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

Shozomatsu Wasan 3

Now, amid the five defilements in the last dharma-age,
Sentient beings are incapable of practice and realisation;
Hence the teachings that Shakyamuni left behind
Have all passed into the naga's palace.

Hiding the Teachings

This verse indicates that Shinran Shonin did not think of the 'five defilements in the last dharma-age' as a mere notion or metaphor. For him, it was palpable reality.

We have already encountered the 'five defilements'. Although they are common features of human frailty, in the last age of the dharma they have become intractable - and have developed cosmic significance. Each of the defilements indicates a lack of clarity in specified areas of human experience and competence. Thus, for example, 'the defilement of the kalpa' suggests a failure in moral integrity with regard to inter-personal relationships, which results in increasing levels of violence; and we are certainly very conscious of this defilement in our own time. The sense of the five defilements having become a prevailing feature of life rings very true for me in quite objective historical terms. Witness, for example, the extraordinary mystery of the 'Crusades' that emanated from Europe in the eleventh century. These suddenly became the defining feature of a religion which, hitherto, had shunned offensive violence entirely.

This verse, then, is one of many examples of Shinran's strong conviction that the raison d'ĂȘtre for the Pure Land teaching was the gradual and irreversible degeneration of the dharma with the passage of time. In addition to this, the Larger Sutra makes clear that there is an environmental impact of the presence of the embodiment of the dharma - the Buddha. As a result, the diminishment and blurring of the dharma teaching must also, logically, mean that there is a concommitant degeneration in the world at large. The presence of the Buddha brings peace and harmony, for example, but the absence of the Buddha will bring war and disharmony.

It is very difficult to argue with this straightforward proposition. So the urgent question becomes one that tries to understand the significance of the idea that the Buddha has become 'absent', the dharma is 'in decline' and the prevailing realities are the very things that Shakyamuni sought to set to rights. Well, of course, the problems that Shakyamuni sought to address were already prevalent, even in his time. Now, however - from Shinran's perspective, at any rate - these problems have returned with greater force and are no longer amenable to correction.


It seems to me to be patently obvious that Shinran looked at the world around him and drew quite sensible and empirical conclusions about the relevance of the ancient belief in the decay of the dharma with the passage of time. While many followers of the dharma are bemused by the presence of the Pure Land tradition in their midst, and very often seek to discredit it - to say nothing of the fact that there are some who are happy to take it at face value - those who follow the Pure Land way with any conviction see things, for the most part, as Shinran did.

That is why Shinran's reference in this verse to the 'teachings that Shakyamuni left behind/Have all passed into the naga's palace' is sound and logical. The point is that the teachings (kyo, Sk. sutras) now need to be protected from invasion and colonisation. It is not that the sutras are dead, wrong, irrelevant, different or compromised. They simply need to be hidden from the outside world because it is no longer possible for a person, who lives in the age of five defilements, to understand them or practice them. The sutras are locked in the naga's palace (their original womb, or place of conception and initial formation) because they now need to be hidden from the eyes of those who would use them for egoistic ends, since it is no longer possible to see them in any other way.

Needless to say, there are many valiant projects to translate the Buddhist sutras into modern languages - mainly English, which has become the lingua franca, especially in Asia. If Shinran's convictions are true, the value of this effort becomes an urgent question, indeed. Why, for example, if we are incapable of understanding the sutras properly, does the Numata Centre expend so much time and effort in translating the Buddhist Canon? And, how is it possible for translators to render concepts and ideas that they do not understand into another language?

The Numata Centre, as a case in point, insists absolutely upon the literal translation of the texts - without any commentary or adornment. This is very much in keeping with the Pure Land understanding of the age of five defilements. The translation must be literally accurate, and safe. In this way the sutras become available to us as a clearer representation of the dharma. They present the dharma in a way that cannot be subverted by those who would claim to have genuine and immediate access to it.

Ever a source of delight and wonder to us, the sutras also, paradoxically, remind us that we now live in a world, which they are not designed to address. Anticipating our current, appalling dilemma, the dharma itself devised a way to reach out to us, even in the fog of our illusions. This way is Namu-amida-butsu. It is now our only feasible refuge.

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