Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 110 & 111

The Tathagata of Zenkoji
Took pity on us and
Came to the Bay of Naniwa
Where Moriya, to whom even its name was unknown,

Called it, at that time, 'the fever' -- hotoorike.
Saying it was likely the cause of the plague,
All the followers of Moriya together
Called it 'hotoorike'.

First Impressions

Now, as we approach the end of the Shozomatsu Wasan, and of the Sanjo Wasan collection in general, Shinran Shonin takes us back to the beginnings of the Dharma in Japan and to the concommitant arrival of the Dharma-ending Age. In the seventh century, Mononobe no Moriya and Soga no Umako resumed an ancient feud. The argument was compounded by the fact that the Mononobe clan was opposed to the Buddha Dharma, and the Soga clan supported it. Into the midst of this quarrel, thanks to the cosmopolitan interests of Shotoku Taishi (574-622), came a gift from Korea. To Moriya, it was an ominous intrusion by a foreign religion from the west.

The statue of Amida Buddha arrived in Osaka (formerly Naniwa) accompanied, on the right, by Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, and on the left, by Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. The statues are simple and elegant. Indeed, the bodisattvas seem to be wearing Gandharan head dress. They are most exotic. From the first, it was believed that these images had travelled all the way from India. Amida Buddha had claimed Japan as his own.

Shinran's description of the arrival of Amida Buddha at Naniwa is quite fascinating. He speaks as though the image was Amida Buddha himself, and as though the Buddha travelled there by his own power. This seems strange, since in most of his writing Shinran tends to be rather iconclastic. Nevertheless, this manner of speaking certainly conveys the sense of Amida Buddha's role in the arrival of the carved images, and I like to contemplate the event, as far as possible, from Shinran's piont of view.

A temple - Zenkoji - was built for the statues, and around the temple eventually grew the city of Nagano. Zenkoji continues to be an active and popular destination for devout Buddhists. It is managed by priests from two denominations: Tendai and Jodoshu.

These Wasan, which are concerned with the arrival of the image of Amida Buddha at Naniwa, are at once strange and moving. There are six verses altogether but the first two are melded. They are strange because they do not seem to fit into anything else that Shinran wrote. Yet, the event was clearly a foundational moment in the history of the Dharma. Amida Budda did, indeed, arrive in Japan at that moment.

It is as though he knew that the people of Japan would prove to be fertile soil for his Dharma, and that, from there, he could sow seeds that would eventually bear fruit in the industrial age, just when the Dharma was finally falling completely into disrepair. No other nation, or people, it seems to me, have preserved the Dharma with such care, saving it for a later time. In spite of modern Japan's enthusiastic devotion to consumerism, it is nevertheless a fact that the most perfect version of the east Asian Buddhist canon has been preserved there for posterity. It is currently being translated into English for the world at large by the Numata Foundation.

These verses are also moving because, once again, Shinran demonstrates his profound and absolute devotion to the Dharma. He is almost protective of it. In these verses, and throughout his writing, Shinran seeks to distinguish truth from falsity. As we have already seen, in the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, he makes an impassioned plea for us all to completely abandon all practices and beliefs that are not the Buddha Dharma . He sees other paths as misleading and vacuous.

Such is the concern of a man of the entrusting heart. His outlook is a far cry from the understanding of those, who are meeting the Buddha Dharma for the first time. First impressions are often the most lasting and, like the leaders of the Mononobe and Soga clans, we are often set upon a life-long path from that very first meeting. Or, there are memorable moments, at decisive turnings of the way, that leave us with a lasting conviction, which we are forever at pains to explain - to ourselves and others.

For other people things develop in very different ways. Moriya thought that the image of Amida Buddha had brought the plague from its home in the west. Perhaps the plague did arrive simultaneously but Moriya reminds us that there are those who behold the Dharma and see, reflected in it, their own fears and misgivings.

The events in Naniwa remind us of the historical fact that the Buddha Dharma can take many centuries to find a home within a new society. Indeed, sometimes it never does. Although the Buddha Dharma has made a lasting contribution to the Japanese people, it is nevertheless a fact that Japan has never been wholly Buddhist. A significant proportion of the population still regard Buddhism as a foreign, western religion. Perhaps because of this ambivalent environment, Buddhism in Japan is quite remarkable for its pristine condition. In many cases, including Jodo Shinshu, it remains largely in the form that was developed by its Indian and Chinese antecedents.

For a long time the Dharma in China (arriving there in several stages during the middle of the first millenium) was seen as a good-luck charm. Nothing of its teaching was understood; it was thought of as a form of Taoism. As we have seen, in Japan too, the Dharma had a mixed reception.

In our time we are witnessing the adoption of the Dharma by people of European background. The event is not dissimilar to those many occasions throughout history when the Dharma arrived on foreign shores. Generally speaking there has been a tendency to adopt its more mystical forms, instead of mainstream traditions.

Consequently, we are seeing a very limited and partial assimilation of the Dharma. In some contexts, practice falls far short of the tradition that is being espoused. For example, Theravada Buddhism was codified in the fifth century by Buddaghosa, yet his wonderful classic work, The Path of Purification, continues to be little known and rarely followed.

It seems natural for the Dharma to be embraced in incremental stages, and to be beset by the expectations of those who first encounter it. It is easy to decry the shoddy way that the Dharma is sometimes presented in the European societies, and to bemoan the fact that its methodology is sometimes used in ways that distort its origin and purpose. Yet the reality is that a slow and gradual acceptance, through many generations, is the usual process by which the Dharma moves into new linguistic contexts.

- June 30, 2006.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next