The tragedy at Rajagriha

Readers of this web site will know that the main source of True Pure Land Teaching (Jodo Shinshu) is The Collected Works of Shinran, volume 1. By ‘True Pure Land Teaching’ I mean the teaching of the Shakyamuni Buddha as it was expounded and explained by the seven Dharma Masters: Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, Bodhisattva Vasubandhu, Master T’an-luan, Master Tao-ch’o, Master Shan-tao, Master Genshin and Master Genku (Honen Shonin), who was Shinran’s personal teacher.

These seven great exponents of the Buddha Dharma lived in India, China and Japan through about eleven centuries. It is widely thought that Shakyamuni Buddha lived from 463 to 383 BCE. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna lived during the second century CE and Shinran Shonin was born in 1173. Shinran collated, systematised and explained the Pure Land tradition – its meaning and purpose.

Of Shinran’s writings, the most significant is the large work in six chapters entitled The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation (often known simply as Kyo Gyo Shin Sho). This great annotated compendium is organised into six main topics, which each make up one of the chapters.

While Honen was alive, several controversies arose concerning the meaning of practice in True Pure Land Buddhism. One of these was the question of how to practice the ‘nembutsu selected in the Primal Vow’ of Amida Buddha. Some people thought that one should say the nembutsu (Namu-amida-butsu) as often as possible, others that it was only necessary to say it once. Following the guidance of Shinran’s own teacher, Honen, and reflecting on his own experience, Shinran resolved this controversy by making it clear that these concerns were half-truths. In fact, the nembutsu arises spontaneously (jinen) in people who accept Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin).

Where does this entrusting heart come from? Shinran sets out to explain this in his major work. At its heart is an episode in the life of the court of the king of Magadha, where Shakyamuni Buddha spent most of his teaching career. Shinran quotes the account of this episode at great length. It is the core of his teaching on the way of nembutsu and can be found in the third chapter of The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation. It is an extract from The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Nirvana Sutra), which is a large and influential record of the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha that is cherished mainly within the Mahayana.

In this excerpt from the great sutra, we learn that the crown prince, Ajatashatru, is beside himself in pain, grief and agony because of his despicable act, which allowed his father the king to die in prison from wounds and neglect. Ajatashatru’s case is clearly a perfect example of a most extreme form of the person who is not only deeply evil but, through the light of the Buddha, comes to see it clearly for themselves.  Indeed, it is only a matter of degree. Even people who are upstanding members of the community and generally known as good people come to see their true nature as having been beset by karmic evil that is intrinsic to their existence through endless time.

The central purport of the account of this tragedy at Rajagriha is that the entrusting heart (shinjin) arises from only one source – the Buddha. No one else can grant it and we cannot create it for ourselves.

Following the Buddha and bodhisattvas, they have heard and received the cure – they are able to awaken the mind of aspiration for supreme, perfect enlightenment. But sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas, whether they preach the dharma or not, cannot bring such people to awaken the mind aspiring for supreme, perfect enlightenment. (CWS p. 125)

Beings receive the entrusting heart by hearing the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha in the Name, Namu-amida-butsu. Accepting it, Amida Buddha’s shinjin awakens in their hearts. When such a thing happened to Ajatashatru, he said

O World-honoured one, observing the world, I see that from the seed of the eranda grows the eranda tree. I do not see a candana tree growing from an eranda seed. But now for the first time I see a candana tree growing from the seed of an eranda. The eranda seed is myself; the candana tree is shinjin that has no root in my heart. (CWS p. 138)