Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 106

Although they are monks in name only and do not adhere
    to precepts,
It has become the defiled world of the Last Dharma-age,
So, equally with Shariputra and Maudgalyayana,
We are encouraged 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. A clear example of this tendency is the way that the great exponent of Socrates' thought is his disciple Plato. The same phenomenon can be seen in the way that it was Mencius, a second generation disciple of Confucius, who was really the creator of orthodox Confucian philosophy and ethics.

In the case of Shakyamuni Buddha, it was his disciple Shariputra who was essentially the founder of the Buddha Sasana (religion) as we know it. It was Shariputra who decided what teachings of the Buddha should hold sway and it was Shariputra who developed a system of teaching and practice for posterity. He was methodical and analytical in approach and temperamentally inclined to order and taxonomy. Such method, classification and analysis are all features of the Abhidharma tradition of the Buddha Dharma.

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. It seems to me that all Buddhist schools define themselves on the basis of the commentarial works that they value. For example, Jodo Shinshu is based on a commentary - the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In the case of the early wisdom schools, their practice was built around the Abhidharma ('about the Dharma').

According to the Pali (Theravada) Canon of scripture, during the night the Buddha would regularly ascend to the Tavatimsha Heaven, where his late mother, Maya, dwelt, and preach the Abhidharma to her. During the day, he would return to earth to teach the Abhidharma to Shariputra. This is a mark of the remarkable honour that was accorded to Shariputra, as well as testament to the confidence and trust that the Buddha had in him. In any case, the distinguishing feature of the schools that owe their origins to Shariputra is the central place that the Abhidharma held in their thinking and structure.

The two Abhidharma schools that had the most enduring influence were the Sarvastivada and the Theravada. This latter school still thrives in south-east Asia. It was originally a sect of the Sthaviravada, and was formed around 240BCE. The extraordinary modern propagation and revival of Theravada was largely initiated by the efforts of an American, the Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907). The Mahayana still attracts the allegiance of most Buddhists throughout the world (62%), but many new Mahayana religions have incorporated aspects of the Theravada because of its growing popularity.

It seems to me that this development indicates a hunger for a more analytical and ordered approach to the Dharma. Since much Mahayana philosophy is built upon the foundations of the Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition, it is to be hoped that it is the Sarvastivada School (and Vijnaptimatrata, its ultimate Mahayanistic heir) that will soon revive in the Mahayana countries. In any case, Shariputra is the disciple of the Buddha whose systematic and orderly form of the Dharma is again attracting interest, probably because it has a beguiling (but synthetic) resonance with 'scientific' method.

The Sarvastivadin School also arose from the Sthaviravada, emerging at about the same time as the Theravada. The Sarvastivada developed a Sanskrit version of the Abhidharma that is completely different from the Theravada 'Abhidhamma' Pitaka, which is in the Pali language. The Sarvastivada is credited with the initial transmission the Dharma to central Asia. This school, which (like the Theravada) ultimately traced its practical and philosophical system to Shariputra, was absorbed by the Mahayana during the twelfth century, and was eventually overwhelmed by it. Both of these lineages owed their approach to the original stewardship of Shariputra.

To my mind, the very fact that, not only did the Sarvastivadin School introduce the Dharma into central Asia, but also the way that the Mahayana schools defined the very premis of their thought and practice - either in reaction (Madhyamika) to the Abhidharma or as a development of it (Vijnaptimatrata) -, demonstrates the sheer power of Shariputra's analytical mind. We can safely say that even some schools of the Mahayana are his religion.

As can be seen from this record, 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 250 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 (Sk. sthaviras) 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. It seems to me, however, eminently wonderful that, just as you would expect, these Sutras did not immediately suit Shariputra's sense of exactitude and classification, so he tended to overlook them, until another time.

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 (maha-maudgalyayana, Pali, maha-moggalana) 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 on the 15th day of the seventh month each year, 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. However, 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; 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 preached directly to this wonderful man.

In this Dharma-ending Age, when petty spirits reign supreme, when argument and sophistry seem to displace analysis, and when shallow thought and vacuous materialism passes for religion, we can only honour the greatness and sanctity of men, like Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, who once represented truly great and profound spiritual endevours.

- June 2, 2006.

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