Come back! The path is treacherous!

The traveller, having heard the exhortation from his side of the river and the call from the other, immediately acquires firm resolution in body and mind and  decisively takes the path, advancing directly without entertaining any doubt or apprehension.

When he has gone but one or two paces, the brigands on the eastern bank call out to him ‘O traveller, come back! The path is treacherous and permits no crossing. You are certain to meet your death.  None of us addresses you with evil intent.’ (CWS, p. 90)

This extract from the parable of The Two Rivers and the White Path describes the moment that the nembutsu person suddenly ‘takes the plunge’.  He or she decides to accept the virtue of the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, in complete trust, abandoning–at last–all vestiges of self-power, and thus receives Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart.

In his explanation of this parable, its creator, the great seventh century Chinese  Dharma Master, Shan-tao, points out that the ‘brigands calling from the eastern shore’ represent

people of different understandings, different practices or false views, with their own misguided opinions, one after another seek to confuse him, claiming that he is committing evil and will fail. (CWS, p. 91)

Here Shan-tao is reminding us that those who follow single-minded nembutsu may meet opposition and discouragement. So, I think it is helpful to look for an example in someone who faced discouraging events full-on. For me, that person is Shinran Shonin.

We do not have space in a weekly blog to explore all of the things that might have discouraged Shinran Shonin from the time that, in his own words, he

discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow (CWS, p. 290)

but it is hard to imagine a life, which could have encountered more discouragement than his did.

He was involved in a dispute about whether or not he shared the same shinjin as his teacher, Honen Shonin. The nembutsu community was persecuted by the government, and the band of leaders was disbanded and sent into exile, Shinran among them. There were opponents to Shinran’s Sangha in the form of, notably, the mountain ascetic Bennen, who later became a disciple. Shinran’s own son caused the dissemination of a grossly distorted form of nembutsu teaching, and so on.

In spite of all this: in spite of a life that would seem to many outsiders to be full of discouragement and misfortune, Shinran Shonin took every development as an opportunity to spread the True Teaching of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu) and to live a conspicuous life of nembutsu. He lived simply, as an ordinary householder, without recourse to appeals to status (like ‘teacher’), assuming the condition of being one who is ‘neither priest nor lay.’

We live in a very different world than Shinran Shonin did. We face different forms of discouragement and the Pure Land community is vastly stronger now than it was in his time. But in our own time, whoever we are, however we live, and whatever confronts us in life, we can always live as Shinran Shonin did – in the Name and light of Amida Buddha.

Namo Amida Butsu

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.

3 thoughts on “Come back! The path is treacherous!”

  1. A big problem I find in living with Faith in Amida is that at least non-Mayahana and others have great difficulty in understanding Pure Land Buddhism of the 18th Vow.

    As on the face of it, it defies logic.

    Until Self-Power effort is exhausted/dies, it is difficult for anyone to understand Shinjin.

    But for the individual who is grasped by Amida, who entrusts to Amida, he doesn’t say No!

    So that is why this parable is probably a lived experience for most Pure Land Buddhists. Amida gives the individual the path to the Pure Land others can come to and participate in the working of Great Compassion. Or they can reject.

  2. Thanks, Ant.

    Yes, Amida Buddha provides everything – the ‘white path’, the call of the Vow, the Name, shinjin. My post was an attempt to convey the next sentence to the one I quoted: ‘The traveller hears the voices calling him, but he gives no backward glance.’ So what others say is, as you seem to be suggesting, both inevitable and irrelevant. And that is how it is to people of nembutsu!

  3. Ah! Someone asks by email, ‘Why irrelevant?’

    Because, as Shan-tao says, there are eighty-thousand Dharma gates and each person takes the one that is for ‘him/her alone.’ You take the one that is for you, I take the one that is for me.

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