Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 12

The light shines everywhere ceaselessly;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha of Uninterrupted Light.'
Because beings hear [and apprehend] this power of light,
Their mindfulness is enduring and they attain birth.

On Houses and Carts

While the Buddha Dharma is a universal and unconditioned law, our engagement with it is always a process. The way of the Buddha is a vehicle. Of course, travel sometimes involves a leap or two.

... a shrill scream from the engine, and everybody jumped up in alarm, Alice among the rest.

The Horse, who had put his head out of the window, quietly drew it in and said 'Its only a brook we have to jump over.' Everybody seemed satisfied with this, although Alice felt a little nervous at the idea of trains jumping at all. 'However, it'll take us into the Fourth Square, that's some comfort!'1

In the real world, Shinran Shonin carefully analyses his experience of the path and, drawing on precedent from Buddhist texts, classifies the Jodo Shin teaching as 'crosswise transcendence'. In Jodo Shinshu experience there is an imperceptible shift at some point along the way in which the follower suddenly flips from the by-way of wandering to the highway of shinjin, from the river bank onto the raft, from the raft into the ocean.

In the academic, philosophical and theolgical traditions of European civilization the task is the building of structures but the literature of the Buddha Dharma is designed as a travel guide and is almost never a blueprint. In fact when people begin to develop the Buddha Dharma into blueprints - dogmas - it begins to look stark and distinctly odd. It can make people miserable, when, in fact, the Buddha Dharma is the path out of suffering.

Yet, how often do we come across works which present dharma texts as structures when in essence the purpose of the Buddha Dharma is to dismantle structures - especially the world of birth-and-death?

The most wonderful dharma treatise ever written is Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It is a constant source of joy and inspiration. However, I am convinced that like most, if not all, Buddhist writing it is essentially a travel guide, a vehicle, and not at all a blueprint. It is an experience, telling us about things that the writer has known at first hand - like a peal of thunder or a peal of bells. Shinran himself does not describe it as a blueprint but as a 'collection of passages' about transcendence and free heart - and it lives up to its name. It is a wildly exuberant collection of joyful descriptions that witness to the true Pure Land way.

When we read dharma expositions like the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, it is wise to remember that the writer is not intending to bring us a merely logical, objective exposition. Dharma texts resemble life and take many unexpected and suprising turns. Although they do indeed contain some logical or incremental steps, all scriptures of the dharma are in fact the authors' reports of things that they know; the things that they have seen and confirmed for themselves. The writers have recorded their experience in order to share it with others. So, we read, study and contemplate dharma texts as participants and not as spectators. Texts that relate the Buddha Dharma are dynamic, organic things, which only have life when they are assimilated by those who hear them.

People who restrict the dharma only to formal, objective, logical and rational expression, kill it: because we are far too complex to be truly reasonable, and, although reason is a characteristic, which needs to be addressed in giving an account of ourselves, it is built on ignorance and illusion. Placing living organisms into straight-jackets or programming, deprives them of movement, nourishment and life. We should not confuse the dharma, which is 'highest truth' (paramartha satya) and science, which is conventional truth (samvritti satya). Both realms of truth work together, at different levels, to enrich and liberate our lives.

I still remember the moment at my ordination when I was presented a copy of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. Here was I, a new disciple of the Buddha, being handed the guidebook for discipleship, the map of the dharma terrain. It was as though I was being told, here is the travel guide, enjoy the journey. And indeed I have. It was so clear that the travel guide is vitally important, especially when you get lost; but, in fact, it is not an end in itself. It is the journey that is the important thing.

In listening to the Buddha Dharma, then, we need to engage with it in the same way we listen to music or beautiful sounds; read as though reading a travel guide. We need to roll along with it, flow with it. It is often described as a stream - we float with the dharma. If we try to stop the flow, arrest the process, make a building out of carts, we will become confused and unhappy. The dharma is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful at the end. Whenever it has become known, it has thrived throughtout endless æons because people love it and enjoy it. It brings them joy and leads to genuine and enduring freedom... and because travel is interesting; it is exciting and fun.

The three vehicles refer to three ways of travelling the path of the Buddha. We are travelling in one of them, the 'bodhisattva vehicle'. But Amida Buddha's light, his love and compassion, surrounds and supports all travellers along the way of dharma, whatever vehicle life has chosen for them. When we hear and accept the working of Amida Buddha’s Name (Namu-amida-butsu) in the Vow we all become people whose nembutsu turns to praise.


1: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.

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