Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 53

Amida, Avalokiteshvara, and Mahasthamaprapta
Ride on the ship of the great Vow;
Going out on the ocean of birth-and-death,
They call to beings and bring them on board.

Delegation

This verse conveys wonderful imagery that has a delightful playfulness about it. We can imagine the two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta on a ship. With Amida at the helm, they are sailing through the waters of samsara in the serene and wonderful ship of the Primal Vow. Amida is calling to those who are shipwrecked and those who are flailing about in storm-tossed seas. In the midst of all this, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta are amidships reaching over the side and pulling in all of the struggling survivors.

Although the volume of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages is replete with honest gloom and the depths of human tragedy and sorrow, Shinran Shonin punctuates his verses with splashes of brilliant light and playful joy. What a wonderful master of the spiritual life he is! What an eye he had for the realities of life. How often do we find ourselves in the depths of despair, only to be suprised by some fortuitous development or some happy chance?

When we burrow beneath the necessary technical language of Shinran's writing, we are always struck by his deep and realistic understanding of the vicissitudes of life. He is the only religious teacher in history, that I know of, who had such a genius for an intimate understanding of our highest insights and deepest depravities; our most exhilarating joy and our most profound distress. No wonder Shinran's followers loved him so much. In the world of religious life, he is matchless.

Here, then, we have happy, playful imagery of Amida, Avalokiteshvara and Mahashtamaprapta busily at work on our behalf. We can be sure that the call for us to come aboard - and the helping hands of these great and tireless bodhisattvas - is Namu-amida-butsu.

It seems that Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta have always been associated with Amida Buddha: Avalokiteshvara on Amida's left and Mahasthamaprapta on his right. Of the two, Shinran paid most attention to the latter bodhisattva because he is the effulgent manifestation of Amida Buddha's wisdom. However, as we will discover later on in the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran saw the Prince Regent Shotoku (573 - 621) as a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, and, therefore, of Amida Buddha's compassion; so he did not neglect the bodhisattva at Amida's left hand altogether.

Because, in Shinran's thinking, Amida Buddha takes the precise form of Namu-amida-butsu, it has become the practice to use only the standing Buddha himself, alone and without the bodhisattvas as the principal object in temples and home shrines, when substituting a graphic image for the Name. However, generally speaking, the universal Pure Land tradition has tended to use all three persons in its iconography. This verse makes me wonder if Shinran might not have done so, too; although, of course, as far as I know he always used written scrolls, mainly of the ten-character myogo, which, again, emphasises wisdom.1

The symbology of this verse is interesting. It is a precise reading, in poetic form, of a prose passage from Genshin's Ojoyoshu. Obviously, Genshin's objective in describing the 'Amida Triad' at work in the realm of samsara in this way, is to emphasise the dynamism of Amida Buddha's Wisdom and Compassion, active in the world. What better imagery could have been contrived to portray this idea? Of more interest is the notion that Amida Buddha delegates the energetic aspect of his call to others. These 'others' are not necessarily great bodhisattvas but may be ordinary unenlightened men and women, like you and me.

This is a profoundly significant tradition within the Pure Land School. It was formulated by none other than Shan-tao in the famous phrase ji-shin-kyo-nin-shin, 'To believe the teaching oneself and make others believe.' This command comes right down to the present time. When priests are ordained, for example, this phrase is the mandate delivered by Gomonshu, the Abbott of the Hongwanji, and it seems to me that it is one of the most important parts of the ceremony; it is the very reason that I persist in composing these essays for my Dharma friends. The discipline involved forces one to study and to think, while hoping, that one might have something helpful to share with others in the process. To my mind the mandate stands above all other related imperatives, except, of course, the nNembutsu and, perhaps, alongside the gift of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, as our principal main-stay and resource.

The mandate of Shan-tao is an example of the principle of delegation. However, this delegation is strictly limited to assisting people, who are floundering and drowning in samsara, to come aboard the ship of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. It is nothing more - nor less - than this. It is to throw out the line of the nembutsu. This is done by chanting nembutsu - and speaking and writing about it. Each individual has different talents that can be used to this end. In my own case, on my return from ordination in 1994, I asked the (then) Director of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia what I should do, and he said, 'Write.' And, so I do.

In any case, the mandate is not limited to priests. Ordination is merely the result of a personal choice to formalise the mandate that is common to all followers of the Pure Land way. In the Shinshu tradition, it is true, ordination may lead to a ministry as a Temple Master (following Kaikyoshi certification) but for a proportion of those ordained it is essentially a personal act of dedication to the Hongwanji and to Shan-tao's mandate. For such people it is quite likely to be a move that is made later in life, after much searching and study, as it was for Zuiken Inagaki (1885 - 1991).

In matters of faith, however, delegation is usually the obverse of the Pure Land tradition. People delegate things to deities - patching up their mistakes, changing the course of events and taking care of their salvation. These are among the most popular forms of delegation in the world of religion. In the Pure Land tradition, as a Buddhist path, none of these things apply. For example, it is not strictly correct (but only a conventional use of language) to say that Amida Buddha 'saves' us. In fact, he transfers his faith to us and it is the shinjin itself that is the vehicle of salvation since it is a form of awakening - of 'seeing things as they are', which is the catch-cry of discipleship in the Buddha Dharma. Or, so it seems to me, at any rate.

To return to the bodhisattvas: the sense of delegation coming from Amida Buddha also pertains to their actions. They 'call to sentient beings and pull them aboard'. 'Calling-and-bringing-aboard' is a single action. Notice that the people drowning in samsara are not the ones that are doing the calling; they are not delegating their salvation to the bodhisattvas. Shinran seems be very attracted to the idea that sentient beings are 'caught as if in play'... in one place he uses a quote that says, '... as a lion takes his prey'.

Here we discover a remarkable element of surprise in the bodhisattvas' actions - in the activity of Amida Buddha's wisdom and compassion. Beings are rescued without initiating the process on their part. The nembutsu of Other Power takes us by surprise in this counter-intuitive delegation from Amida Buddha to his agents. While we are struggling amid confusion in the storms of samsara, just in that context and precisely under those conditions, suddenly - unexpectedly - we are lifted out of the water, without asking for anything.


1. The ten-character myogo is 'Ki myo jin ji po mu ge ko nyo rai', 'I take refuge in Tathagata whose light is unhindered in the ten quarters.'

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