Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 69

Practicers who doubt the Primal Vow
Are born within lotus buds from which they cannot emerge,
Or are born in the borderland, or fall
Into the womb-palace; so Shan-tao admonishes.

The Sacred Lotus

This verse is based on a passage from the Ting-shan-i, which comprises the third section of Shan-tao's final work, Kuan-ching-shu. The Kuan-ching-shu (kangyo sho, A Commentary on the Meditation Sutra) is Shan-tao's major work and includes important Pure Land teachings, most notably a Parable of Two Rivers and a White Path. Shinran Shonin drew heavily on this work.

The flower of the sacred lotus is one of the 'eight precious things' that are associated with the Buddha Dharma. There are several kinds of plant that are called 'lotus' but the sacred lotus is an amphibious plant of the genus Nelumbo. The Asian species (Nelumbo nucifera) comes in two varieties. The most common is the kind that has a very pale pink flower, but there is an Australian form, which is red. There is another species that is native to North America (Nelumbo lutea), and it has yellow flowers.

Every part of the sacred lotus is edible. Its seeds are very hard and can be used for beads, especially the nenju that we use in Jodo Shinshu. Its significance and symbolism goes well beyond that, however. The best known is the analogy that is drawn between the sacred lotus and the Buddha Dharma. The lotus grows in mud but it is not polluted by it: signifying the way that the dharma is embedded in the problem of suffering but provides the way to transcend it. Another important theme is that, when the lotus-flower is closed, the fruit cannot be seen but, when it opens, we can see the seeds. This points to the way that the Mahayana discloses the inner intention of the dharma, revealing aspects of Shakyamuni's original intent, which had been hidden from view. The Mahayana sutras are characterised as an unfolding of the dharma.

From the Buddha the twelve divisions of scriptures arise, from the twelve divisions of scriptures the sutras arise, from the sutras the Mahayana sutras arise, from the Mahayana sutras the prajnaparamita sutras arise, from the prajnaparamita sutras the Great Nirvana Sutra arises, just as manda is obtained. Manda is a metaphor for Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. Good sons, for this reason, it is taught that the virtues possessed by the Tathagata are immeasurable, boundless, and incalculable.1

So it is that the closed lotus, the lotus bud, stands for the problem of incompleteness and lack of clarity; lack of depth and breadth of understanding and awareness: narrow-mindedness. Indeed, we speak of human personality and intellect as 'flowering' when it begins to grow and become creative and productive. So it is, that the open lotus flower is the seat of wisdom. The Enlightened One in all his forms, including Namu-amida-butsu, sits or stands upon an open lotus flower. In contrast to this, the closed lotus bud represents the failure of something, whether a person or an idea, to reach its full potential.

One of the most telling uses of the symbol of a lotus-bud can be found in the third section of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation. It is located in a discussion by Shan-tao on the subject of the five grave offenses that are mentioned in the eighteenth Vow2. Although the Vow suggests that those who commit the five grave offences cannot be born in the Pure land, Shan-tao assures us that this is essentially a cautionary note. He says that Amida Buddha's compassion is such that even such people as these will be born in the Pure Land. In this specific context, however, we read that such people, will be born in a lotus bud and that their spiritual growth will be arrested, although they will no longer experience suffering of any kind.

Those who awaken to shinjin, of course, attain enlightenment immediately upon birth in the Pure Land.

In the Pure Land way, it is lack of shinjin that results in spiritual diminishment and lack of breadth. In the way of nembutsu, when people accept Amida Buddha's shinjin, their hearts open and they become free.


1. CWS, p. 182

2. CWS, p. 148

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