Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 88

Prince Shotoku, the great merciful world saviour,
Is there like a father.
Avalokiteshvara, the great compassionate world saviour,
Is there like a mother.

The World Saviour

In the Ryukoku University Translation of the Shozomatsu Wasan, which I am using as the basis for this web-site, a paraphrase accompanies each verse. In this case, it reads:

Like parental love, the compassion and mercy of Prince Shotoku, an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, continually embraces and nurtures us.

Instead of the phrase 'is there', which appears in the full translation of this verse, above, the Hongwanji International Center translation uses the phrase 'stays close to us'. I think this clarifies the meaning of the verse more effectively than either the Ryukoku translation or its paraphrase. In other words, Shinran Shonin is speaking of Shotoku as a living presence. Although Shinran does not mention the vision at Rokkakudo (the time that Prince Shotoku directed him to Honen Shonin) we know about it from the writings of Eshin-ni, Shinran's wife.

The idea that Shotoku was a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara is widely held in Japan but I think that Shinran's special perspective is based on his experience at Rokkakudo. His strong filial feelings for Shotoku are born from the fact that Shinran's salvation became possible because of his meeting with Honen. Shotoku was the agent of this encounter. It is hard to imagine a more powerful reason for Shinran's devotion. It seems to me that Shotoku is the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, The World Saviour, because he made possible Shinran's conversion and the resulting dissemination of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow throughout the world.

This interpretation is only of significance to followers of the Buddha Dharma, but let us stay with it for a moment. Of course, we can see from the praise, which Shinran heaps on Shotoku in the poems other than those of the Sanjo Wasan collection, that his admiration of Shotoku extends much further than the details of a personal encounter. In this verse, Shinran continues to emphasise Shotoku's importance to the world at large. Shinran appears to be asking his readers to adopt the same filial disposition that he feels towards Shotoku. In doing this, he seems to imply that we ought to consider Shotoku's broader relevance and the legacy that he has left for the whole human race.

This implied perspective is to be found in the Kotaishi Shotoku Hosan (CWS, p. 433ff.). These verses contain strong references to the Temple of the Four Deva-Kings (shitennoji), which was one of Shotoku's principal public works. Indeed, the importance of the Four Deva-Kings originally derived from the Vow of Queen Shrimala. Readers will remember that Shinran supported the view that Shotoku had been Queen Shrimala in a previous life. From Queen Shrimala, a lineage of transmission of the Dharma to Japan is proposed. It seems obvious that Shotoku built Shitennoji as a way of marking the completion of the arduous task in the transmission of the Dharma from India to Japan - and on to the wider world!

That said, we should explore another aspect of Shotoku's universal parental guidance in more detail. Not only to the people of Japan, but to the world at large, Shotoku's most remarkable legacy is usually considered to be his Seventeen Article Constitution. Yet, it is also interesting to ponder Shinran's specific understanding of its value to us.

I think the Constitution of Shotoku Taishi certainly had the potential to be of value to all of humanity, in the way that most people in the world these days aspire to forms of government, which are chosen by popular acclamation, rather than heredity. The governed seek to decide for themselves who will govern them. Indeed, this latter tendency has perhaps eclipsed the Constitution's relevance for our contemporary world.

The classical Athenian democracy and the Biblical Judges notwithstanding, most modern forms of elected government derive from the decline in public tolerance for the abuses of power by hereditary monarchs and warlords, through a process that evolved, for the most part, from the Magna Carta (1215 - 1255, in England), to the French Revolution (1787 - 1789) and the Constitution of the United States of America (beginning with the Convention in in 1787); culminating, after the second world war, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These models have become universal in their significance and it cannot be doubted that most people aspire to honour the principles of fairness and justice that they uphold.

What is remarkable about Shotoku's Constitution is that it was compiled 611 years before Magna Carta. The principles, which the Constitution upholds, are of a high order. As a basis for governance, the Constitution is remarkable for its time. Indeed, one wonders whether, had it been the governing principle of England seven centuries later, the Magna Carta would have been necessary, and whether our modern forms of elected government may ever have arisen. This may sound like hyperbole but Shotoku not only laid the basis for interpersonal relations but also addressed public ills, like class rivalry and public corruption.

Shinran especially emphasises two aspects of the Constitution in his writings. The first emphasis comes from the second article of the Constitution. This article uses the universal presence of Buddhism as an argument in support of its virtue.

