The radiant light, unhindered and inconceivable, eradicates suffering and brings realization of joy; the excellent Name, perfectly embodying all practices, eliminates obstacles and dispels doubt. This is the teaching and practice for our latter age; devote yourself solely to it. It is eye and limb in this defiled world; do not fail to endeavor in it. Accepting and living the supreme, universal Vow, then, abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure. Reverently embracing the Tathagata's teaching, respond in gratitude to his benevolence and be thankful for his compassion.

~ Shinran Shonin, Passages on the Pure Land Way

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Walking with Rennyo: Why Are We Reciting Wasans?

(11) Why Are We Reciting Wasans?
At a late evening service in October, Rennyo told his listeners it was deplorable to think that by reciting wasans and the shoshinge they were actually making an offering to Amida Buddha and Shinran, “In other traditions merit transference is accomplished by this oral practice. In our school, Shinran intended to share with others the mind of faith in the other-power, and the wasans were composed to better understand this teaching of the seven patriarchs. Nembutsu is recited in recognition of gratitude for what he has done on our behalf, and an expressive outpouring of thankfulness to Amida Buddha, which we observe in the presence of Shinran Shonin.”

In the Chapter on True Buddha and Land in the Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran Shonin urges his readers thus: “Reverently entrust yourselves to the right teaching of the master of the sutras and the masters of the treatises and to the expositions of the Pure Land masters. You should uphold and devote yourself to them.” In this statement we perceive the clear command of the founding Master to abandon all miscellaneous paths and single-heartedly follow the path that leads to the Pure Land. We also sense his humility; for Shinran did not seek to offer his followers a new Dharma of his own invention, but rather an eternal one, imminently suited for the capacities and natures of men and women in an age far removed from the taming influence of Shakyamuni Buddha.

In order to make these instructions plain to all, the Venerable Master composed three books of hymns written in the common language, with the intention that they would be easy to hear and recite by even the lowest classes of society. We know them today as the Sanjo wasan (Three Books of Hymns in English), regarded as a Japanese National Treasure, and the primary service book of Jodo Shinshu. As has been previously noted, it was Master Rennyo who established the important place the Hymns occupy within the Hongwanji, so that up to this day, the wasan are heard in homes and temples wherever Amida’s Name is praised. Indeed, to read through the wasan may be one of the best ways to enter the Dharma-gate of the Primal Vow, as taken in order these hymns present a structured overview of the entire Pure Land path, from its origins in Amida’s perfect enlightenment (Sanskrit anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) to its historical revelation through Shakyamuni Buddha and the Seven Patriarchs. A good companion for such a journey can be found at the website “Notes on the Nembutsu” (, maintained by the Rev. George Gatenby of Australia, whose succinct and insightful reflections on each wasan provided the inspiration for the present author’s efforts.

The traditional method for reciting the wasan is chanting, a solemn, unpretentious style of vocal intonation suitable to such sacred psalms. Herein lies a key difference between Jodo Shinshu and other Buddhist schools of thought, however. Generally, whenever chanting is made a part of Buddhist service, it is with the purpose of generating merit on the part of the chanter, who then directs this merit to all beings to secure their well-being. Indeed, such practice has as its basis the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, who affirmed that merit would accrue to those who recited the various sutras that He taught.

For those of us living in the Last Age of the Dharma, however, such merit-making is beyond our grasp. We are simply incapable, in our current state as foolish, unenlightened beings, of producing merit through any practices whatever. And so Master Rennyo admonishes us not to become foolishly attached to our act of chanting, but instead to listen carefully to the meaning of what is chanted. What a pity it would be if, fondly imagining that we could someone make our minds better or more like the Buddha’s through our vain efforts, we should miss the important message the wasan convey, which is simply to reverently entrust ourselves to the right teaching, and take refuge in the Source of unhindered light that pervades the entire universe.

In summary, therefore, the purpose of chanting in Jodo Shinshu services (whether public or private) is:

1)      To understand the Other-Power teaching based on Amida’s Primal Vow;
2)      To proclaim this teaching to others;
3)      To give thanks to the Buddha and Shinran Shonin for their benevolence to us.

In casting aside the thought of making merit through chanting or any other means, we have the example of Shinran Shonin himself. In a letter written by the Shonin’s wife Eshinni to Kakushinni, their youngest daughter, we read of a time when the Shonin set out to recite the sutras 1,000 times for the benefit of sentient beings. He stopped, however, when he realized that “to have faith oneself and to cause others to have faith is truly the way to respond to one's indebtedness to the Buddha. With faith in this, what outside of the nembutsu could possibly be lacking that would make one feel the need to chant the sutras?” Indeed, it is by realizing shinjin and guiding others to its realization that we truly repay Amida, our compassionate Parent, for the great love that He directs toward us.

Rennyo says that we observe this thankfulness "in the presence of Shinran Shonin." In fact, among devout nembutsu followers of the Jodo Shinshu tradition there is a definite sense of Shinran’s ongoing influence, as well as an awareness of his abiding presence. Of course, we know that Shinran was born in the Pure Land at the end of his life, and is now active in the world as a participant in the Buddha’s saving work. Along with this, it seems that something of his earthly existence as the forbearing, bald-headed monk lives on among those who recite the nembutsu of True Faith. Furthermore, I believe that this realization is not merely a sentimental one, but arises from the compassionate heart that the founding Master manifested in his life, and which he received from Amida. I believe it is this presence which nembutsu followers of Shinran’s tradition perceive when they seek his guidance in the scriptural texts.

In the wasan, the shoshinge, and the body of teaching that he bequeathed, the spirit of Shinran Shonin lives on forever. The message that he preached has the ability to solve our spiritual conundrums just as much today as when the Shonin traveled the byways of rural Japan, spreading the gospel of Amida’s salvation to all who would listen. May the disciples of Shakyamuni in the present era likewise heed the words of the founding Master, and, casting off the inclination toward sundry practices, entrust themselves in Amida Buddha alone.

Gassho _/\_

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