Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 117

'When I was in the causal state,
I realised insight into the non-origination of all existence
By coming to possess the mind of nembutsu;
Hence now, in the world of Sahâ,

Shabakai

This verse brings us at last to the proximate threshold of the Koso Wasan - the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters. It is the first reference by Shinran Shonin to existence within this 'world of endurance' (sahâ-loka). Throughout the Jodo Wasan we have been dwelling in and around the world of nirvana, the Realm of Light.

You will remember that one of the relatively few points in the teaching which distinguishes Shinran's thought from that of other Pure Land masters is that the Pure Land (jodo) - the focus of the first volume of wasan - is nirvana. The other distinguishing features of Shinran's teaching are that practice (gyo, the nembutsu) and shinjin are of the Buddha; and that because the awakening of shinjin is the decisive cause for our ultimate attainment of nirvana, there is no need to be concerned about our state of mind at death.1 All other aspects of the teaching are extrapolations from these three core features.

Now, we are leaving the glorious, pure and serene world of Jodo, and, from now on, our considerations of the dharma will be entirely from within the constraints of this saha world, the world of endurance.

The world of endurance, of course, is not just this planet upon which find ourselves (with our animal companions), but in the cosmology of the dharma it includes the realm of the hells (Sk. niraya), of spirits (Sk. preta), of demons (Sk. asura) and of gods (Sk. deva). So, the world of endurance (or patience) is earth, along with the material universe and the heavens. The Pure Land transcends all of these because it is the uncreated - nirvana - the Land of peace and happiness (anrakushu).

Now we are coming down to earth, so to speak. We are returning in the wasan to our home of interminable wandering (Sk. samsara) where we are always dogged by hardship and sorrow. Even though we are born into a heaven, our pleasure and comfort can only last for the duration of the god with whom we went to dwell or just so long as the results of our karma continue to ripen so that we experience pleasure.

We shall see, in the Koso Wasan, that all of our dharma masters knew and tasted the bitterness of the saha world, the world of sorrows; sometimes as a result of fleeing sorrow and seeking pleasure, or in the common human experiences of loss and longing. After the Koso Wasan we shall come to the Shozomatusu Wasan (Hymns of the Dharma-Ages), which bring us into our own time and condition - a time in which sorrow is extreme and we are removed from the light of the dharma and the guidance of enlightened teachers.

In our time we are prone to lose sight of the truth of the saha world, because just now we are in the process of consuming the earth's resources for the sake of instant gratification, but this bounty will all no doubt be exhausted soon enough. It is also easy for people like us, who live in the so-called 'north' - the world of 'post-industrial' society - to forget that most human beings are always close to starvation and indeed that almost half of the people alive today endure severe and frequent deprivation and distress.

Most people live under the rule of tyrannical and unjust leaders and do not have recourse to health care or to the law as plaintiffs. If we truly had the compassion of bodhisattvas we would starve with them, we would suffer with them; following that great exemplar of the bodhisattva way, Vimilakirti. In any case, there is no iron-clad rule that says that our comfortable situation will endure. The comfort of our civilization is fragile.

But those of us who are affluent are rarely happy anyway. Wealth does not bring joy and of course, neither does poverty. Many of us, who have so much, are angry because we think we should have yet more. As Shakyamuni pointed out, a sated appetite is never sated. So, even if we think we have everything there is always more to want and the more possessions we have, the greater the loss should they be taken from us. Our loved ones still grow sick, old and die, and injustice still prevails for most of us. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of us are in jobs that we do not really find fulfilling and we endure those as well.

In this consumer society there can be no greater misfortune than to be unemployed and find ourselves deprived of funds to use on consumption. The unemployed become useless persona non grata - viewed only with contempt and seen by many as greedy, grasping, wasteful parasites and underserving users of public resources. Like all wealthy people, too, we live in fear that the poor will take it all away from us by force, robbing us in some way.

So even those who are ostensibly comfortable and wealthy still have much to endure.

Our human lot is subject to many vicissitudes. Sickness and ageing, longing and loss. There are natural disasters that are out of our control, like drought, flood, fire, earthquake and even a huge collision with an extra-terrestrial rock of some kind. Worse are the things we inflict upon each other, especially war and other cruelties. In such circumstances the Buddha Dharma has survived and been transmitted for nearly two and a half thousand years.

In the midst of all the uncertainty and evanescence of human life - here in this saha world - countless millions have been inspired to follow the Pure Land way. Of these, Shinran selected seven as being outstanding interpreters of the dharma, able to show us the way to endure in the world of endurance; and how, ultimately we can transcend it. In two more verses, we will begin to explore what it is that they have to tell us, and discover how - through them - we can find relief, salvation and the release of nirvana.


1: CWS, p. 531.

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