The three treasures, Buddha, Dharma and sangha, are the final refuge for [all beings], and are the supreme objects of faith in all countries What man in what age can fail to reverence the law? Few men are utterly bad. They may be taught to follow it. But if they do not betake them to the Three Treasures, how shall their crookedness be made straight?

The Constitution then goes on to outline what 'crookedness' entails. Shotoku calls on public officers and majistrates to be honest, diligent and fair.

If the governors do not make suitable behaviour their leading priciple... when the people behave with propriety, Government works by itself. (Article 4)

The constitution castigates flattery and sycophancy. It encourages the selection of the wise to hold positions of responsibility in society. It recognises that 'few are born with knowledge' and that 'wisdom is the product of earnest meditation'. Article 9 sets up the principle of 'good faith' (trustworthiness) in human relations. The Constitution says that if good faith is not maintained, everything will end in failure. In the matter of rewards and punishments, the Constitution notes that 'in these days, reward does not attend upon merit nor punishment upon crime'. Such is the problem of crookedness that the Constitution seeks to address.

The Constitution warns against envy of others for their property, station or intelligence. The purpose of this caution is to point out that we ought to recognise and honour a wise man when we meet one. If we are envious of the sagacity of others, we will be incapable of seeing wisdom when we encounter it.

To my mind, one of the most influential articles is number 10, which sets out a way to maintain social harmony.

We should abandon wrath and refrain from an angry demeanour. Let us not be resentful when others differ from us. Everyone has a heart, and each heart has its own preferences. His right is my wrong; my right is his wrong. We are not unquestionably wise, nor are they unquestionably stupid. Both of us are just ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? We are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way in fury, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we may alone be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.

Although this article encourages us to be self-effacing and cautious in making hasty judgements, it also raises the problem of complicity in wrong-doing. I am sure that most modern people would agree that the last sentence represents an unacceptable basis for daily conduct. However, when the whole article is taken into consideration, it does remind us of the value of prudence in our relations with others. Indeed, I think that this is the significance of the clause. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this directive can be abused, and used as an excuse for complacency in the face of malicious and harmful behaviour.

It seems to me that Shinran neither exemplified nor appears to have entirely supported the sentiments of this clause. He was a forthright person and, in the last book of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, rejects any basis for living that is not the Buddha Dharma. He was, in other words, clearly a follower of the Buddha who respected Confucian principles and ideas but, like his descendent Rennyo Shonin, gave firm precedence to the Dharma in all things. It was certainly Shotoku's advocacy of the Dharma that was Shinran's first point of concordance.

The second important point, which Shinran noted about Shotoku's Constitution, was that the Dharma could 'make the crooked straight'. However, he had a very specific idea in mind, it seems. This was Shotoku's firm reprimand of those who engaged in corrupt behaviour - especially in jurispridence.

Article Two of the Constitution states:
Deeply revere the Three Treasures!
They are the ultimate refuge for beings of the four
    modes of birth (manners of arising),
The beam that supports all nations.
What age, and what people, will not take refuge?
If they do not rely on the Three Treasures,
How can the people of this world
Make straight what is twisted and bent?
The petitions of the wealthy
Are like putting stones into water;
The claims of the poor
Are like putting water into stone.
- CWS, p. 446.

These verses from the Kotaishi Shotoku Hosan refer specifically to Article 5 of Shotoku's Constitution.

If the man who is to decide suits at law makes profit his general motive, and hears causes with a view to receiving bribes, then the suits of the rich man will be like a stone thrown into water while the complaints of the poor will resemble water cast upon a stone. Under such circumstances the poor man will not know where to take his plea.

It seems plain to me that Shinran's strongest point of appreciation for the parental guidance of Shotoku, apart from his personal encounter at Rokkakudo, was in the capacity of the Dharma to 'make the crooked straight'. And from his choice of this specific clause of the Constitution one can see what he intends. Shinran is most concerned about the capacity of the Dharma to uncover deceit and corruption, and to inspire honesty and good faith. Indeed, when one surveys Shinran's life and writings, these are his two most outstanding qualities.

Shinran was a man who lived in the light. He was disinclined to duplicity; he lived openly and honestly just as he was. He was secure in Amida Buddha's faith and knew the embrace and love of Namu Amida Butsu.

- January 26, 2006.

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