I am always moved by this quotation of a passage that comes at the end of the final section of Shinran Shonin’s major work The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation.
At that time, there was a nephew of the three Kashyapa brothers, a brahmin with his hair tied in conch shape. This brahmin’s name was Upasena … He was always engaged in the study and practice of the way. He heard that his uncles, the three Kashyapas, went with all their disciples to the place of the great sramana [Shakyamuni], shaved off their hair and beards and donned monk’s robes. Going to see his uncles, he spoke to them in verse:
Uncles! Have you worshiped fire for one hundred years in vain?
In vain have you performed austerities?
Today, do you all abandon this path of practice
Just as a snake sloughs its old skin?
Then his uncles, the three Kashyapas, said together, in verse, to their nephew Upasena:
In the past, we worshiped the god of fire in vain
And performed austerities to no purpose.
Today we abandon that path of practice
Indeed as a snake discards its old skin. (CWS, p. 274)
This event must have had profound significance for Shinran Shonin because he had engaged in religious practices and austerities for twenty years before he encountered the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and entrusted himself to it entirely, in Namo Amida Butsu, abandoning all practices.
It was somewhat different for the Kashyapa brothers. They were abandoning another religion altogether, the one that was bound to their cultural heritage. Such conversion was not easy because Shakyamuni required converts from another religion to isolate themselves from the Sangha for forty days.
In the sutras we learn that the Kashyapa brothers were among Shakyamuni Buddha’s first disciples. They were known as Uruvela Kashyapa, Nadi Kashyapa, and Gaya Kashyapa. Their disciples numbered five hundred, three hundred and two hundred respectively, and all of them also became disciples of Shakyamuni.
Uruvela Kashyapa was the first of the three brothers to become a disciple of Shakyamuni. It was really Uruvela Kashyapa who made the huge and potentially risky decision to abandon the religion of his birth and to follow the Buddha Dharma.
In his discussions with Uruvela Kashyapa, Shakyamuni did not ridicule or belittle Kashyapa’s religious practice. He simply pointed out that the objective of his teaching was not the same as the objective that Kashyapa has sought. Indeed, on his meeting with Shakyamuni Buddha it was Uruvela Kashyapa who felt that he was more advanced and spiritually accomplished than Shakyamuni.
In the world today, the Buddha Dharma is becoming more widely known, and there are many people abandoning their inherited religious traditions to follow it. In such a process, we never hear of the Buddha descending to ridicule of another person’s faith, and nor should we. He just points out that the goal is different for the Buddha Dharma and so it is natural that the path is also different.
That is why turning to the Buddha Dharma from another religion is a momentous decision. It is because there is never any question as to which is ‘the best’. The choice is not easy. It is a choice between purpose and objective.
The way of the nembutsu leads to one becoming a Buddha. It is part of the Bodhisattva Vehicle. It stands alone as a unique way, with a unique path and a unique outcome. The Pure Land has nothing to do with ‘heaven’, for example; Amida Buddha is not a god of any kind: he is a Buddha – an Enlightened Teacher.
Shinran Shonin’s purpose in quoting this passage from the Sutra of the Buddha’s Past Lives is to make it clear that if we abandon our inherited religion and turn to the nembutsu way we begin a completely new phase of life. We leave the old life behind, just as ‘a snake discards its old skin.’