Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 91

Out of deep care for the beings of Japan,
Prince Shotoku, appearing from his original state,
Widely proclaimed the Tathagata's compassionate Vow;
Let us rejoice and reverently praise him!

A Cascade of Compassion

Shinran Shonin's appreciation of Prince Shotoku ('The Prince of Jogu') is passionate. During the next few verses, the fervour of his admiration continues to deepen. As we have already seen, Shinran adores Shotoku's timeless role in our formation as followers of the dharma. We have often seen how Shinran sees the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in terms of its practical action. In other words, the Primal Vow is not limited only to the conceptual realm. It intervenes in human affairs - in direct, personal ways. This is especially so in relation to events in which Shinran hears the call of the Primal Vow through the voice and witness of others.

In the Amida triad, Avalokiteshvara sits on the Buddha's left. Along with Mahasthamaprapta, who sits on Amida's right, he is active compassion. From the earliest times, and throughout history, Avalokiteshvara appears in many forms, echoing to living beings Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. In several places in the Hymns, Shinran lists the names of individuals, who represent the active compassion of Amida Buddha. In the case of Avalokiteshvara, we are reminded by Shinran that the bodhisattva's activity began when Shakyamuni delivered both the Larger and the Contemplation Sutras:

Amida Tathagata
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva

Sakyamuni Buddha
Venerable Purna
Venerable Ananda

King Bimbisara
Queen Vaidehi
Jivaka, A Councilor
Candraprabha, A Councilor

Venerable Devadatta
King Ajatasatru
Varsakara, A Councilor

Here Shinran reveals a heirarchy comprised of those who took part in the origins of Pure Land Buddhism in India, during the time of Shakyamuni. In later developments, in his own country, he again notices Amida Buddha acting through Avalokiteshvara in the person of Prince Shotoku. As we have already seen, the transmission of the dharma depends on ideas being passed down from generation to generation. It also involves action - through sound, sight and movement - in the events of both daily life and catastrophe.

From the Mahayana perspective, the dharma body is a living entity, which initiates its own approach to suffering beings: tathagata, 'one who comes from suchness'. Even evil people and villains play a role in the dissemination of the dharma. In Devadatta, Shakyamuni's malicious cousin, along with his co-conspirators, Ajatashatru, Varsakara and a Guard, we can recognise the compassionate hand of Amida Buddha, the dharma body as skilfull means.

We can see from the way that the dharma is transmitted through living people, and the hierarchical structure of Shinran's list, that he understands these people to be the actors in the descent of the unseen and ineffable dharma body, through Amida Buddha, his two attendant bodhisattvas, to the world of form in Shakyamuni, and then cascading down through the pure monks, righteous layfolk and, finally, to the base human characters that we find in the evil actions of those who oppose the dharma.

This is the emergence of the call of the Vow from transcendence to the dust, from the pure to the defiled, from shinjin to antipathy, from thundering silence to the growl of a tiger in the marketplace - the bustle and confusion of human passions. As Shinran reminds us, in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, the antipathy of others can be the occasion for an awakening to entrusting heart. Furthermore, we discover, from many places in Shinran's writings, that it is the 'defiled' people of the lowest group, with whom Shinran himself identifies.

The descent, the cascade of compassion, also flows through time. From its source in the Primal Vow, to Shakyamuni, who emerged into an already declining kalpa. And things continue to erode. Shinran clearly identifies Avalokiteshvara's emergence into the defiled world, in the form of Shotoku, as heralding the dharma ending age: the culmination of a long process of deterioration. It is the same baseness as the one that we see in Shinran's hierarchy. We find it, here in this closing epoch.

Although there are individual players in the dharma's drama of salvation, everything is ultimately the call of the Primal Vow. In the end, the work of Avalokiteshvara, even his taking form as Prince Shotoku, redounds to Amida Buddha, the source, alone.

1. CWS, p. 338

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