Nagarjuna on the the Path of Easy
Richard St. Clair (Shaku Egen)
Bodhisattva Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250) is claimed as a patriarch for many
different schools of Buddhism. In True Shin Buddhism, Master Shinran
counted Nagarjuna as the first of the Seven Patriarchs, the last of
whom was his own teacher and mentor, Master Honen.
Nagarjuna is widely regarded as the second most influential and
important teacher of Buddhism, after Shakyamuni Himself. But the
teachings he is widely known for are his self-power teachings - i.e.
teachings for those on the Path of the Sages, looking to work their way
up the mountain of enlightenment by becoming Bodhisattvas.
Many if not most of those who look to Nagarjuna have NO IDEA that he is
a seminal figure in Pure Land Buddhism - much less Pure Land Buddhism
based entirely on OTHER-POWER - a.k.a. True Shin Buddhism.
Nagarjuna was the first sage to define refuge in the Other Power of
Amida Buddha as the easy pathway to Buddhahood. His reasoning is
crystal clear. Let us look at what he wrote in his Discourse on the Ten
Bodhisattva Stages some time in the 3rd century. He first writes,
"Even if you have fallen into hell, you
will eventually be able to reach Buddhahood."
This is SO IMPORTANT. The person most likely to fall into hell is the
BOMBU, the person sunken deeply in blind passions. This is the person
that Amida Buddha MOST directs his Primal Vow towards, the person who
would never, by personal effort, be able to realize Buddhahood. He is
talking expressly about YOU and ME.
It is also important because it says that hell, what is called Avici,
is a TEMPORARY place where beings of heavy karma are purged of evil
karma and enabled
to have rebirths in higher realms - ultimately realizing enlightenment
and Buddhahood through the Other Power of Amida Buddha.
"To the practicers of Mahayana, the
'To make vows and seek the Path to Buddhahood is a task harder than
lifting the whole universe'."
How amazing! Is there anywhere else a more stark presentation of the
difficulty of self power practice towards Buddhahood as in this
And this relates directly to the Second Pillar of True Shin Buddhism,
where we as BOMBUs come to the realization that not by even the most
power effort for innumerable births could we realize Buddhahood.
In effect, we are POWERLESS over our blind passions.
Nagarjuna continues with a Q&A:
"[Question]: You say that the Stage of
Non-retrogression is extremely difficult to enter, requiring a long
period of practice, and ask me if there is a path of easy practice
whereby you can attain this stage quickly.
[Answer]: These are words of a cowardly and contemptible man, and not
those of a brave man with a strong aspiration. If, however, you insist
on hearing from me about this method of practice, I will explain it to
Isn't Nagarjuna really talking about the BOMBU? The brave man with
strong aspiration in our Mappo age is virtually nonexistent today. The
in our Age of Declining Dharma have no ability to attain enlightenment
by self effort.
We are collectively the person with feet of clay, what Master Rennyo
calls the "wretched" person, or in Nagarjuna's dramatic words the
"cowardly and contemptible" person.
I know for a fact that I, for one, am indeed a cowardly and
contemptible person of blind passions and heavy karma. Without Amida's
Vow to save me, I'd be lost forever. Master Shinran said much the same
thing recorded by his pupil Yuien-bo in the Tannisho:
"[If] I could attain Buddhahood by
endeavoring in other practices, but said the nembutsu and so fell into
hell, then I would feel regret at having been deceived. But I am
incapable of any other practice, so hell is decidedly my abode whatever
If Amida's Primal Vow is true, Shakyamuni's teaching cannot be false.
If the Buddha's teaching is true, Shan-tao's commentaries cannot be
false. If Shan-tao's commentaries are true can Honen's words be lies?
If Honen's words are true, then surely what I say cannot be empty."
Nagarjuna continues, and this is the crux:
"There are innumerable modes of entry
into the Buddha's teaching. Just as there are in the world difficult
and easy paths - travelling on foot by land is full of hardship and
travelling in a boat by sea is pleasant - so it is among the paths of
Some exert themselves diligently, while
others quickly enter
Non-retrogression by the easy practice based on faith."
This is a direct reference to Part II of the Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha (Sanskrit:
Sukhavativyuha Sutra, or
Japanese: Daimuryoju Kyo):
"By the power of [Amida] Buddha's
All who hear his Name and desire birth,
Will, without exception, be born in his land
And effortlessly enter the Stage of Non-retrogression."
And this is where Nagarjuna, for the first time in the history of the
Dharma in our world, is about to define
path of easy practice based on Amida's Vow.
"Amida Buddha's Primal Vow is as
'If anyone contemplates me, recites my name, and takes refuge in me, he
will instantly enter the Stage of Assurance and subsequently attain the
highest perfect Bodhi.'
For this reason, you should always be mindful
Mindful is a Dharma term that
means "thinking on the Buddha." In True Shin Buddhism it means the
Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu: "I take refuge in Amida Buddha".
Further it means Faith in Amida Buddha, and it means in the larger
sense the gift of SHINJIN that Amida bestows on all who take
singleminded and steadfast refuge in Him. It also means gratitude
to Amida Buddha who saves us: "Thank You, Amida Buddha."
This is the very fountainhead of Pure Land Buddhism. It is because of
this that Master Shinran called Bodhisattva Nagarjuna the First
Patriarch of Jodo
Shinshu Buddhism. Here Nagarjuna is following Shakyamuni Buddha's
teaching about Amida Buddha in the Larger
Sutra on Amida Buddha.
He has quoted the all-important PRIMAL VOW. This is the Vow by which IN
PARTICULAR those lost in suffering and heavy karma, the BOMBUs,
are saved and
enabled to become Buddhas at their life's end by being reborn in
Amida's Pure Land.
Now in Nagarjuna's time there were still some "brave people with strong
aspiration" to Buddhahood. He was close enough in the lifetime of
Shakyamuni that Shakyamuni's buddha-field was still energetic enough to
enable a few people to attain Buddhahood. For such "brave people with
strong aspiration" self power was still a viable option. But not for us.
We live a long time after Shakyamuni, and His buddha-field is no longer
energetic enough to enable anyone to achieve Buddhahood by self effort.
This is why the EASY PATH of faith in Amida Buddha, defined by
Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, has become the ONLY route in our time to realize
the Buddha's promise of salvation and enlightenment in His Pure Land.
In conclusion, we see the beginning of the development of True Shin
Buddhism in the inspired words of Nagarjuna. This Easy Path was
developed over the centuries by the other Patriarchs of Jodo Shinshu,
culminating in the teaching of Master Shinran.
And...thanks to Najarjuna, and specifically to his JUNIRAI (Twelve
Hymns of Adoration to Amida Buddha), we see that Amida is a real
Buddha, and that He truly is interested in saving us BOMBUs, who cannot
save ourselves no matter what we do.
Here are The Twelve Adorations of Amida Buddha (Junirai) by
Bodhisattva Nagarjuna. Taken together, they are a wonderful
Namu Amida Butsu!
Thank You, Amida Buddha!!
Richard St. Clair