Master Shan Tao

A Study of Twenty-Six Hymns on Master Shan-tao

Marcus Cumberlege

Deze tekst werd voorgelezen tijdens het Frühlingstreffen begin mei in Antwerpen. Het onderwerp van de lezingen was de Koso-Wasan (over de zeven Patriarchen) van Shinran Shonin. Vorige lezingen verschenen in Ekō 97 en Ekō 98. Shan- tao wordt door Shinran beschouwd als de derde Chinese patriarch. (ms)

With sincere apologies for my lack of scholarship. First of all I would like to provide you with a schema or summary of these 26 hymns, according to their contents. I have used the numbers in the English version of the Koso Wasan, kindly given me by the Ekō Haus in Düsseldorf.

The first two hymns, 62 and 63, describe Shan-tao’s origins: he was “manifested from the ocean like great mind” and “appeared in the world in succeeding ages”.

65 to 69 describe various practices, starting with the assertion that “Sakyamuni urges us to perform the saying of the Name alone.” Single-minded practice leads to shinjin of the universal vow and to birth in the Pure Land.

70 to 73 focus on “the true teaching of the universal vow”. “The Primal Vow of Amida is the ‘decisive cause’ of birth”. Here, Shinran emphasizes the power of the Primal Vow.

The next nine verses are devoted to a greater or lesser extent to shinjin or the diamond-like mind. “Full of compassion for us, Sakyamuni and Amida guide us through skilful means to awaken the supreme shinjin.”

Shan-tao teaches that thorough realization of the true mind equals accomplishment of the three grades of repentance. Diamond - like Shinjin “enables us to completely abandon birth-and-death forever.” True and real Shinjin is not possible for those who “lack the one mind”. “Nothing obstructs those who realize the true entrusting”.

“Those who have heard the Nembutsu of the Pure Land way are praised as ‘rare and excellent persons’”. But “people who are not in correspondence with the Primal Vow lose sight of Shinjin in confusion.” This section is rounded off with the statement that shinjin arises from the Vow and we attain Buddhahood through the Nembutsu by the Vow’s spontaneous working.

In verses 83 to 85 Shinran turns to the enemies of the teaching, who attack the Primal Vow and thus sink into “the three evil courses” and “spend their lives meaninglessly and in vain’.

The hymns on Shan-tao conclude with two verses in which Shinran expresses gratitude to Amida and Sakyamuni for granting us the power of the Universal Vow, through which we live in expectation of the Pure Land.

In these 26 hymns which I have just summarized, Shinran deals with all the most important aspects of my Shin faith, paying special attention to the practice, the Name, the Vow, Shinjin, Other Power and birth in the Pure Land.

After reading these hymns for the first time, I thought that Shinran must have intended for these beautiful hymns to be sung or chanted aloud, and that by merely reading the words on a page I must be missing much of their truly spiritual grace and power.

I can only imagine how these hymns must sound in the original Japanese. Even in English, even in a fairly prosaic translation, the cosmic and poetic quality of Shinrans language makes itself strongly felt. How about phrases like:

“Sakyamuni and Amida are our father and mother;
Full of Love and compassion for us’.


“Reflecting deeply on the Buddha’s benevolence,
Let us think on Amida always”


“Casting off long kalpas of painful existence
in this world of Saha,
We live in expectation of the Pure Land, the

Dozens of lines like these reflect the timeless quality of Shinrans inspired thinking.

Not surprisingly therefore, in view of my great ignorance, I lack the critical apparatus to do justice to a work of such boundless implications. I can only register a handful of faint impressions. We are dealing here with the minds of Great Masters.

Referring to passages 64 to 69, on the subject of ‘various practices’, to which Shinran has devoted a lot of space in the Shan-tao section of Koso-Wasan, there are some issues here, which need clarification.

In verse 68 it is stated that “acts which are not the practice which leads to the Pure Land are all termed sundry practices”. It is said that ‘not one in a thousand’ of these mixed practisers attains birth. For, as verse 66 states, “They lack the heart that responds in gratitude to the Buddha’s benevolence.”

Must we then utter the Nembutsu monotonously and uninterruptedly from morning until night? Has the all-compassionate Amida no ear for any other invocations? Or are we dealing here with divergences, which were peculiar to Shinrans day and age?

