Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 106

Although monks are so in name only and keep no precepts,
Now in this defiled world of the last dharma-age
They are the equals of Shariputra and Maudgalyayana,
And we are urged to pay homage to and revere them.

Shariputra and Maudgalyayana

I am often struck by the way that a religious or philosophical movement gains its momentum and system from a disciple, rather than the founder. In the case of Shakyamuni Buddha, it was his disciple Shariputra who was essentially the founder of Buddhism as we know it. Shariputra decided what teachings of the Buddha should be preserved for posterity. He was methodical and analytical in approach and temperamentally inclined to order and taxonomy.

When the Buddhist community began to develop into disparate schools during the first century after the Buddha's parinirvana, the Sthaviravada school developed its practice and theory along the lines suggested by Shariputra, from his sense of analysis, classification and order.

Shariputra's principles and standards could well remain the Buddha Dharma's most enduring legacy. Indeed, in life, he appears to have been an altogether remarkable person. Initially he was the follower of a non-Buddhist teacher by the name of Sanjaya. Indeed, I understand that Shariptura was actually an enlightened teacher in Sanjaya's religion - one of the six 'wrong paths', which have been traditionally identified as competing with the Buddha Dharma during Shakyamuni's appearance on earth. Sanjaya's religion was a kind of listless scepticism: mistrustful of experience and empiricism.

On encountering the Buddha, Shariputra converted to the Dharma, bringing all two hundred and fifty of Sanjaya's disciples with him. Within two weeks he had attained Enlightenment. He quickly became one of Shakyamuni's ten most prominent disciples, soon serving as his lieutenant, and often standing in for Shakyamuni as a teacher. Shariputra was good at this, of course, because his analytical mind supported the capacity to organise the teachings in ways that made them easy to remember.

Of the the Pure Land Sutras both the Larger and the Smaller Sutras record that Shariputra was among the Elders that heard them delivered at the Vulture Peak near Rajagriha and the Jeta Grove monastery in Anathapindika's Garden, respectively. Indeed, the Buddha rather pointedly used Shariputra's name in revealing the Smaller Sutra, almost as though he was speaking directly to Shariputra.

Shariputra died about six months before the parinirvana of the Buddha but he is an astonishing figure in the Buddhist scheme of things - a giant of a human being and one of the world's great leaders and thinkers.

Great Maudgalyayana was the very antithesis of Shariputra and he represents the other, balancing, mystical stream of the Buddha Dharma. As one may imagine, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were friends all through their childhood and adolescence. They joined Sanjaya's order together; they even converted to the Buddha Dharma together. Maudgalyayana was well-loved and was renowned for his supernatural powers. Indeed, the Buddha Dharma's most popular and universal observance, Ullambana, which is celebrated in July or August, is attributed to the role that Maudgalyayana played in the release of his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts.

Each of us can probably identify a preference for the approach of either Shariputra or Maudgalyayana, but not both. Dharma writings, like those that belong to the Abhidharma, attract people who think like Shariputra, and one could say that sutras like the Avatamsaka Sutra belong in Maudgalyayana's camp.

But, I do think that the Three Pure Land Sutras cannot be classified as belonging to either tendency and it is apt that they were taught to both Shariputra and Maudgalyayana; and to both Elders and Bodhisattvas. Although many Pure Land followers are friends of Maudgalyayana, I confess that Shariputra is my personal Dharma hero. I am moved by the way that the Smaller Sutra was delivered directly to him.

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