Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 115

'When sentient beings think on Amida,
Just as a child thinks of its mother,
They indeed see the Tathagata - who is never distant -
Both in the present and in the future.'

Thinking on the Buddha

The emphasis in this verse is on 'thinks'. We are again considering samadhi. This time, however, it is our concentration on Buddha and not the Tathagatas' concentration on us. Shinran Shonin gives first place to the direction of concentration as coming from Tathagatas to us because, as we know so clearly from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, all nembutsu originates with the Buddha. Now, in return, we are spontaneously prompted to concentrate our minds on him. Not only this, but the juxtaposition of this and the previous verse tells us that our samadhi (concentration) on the Buddhas is concomitant to their samadhi on us.

Thinking on Buddha, we are near to him and, being close to him draws us naturally into his presence. 'Thinking on the Buddha' is another term for the word 'nembutsu'. This verse asserts that thinking draws us near to the object of our thoughts. Indeed, draws us into an intimate relationship.

The intimate relationship is described as being analogous to that of an infant child (younger than eighteen months) who has not yet realised individuation. Indeed a child up to about ten weeks old has such single-minded admiration and trust for its mother that it will even risk danger to reach her if she calls. By 'mother' of course, we mean the person with whom the infant has bonded in that role: the nursing mother. The emphasis is not on the mother, but on the infant's singlemindedness and trust. There is no hint here that the Buddha is a 'parent' figure.

It is quite significant that the metaphor here is parenthood in relation to the singleminded love and trust of the infant, for the infant does not initially know anything other than trust - indeed, cannot do anything other than trust - until he or she is rebuffed. It is inherent in the realization of prajna (wisdom) that Buddhas never rebuff those who trust them and all fracturing of the relationship between the dharma aspirant and his teacher - the Buddha - is the choice of the aspirant. Therefore, the thinking on the Buddha which is encouraged here in the metaphor of a child's trust in its mother is an imperative; a feature of the natural order of things. It is inexorable; and our dependence on the Buddha is irrefutable, even though in our minds and from our experience there is no guarantee that it will be reciprocal. The infant's trust is due to its circumstances; its trust is a necessity. So is ours.

Given that this is such an apt metaphor, and so instructive of the nature of samadhi when it is centred on Buddha, it is a mistake to take it literally. The singleminded trust of an infant does not suggest that we adopt a puerile disposition. While it is true that some people find it easy to trust because they are childlike in nature, most of us are not. Neither do we need to become childlike to experience his trust. Amida Buddha's Vow embraces all, forsaking none - even intelligent and sophisticated people can open their hearts and accept Amida's faith.

Our singleminded, adoration and trust of the Buddha needs also to be comfortable for us intellectually as well as emotionally. Furthermore some of us are obliged to devise an apologetic for our religious path; we need to be able to account for ourselves. Not only is it natural to yearn for the company of like-minded others as we travel on the way but we all belong to wider communities and networks and our friends and loved ones deserve an explanation from us as to why we have chosen our path.

We are not here being encouraged then to see Buddha as a parent-figure and nor are we being told that our faith needs to be infantile. The message of this verse is all about samadhi - concentration. The image of the infant's singleminded trust and the phrase 'thinking of the Buddha' (nembutsu) neatly draws the two parts of a unitary fact together, as Shinran so often does in his writings. The substance of our entrusting is the Name, even though we may not have the chance to utter a child's cry to draw attention to the fact that it is there.

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