The hymns on Tao-Ch’o and Genshin also make reference to various practices. The former states that “to perform practices in this world is the way of self-power.” The latter praises “persons of single practice” and admonishes those “who perform mixed practice.” In each case we see that “single practice” with hardly any exceptions always brings about birth in the Pure Land.

What are the practices referred to in the Shan-tao section? Firstly of course, there is the ‘single’ practice, which is the Nembutsu. It’s a pity that we are nowhere told how and in what frame of mind to utter the Nembutsu. That seems to be left entirely to us. Reference is then made to meditative and non meditative practices; right and sundry practices; auxiliary practices; mixed praxis; and praying for worldly benefits in addition to saying the Name. These are practices in which, according to Shinran, the chances of birth are diminished. On the other hand, in verse 65 we read that “Sakyamuni revealing the essential gate…wholly urges us to perform the saying of the Name alone.”

Where do we stand in this controversy, we busy practical minded Buddhists of the electronic age? Are we to shun prayer and meditation, those two fundamental practices of all world religions, thus depriving our spirits of air, food and sunshine? Are we to deprive ourselves of the treasures bequeathed to humanity by the greatest minds in history? Are we not to sit quietly in zazen as so many of Buddhism’s greatest masters have done? Is regular attendance at the temple and the chanting of sutras to be considered an auxiliary practice? Must we not make a habit of reading religious books and studying sacred texts and putting our own thoughts on paper?

It is difficult to know what Shinran and Shan-tao really mean when they speak of “single practice”. We are told that Jōdo - Shinshū is a form of Buddhism specially adapted to the needs and understanding of simple-minded folk. Must these simple people not light candles and bring offerings to the feet of the little Buddha statues in their homes? Is it wrong to pour tea over the baby Buddha statue at Hanamatsuri? Where does one draw the line? Some of us are in need of guidance!

Verse 73, with its emphasis on human weaknesses, speaks to my simple mind. It reminds me once again that Shinran, with all his spiritual glory, was addressing himself to ordinary men and women with plain human shortcomings:

“When we come to know truly that we are possessed of blind passions,

And entrust ourselves to the power of the Primal Vow,

We will, on abandoning completely our defiled existence,

Realize the eternal bliss of dharma nature.”

Shinran refers directly to our blind passions, showing us how to exchange our ignorance, delusion, fear, greed, lust, anger and selfishness for the bliss of dharma nature, thanks to entrusting ourselves to the working of Amida’s Primal Vow. But Shinran makes it clear that before any progress in this direction can be made, an act of consciousness must take place in the individual. Does this act of consciousness come about through our own deliberate efforts, or is it Amida’s gift to us, the result of his skilful means? We believe so!

Indeed, the process leading to shinjin in any individual seems, according to Shinran, to originate in what he calls (verse 71) “the inconceivable working of the Power of Buddha-dharma” which destroys “all external hindrances and karmic fetters.” ‘The mind and practice of self-power’ he states in verse 72, ‘do not bring one into the fulfilled land.’ This is a warning to those of us who overestimate our own capabilities and strive for success and rewards based on personal achievement.

To conclude this talk, in which I have passed lightly over a few details of Shinrans hymns on Shan-tao, I would like to make one or two remarks about the power of the Universal Vow, sometimes called Other Power or Tariki.

In verse 72 we read that “sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana all entrust themselves to Amida’s Universal Vow”. And in verse 70 it is clearly stated that “the exposition of the universal Vow was the fundamental intent of the Tathagata’s appearance in the world.”

My wisest course of action in this Saha world is to surrender unconditionally to Sakyamuni’s benevolence and to Amida’s boundless compassion, for these two, as Shinran says, are my father and my mother. Is anything to be lost by sitting a few minutes a day, when Amida sat no less than five kalpas formulating a Vow which would put an end to birth and death?

I am grateful to all those whom I call my teachers, namely all you who are present here today and many others, who have unselfishly helped to make me aware of the teachings of Shinran Shonin and the Pure Land Masters. And I am particularly grateful to the organizers of this conference for the opportunity of being here and sharing my thoughts with you.                                    

Ekō 99

jikōji - 慈光寺

© 2003