Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 1

Those who truly attain shinjin
As they utter Amida’s Name,
Being mindful of the Buddha always,
Wish to respond to the great benevolence.1

The News of the Day

The best news to read each day is to be discovered in our immediate vicinity; those with whom we share our lives, for example, or the garden - or just by going for a rambling walk around our neighbourhood.

Needless to say, the really striking thing about the daily news, our neighbourhood, other people, our garden and our own lives is that they all portend the one immutable fact of life - change. No matter how friendly people may be one day, the next day they can become an enemy; no matter how wondrous a few mushrooms may be emerging in morning mist, by lunch time they have disappeared.

This inexorable reality surely drives most sensitive people to an urgent quest for the infinite and this quest eventually changes our focus from the illusions of the world to the wondrous and growing joy in discovering the unconditioned reality. Already, a sense of indebtedness grows within us, not just for the infinite but also for those evanescent things in our daily life, which, themselves, paradoxically urge us to seek eternal truth. It is natural for human beings to want to express this awe - this joy - in some way and it is something of this to which Shinran Shonin2 alludes when he suggests that we may want to 'respond to' the source of our wonder. Even so, Shinran has something much more vital and specific in mind.

The teaching of Shinran was inherited from his predecessors, the masters of India, China and Japan. It is called 'the true Pure Land teaching' (Jodo Shinshu), a term first used by the Chinese master Fa-chao (766-822), who was influenced by the Chinese Jodo Shinshu dharma master Shan-tao (613-681). It is very straightforward and fundamentally easy to understand, even without knowing basic Buddhist concepts.

Jodo Shinshu is derived from the Primal Vow Amida Buddha. The benevolence of the Buddha manifests itself in the Name (Namu-amida-butsu)8. It is the call to us from the depths of reality - the Primal Vow (hongan). When we respond to the call of the Vow and accept the Name, the shinjin of 'Other-Power' (tariki no shinjin) spontaneously awakens - the Name finds a secure and exclusive place in our lives and becomes the nembutsu of gratitude.

The person of shinjin3 is 'immediately brought to share in the benefit of being embraced never to be abandoned'4, attains the 'rank of non-retrogression (futaiten)' and will become a Buddha at birth in the Pure Land.

Of course, these truths will be unfamiliar to people encountering the teaching for the first time. Hence, the purpose of Shinran's writings is to explain and celebrate how this comes to be, and just what it means for us. As we read his words, and listen to his voice, our understanding will grow.

In both Sanskrit and Chinese shinjin has two defining elements: 'confidence', 'trust' or 'clarity' (信 shin Sanskrit: prasanna) and 'heart' or 'mind' (心 jin Sk.: citta). Shinran realised that it originates in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, and effects one's ultimate liberation.5 Hence, true shinjin is not a self-induced 'belief' in something, but the wisdom of the Buddha, characterised by clarity, certainty and knowledge.

The question arises as to just how we should 'repay the Buddha's benevolence': an inclination that we cannot resist when Amida Buddha's shinjin has arisen within our hearts. Shinran's wife Eshinni reports - in one of her letters6 - that Shinran had a very clear idea about this, and it is this:

There are two aspects of repaying the Buddha's benevolence. One is the nembutsu, saying the Name: Namu-amida-butsu; the other is to 'accept the teaching oneself and lead others to accept it.' Namu-amida-butsu means 'homage (namu) to the infinite light and life (amida7) Buddha (butsu)'. We will learn to understand it better as we explore Shinran's wasan. More than anything, it is the joyful and natural cry that comes from a heart set free by Amida Buddha's dharma.

The best way to hear and celebrate the call of the Vow is to make use of the resource that has been bequeathed to us by Shinran and his eminent successor Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499). This is the collection of Shinran's poems or hymns in three volumes (sanjo wasan) - the subject of these essays. So, let us begin our quest and enjoy for ourselves these songs of light, liberation and joy .

1: The Collected Works of Shinran, Volume I, (Kyoto: Jodo Shinshû Hongwanji-ha, 1997) [CWS], p. 325. The three volumes of Hymns (Sanjo Wasan), which form the basis of these essays, are on pages 321 to 429, inclusive.

2: Shonin is an honourific term that is used with Shinran's name. It's meaning is similar to the more familiar Indian term mahatma, 'great soul'.

3: CWS leaves shinjin untranslated. Some translations render it as 'faith'. More recently, shinjin has been translated as 'entrusting heart'. It is my preference to retain the current styles of CWS for Notes on the Nembutsu.

4: CWS, pp. 54, 38, 95, 221 & 412.

5: In fact, Shinran used a number of terms to describe awakening in the Pure Land path. For example, when it is used on its own, the first syllable of shinjin (shin) may equate to the Sanskrit word shraddha (clarity, confidence) or prasada (faith).

6: The Life of Eshinni, Wife of Shinran Shonin by Yoshiko Ohtani, pp. 95-6.

7: Amida is a contraction of two Sanskrit words: amitabha, immeasurable light and amitayus, immeasurable length of life. Sanskrit, a classical Indian language, was often used to record ancient Buddhist teachings and ideas for posterity.

8: 'Namu-amida-butsu' is also pronounced 'Namo Amida Butsu'. Its meaning is 'Take refuge in Amida Buddha'. Shinran emphasised the Sanskrit term amitabha (immeasurable light) as the essential meaning of Amida. Namu-amida-butsu means 'take refuge in the Tathagata (Buddha) of unhindered light filling the ten quarters' and 'take refuge in the Tathagata of inconceivable light.'

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