is called a “disciple of the Buddha who possessed pure trust.” Other forms of trust are all wrong views. They cannot be called “pure trust”…’ (CWS, p. 286)

Equivocation is sometimes doubt. Breadth of understanding must come from within a sectarian tradition itself.  In other words, I think that a healthy sectarian tradition is just that – a tradition.  It is a set of ideas and principles whose claims have been honed within the living experience of many people over a significant time, so that ineffective constructions of the teaching have time to be whittled away.

I agree with Professor Dobbins’s contention  that heterodoxies are ideas that have been tried but found wanting in delivering the liberation that the Buddha Dharma strives to deliver.

My view has changed to the one I have held for the last decade but often been afraid to uphold in public for fear of being ridiculed for being narrow-minded.  But life is short.  There are many things to do. Life is also rich: there are also many things to experience. A simple faith, a narrow path, can still provide the foundations for living. Jodo Shinshu does this elegantly.

Once we have accepted and come to know the core principle of Pure Land Buddhism, which is Other Power (tariki) – the power of the Primal Vow -, it’s own internal resources endow us with an understanding of every aspect of the Buddha Dharma. Accompanying our temple life, and our home-based observances, there is nothing more that we need than The Three Pure Land Sutras and the Collected Works of Shinran.

The Three Pure Land Sutras are, collectively, a typical epitome of the Buddha Dharma, in the way that the Dharmapada is.  In the three sutras we can find the Four-fold Noble Truth; the four Dharma essentials (catus-lakshana) of non-ego, impermanence, suffering and ‘the only bliss is nirvana'; the law of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada); the precepts; the Paramitas of the Bodhisattva Vehicle … and so on.  Spiritually, the three sutras are reliable and satisfying.

But, the arising of shinjin nembutsu, is in essence, a total immersion in the light of the Buddha Dharma. In it, we find it to be a fact of life that ‘the heart of the person of shinjin already and always resides in the Pure Land.’ (CWS, p. 528). Consistent with this, the Dharma becomes a source of delight, exhilaration, joy and happiness – even pleasure – whatever it is. And the paradox is that we inexorably find ourselves rejoicing, again, in the broad sweep of its spectrum. While living wholly the life of nembutsu alone, we are nourished by the sound of the Dharma Thunder, wherever it is heard.

While The Three Pure Land Sutras become, for us, the foundation of everything, and Other Power the clear reality underlying everything,  the fragrance of the Dharma beckons us in all its forms.