Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 110

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
The countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
Surrounding us a hundredfold, a thousandfold,
Rejoice in and protect us.

The Delight of the Buddhas

We have now reached the last of the verses on benefits in the present. It can be seen that the purport of these verses has been to celebrate the sense of profound spiritual security and freedom that is experienced by people of true faith (Jp. shinjitsu shinjin). In these verses such people are, in the main, described as those who say Namu-amida-butsu. Faith is not 'true' otherwise and, of course, it is nembutsu of Other Power.

One key element to bear in mind is Shinran's late emphasis - in this series - on true shinjin, not so much because it more clearly defines what Shinran means by shomyo nembutsu - saying Namu-amida-butsu- but because the protection of the gods and Buddhas is an incidental, secondary benefit of the nembutsu way. Shinran's teaching is entirely devoid of any mundane utilitarian content; its purpose is ultimate transcendence. Saying the nembutsu, indeed, with a primary objective of mundane benefit is not an activity associated with Amida Buddha's faith. The Pure Land dharma has been used in the past for material benefits but this is not in accord with its purpose and, in any case, that motivation will not deliver the results hoped for. The Pure Land way transcends worldly concerns altogether hence it is 'true'. For the mudane is ultimately illusory and 'untrue'.

Although we have been speaking of benefits in the present world there is no suggestion that the nembutsu way offers material gain or delineates a pattern of social order. Its aim is complete and ultimate transcendence, not just for ourselves but, as Tao-cho (562 - 645) says, because:

I have collected true words to aid others in their practice for attaining birth, in order that the process be made continuous, without end and without interruption, by which those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted.1


In this verse, the image conveyed in the phrase

Innumerable Buddhas of the ten quarters,
Walk round him hundreds of thousands deep.

is extremely compelling. In much of the Pure Land tradition, especially that maintained in China, in association with the Ch'an (Zen) and T'ien-t'ai (tendai) there is a venerable practice in which devotees chant nembutsu while walking around an image of Amida Tathagata and his two attendants, Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva and Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Here, in contrast, it is the Buddhas who walk around the nembutsu follower - a complete role reversal. T'an-luan (476 - 542) uses this imagery in his joyous work, Ojo Raisan. What is being commemorated here is the very heart of the dharma; that is to say, its purpose is - in the words of Shakyamuni - to disclose the nature of 'suffering and the release from suffering'. The role of Buddhas is not that of static objects of worship but as active agents in the liberation of all living things. Their walking is, therefore, in 'joy and delight'; for the person of nembutsu is well on the way to full realisation of dharma.

The protection of the nembutsu follower is not defensive. It is by virtue of the fact that the Buddhas 'crowd out' any offence against the person of true shinjin. One could even say that the person of shinjin dwells in a Buddha-focussed world and the heart and mind of such a person tends to an other-worldly preoccupation. But, in any case, the threat we are contemplating is not a merely superficial and physical one; it is internal. The real threats to ourselves lie within - it is what we do to ourselves that matters.

Are we going to close ourselves off from our true - but hidden - nature, the source from which we came, the dharma-body? Will we let ourselves be governed by the internal demons and fantasies that we have created? Will we make ourselves the measure of all things? Is our earthly life-span and our bodily existence the sum of all things for us? There is really nothing to inhibit this choice and it is one which most of us make. Most of us are happy to choose a warm inner darkness and a life wherein no assumptions are challenged, no demons confronted and no liberation attained. It is the people who are oblivious to danger who are he most vulnerable.

The person of nembutsu, true shinjin - the one who is surrounded by joyous Buddhas - has become the centre of the universe and is in tune with its joyful thrumming. And not because he or she avoided life's difficulties and challenges. The person of shinjin has confronted the demons and admitted his or her limitations. In so doing the light that infuses all things has been revealed. It is not the fact of the people of true faith which the Buddhas surround with joy and delight but the Namu-amida-butsu, which they say, and which is the light that adorns their lives.


1: CWS, p. 291.

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