Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 103

Monks are no different, in their hearts, from nonbuddhists,
Brahmans, or followers of Nirgrantha;
Always wearing the dharma-robes of the Tathagata,
They pay homage to all gods and spirits.

The Wilted Flower

In The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Nigrantha Jnatiputra is listed as one of the six teachers of wrong paths. The passage that contains this reference is from the Nirvana Sutra. Interestingly, although Shinran quotes the first few words of the passage about Nigrantha Jnatiputra, he does not include the content of his teachings. Nigrantha Jnatiputra was the founder of Jainism, which still thrives and is, along with Buddhism and Brahmanism, one of the three oldest religious movements in India.

I know that the Buddha Dharma takes exception to the fatalistic interpretation of karma that is supposed to be part of the Jaina teachings. However, it may be the strong tendency within the Jain religion to more extreme forms of self-denial, which also causes offence to Buddhist sensibilities. Jaina sages are known as 'naked ascetics' and practice a very strict form of ahimsa, non-harming. To avoid accidentally swallowing small air-borne animals, for example, Jain ascetics may wear masks. By contrast, Buddhist mendicants were originally permitted to eat meat if it was given to them.

One wonders what Shinran could have had in mind when he mentions 'followers of Brahman' along with Jains, but it is most likely to be the fact that they worshipped gods and spirits, possibly appealing to them for help: something that Shinran thought to be especially incompatible with the Buddha Dharma. Above all, however, it seems to me that Shinran felt that anything other than the simple acceptance of the Primal Vow and its expression, Namo Amida Butsu, was unecessary.

Shinran wrote these verses when he was eighty-six years old. Within the space of a few years he had confronted two opposing attitudes amongst his followers. On the one hand was the problem of 'licensed evil' and on the other hand was the attempt to excercise overbearing authority.

When Shinran was eighty years old, he wrote from his home in Kyoto to the nembutsu followers in the Kanto, where most of his family continued to live, expressing his disappointment at the fact that many of the nembutsu community had given way to the expression of their faith in terms of antinomian behaviour.

Frustrated by the fact that the people involved in these offences were disinclined to heed Shinran's censure, he sent his son, Zenran, to deal with the problem. However, as things developed, it seems that Zenran did not have the moral authority to inspire the nembutsu people, to whom he had been sent, to behave with due decorum. It is then that the situation began to deteriorate, because Zenran appealed to secular authority to intervene on his behalf.

In order to try to draw attention to the authority invested in him by Shinran, Zenran went on to claim that because of his filial relationship he had special secret knowledge of the nembutsu way, which had not been publicly taught by Shinran himself. Worse, according to Shinran (as we read in one of the letters disowning his son), Zenran even went so far as to describe the Primal Vow as a 'wilted flower'1. Clearly, Zenran hoped to curtail licentious behaviour by adding a new layer of demands on nembutsu followers.

I wonder if Shinran's verses are not redolent with a sensibility that takes a form, which suggests that the Primal Vow is indeed the Middle Way, yet we are always tending to see it as a 'wilted flower', and not quite adequate. Both the tendency to licensed evil and the addition of unnecessary disciplinary practices involve a belief that 'we must do something' or 'react in some way' as evidence that we accept the working of the Primal Vow, whereas acceptace in Namo Amida Butsu is sufficient of itself. In the corruptions that are represented by both licensed evil and the disciplinary approach, which Zenran represents, did not Shinran need to confront, even within the Shinshu community, the decay that is an integral part of the last dharma age? Are we not nominally followers of the Middle Way, but inwardly enticed by a wish to 'act upon' the Primal Vow in some way?

Shinran also described nembutsu followers who accept the faith of the Primal Vow as 'true disciples of the Buddha'. There are those, rare though they be, who are 'pure white lotuses among us': those who accept the nembutsu in the Primal Vow without equivocation or complication. Is this a contrast with those who 'are no different, in their hearts, from nonbuddhists'?

Not necessarily. We may experience echoes of those habits of thought, which we have abandoned and left behind us. Yet, in acknowledging the fact that such is the way of bombu, 'the embrace that does not forsake' - the wisdom of the Buddha - will ultimately hold sway.


1. CWS, p. 583.

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