It appears that disputes have arisen among followers of the sole practice of nembutsu, who argue that ‘these are my disciples’ or ‘those are someone else’s disciples.’ This is utterly senseless.
For myself, I do not have even a single disciple. For if I brought people to say the nembutsu through my own efforts, then they might be my disciples. But it is indeed preposterous to call persons ‘my disciple’ when they say the nembutsu having received the working of Amida.
We come together when conditions bring us to meet and part when conditions separate us. In spite of this, some assert that those who say the nembutsu having turned from one teacher to follow another cannot attain birth. This is absurd. Are they saying that they will take the shinjin given by Amida as if it belonged to them? Such a claim should never be made.
If one comes to be in accord with the spontaneous working of the Vow (jinen), one will awaken to the benevolence of the Buddha and of one’s teachers. (A Record in Lament of Divergences, 6; CWS, p. 664)
This teaching of Shinran Shonin expands upon the implicit sense of the previous chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences. At the same time, we can put the quote from Shakyamuni Buddha that I set before you into a clearer context.
Shinran is one of very few teachers who was truly aligned to Shakyamuni Buddha’s own outlook. Neither Shakyamuni nor Shinran would claim responsibility for the awakening and spiritual life of those who called themselves their disciples.
As Shakyamuni Buddha moved towards the time of his departure from this world, he completed his journey to Kusinara in the company of his cousin and disciple Ananda. Realising that Shakyamuni was about to die, Ananda asked him to give a final discourse. However, Shakymuni responded to this request with the words, ‘Ananda, what do the mendicants expect of me? … The Tathagata, however, does not think ‘I will take charge of the band of mendicants, or that they will depend on me.’
So saying he went on make that famous statement that his followers should ‘depend on nothing else but the Dharma.’
For us, the living embodiment of the Dharma is Amida Buddha, especially the Primal Vow. We hear and receive the command – or call – of the Vow in the Name, Namu-amida-butsu.
I doubt that Shinran was deliberately imitating Shakyamuni. His inner life was naturally such that he could only deny that he had any authority over his disciples. His heart was in tune with the Dharma of Amida Buddha, and nothing else. This became a firm tradition in the Jodo Shinshu and was reiterated by Rennyo Shonin, who insisted that the purpose of a teacher is solely to call upon people to entrust themselves to Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow. Beyond that we are ‘all fellow followers and practicers.’
We all come the the nembutsu way along many winding paths that are special and unique to ourselves. At some point and in many ways the light of Amida Buddha shines in our hearts, showing us exactly as we are – beings in absolute need of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Sometimes there is agency in this realisation, as it was for me, in the form of a person telling me about the wonderful reality of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. For others, such an encounter may be with a book, or a visit to a temple.
I recall the experience of a famous Australian Buddhist by the name of Marie Byles. She dedicated her life to the pursuit of the Dharma and studied under mainly meditation masters in Myanmar and Japan. After such a long and arduous search she described the wonder and unsurpassed joy, at last, of casting aside all of this to rely solely upon Namu-amida-butsu. Such a moment, for her, was exhilarating and indescribable. It seems to have been quite spontaneous.
I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201. (CWS, p. 290)
We come together when conditions bring us to meet and part when conditions separate us. (CWS, p. 664)