Nagarjuna on the the Path of Easy Practice

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.

Nagarjuna continues:

"To the practicers of Mahayana, the Buddha said:
'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 statement?

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 self 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 you."

Isn't Nagarjuna really talking about the BOMBU? The brave man with strong aspiration in our Mappo age is virtually nonexistent today. The people 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 I do.

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 the bodhisattvas.

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 Original Vows,
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

The path of easy practice based on Amida's Vow.

He continues:

"Amida Buddha's Primal Vow is as follows:

'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 of Him."

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 devotional writing.

Namu Amida Butsu!
Thank You, Amida Buddha!!

Richard St. Clair
(Shaku Egen)