The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Jodo Wasan 32

The Buddhas, infinite in number, all praise Amida,
Whose majestic powers are boundless;
From the eastern Buddha lands, countless as the sands
      of the Ganges,
Innumerable bodhisattvas go to pay homage.


Ganga, great river of the plains of northern India. Although officially as well as popularly called the Ganga, both in Hindi and in other Indian languages, internationally it is known by its Anglicized name, the Ganges. From time immemorial it has been the holy river of the Hindus. For most of its course it is a wide and sluggish stream, flowing through one of the most fertile and densely populated tracts of territory in the world. Despite its importance, its length of 1,560 miles (2,510 kilometres) makes it relatively short by both world and Asian standards.

Rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, it drains a quarter of the territory of India, while its basin supports an immense concentration of people. The Gangetic Plain, across which it flows, is the heartland of the region known as Hindustan and has been the cradle of successive civilizations from the kingdom of Asoka in the 3rd century BC, down to the Mughal Empire, founded in the 16th century.

For most of its course the Ganges flows through Indian territory, although its large delta in the Bengal area lies mostly in Bangladesh. The general direction of the river's flow is from north-northwest to southeast. At its delta, the flow is generally southward1.

Everyone knows the Ganges, even if we have not been to visit it. In Buddhist teaching its sandy shores are a popular metaphor for calculatons that are close to infinite. It is a rather unremarkable river but it has sustained the cradle of the civilization that gave us the Buddha Dharma, to say nothing of its venerable history: the great hero in the saga of the settlement of the Indian subcontinent by Indo-Eurpoeans moving in from the Caucasus. The other branch of these ethnic groups invaded most of Europe and became the Slavic, Germanic and Celtic (Gallic) civilizations.

In the centuries leading up to the time of Shakyamuni, the terrain stretching from its banks into the Himalayas was the arena for the development of Upanishadic thought, which laid the foundation of not only later Hinduism - now one of the largest religions in the world - but also of our own Buddhist movement.

Indeed, in terms of the quest for liberation which lies at the heart of the Buddha Dharma, the Ganga is a telling symbol. For it serves to remind us of the point of departure for two great tendencies in religion. The first is the ritualistic tendency. This is represtented by the belief that karma exists in the carrying out of ritual acts which absolve the soul from enduring liability and free it from endless entanglement in the streams of samsara. The classic example is ritual bathing, or baptism. Countless millions of people find spiritual relief in such actions and it is not for us to gainsay them.

However, the way of the Buddhas repudiates all ritual practices. Indeed, it was Shakyamuni who mused aloud that if the water of the Ganges had the power to remove evil karma, then even tortoises and fish would soon find final liberation.

The Buddha Dharma is a religion of the heart and mind. It is not so much what we do that is of prior importance, but how we think and feel.

Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception have they sprung.
If, with perception polluted,2 one speaks or acts,
Thence suffering follows
As a wheel the draught ox's foot.

Preceded by perception are mental states,
For them is perception supreme,
From perception they have sprung.
If, with tranquil perception, one speaks or acts,
Thence ease follows
As a shadow that never departs.3

Words, ritual, accidents of birth - none of these can break the thrall of samsara. Only the true heart - Amida Buddha's shinjin, can strike at the deep illusion which governs our lives.

1: 'Ganges River', Encyclopædia Britannica.

2: 'Polluted' is also translated 'blind passions'; the akusala kleshas, which includes anger etc.

3: The Dhammapada, The Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford World's Classics, p. 3.

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