Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 13

The Buddha's light cannot be fathomed;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha of Inconceivable Light.'
All the Buddhas, in acclaiming a person's attainment of birth.
Extol Amida's virtues.

Coming in From the Cold

This wasan describes the admiration that all buddhas have for Amida Buddha. Such admiration is the basis of the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. In it Shakyamuni delivered an account of the Buddha Amida whose Primal Vow and supreme virtue has opened the way for all beings to reach ultimate deliverance from the perpetual round of birth-and-death by trusting in his Vow through the Name (Namu-amida-butsu). In this way, their entry into the path to enlightenment is settled.

In the Buddha Dharma, several levels (Sk. bhumi) of development are realised in the movement towards the final goal of liberation: ten, according to Nagarjuna Bodhisattva; fifty-two, according to the Avatamsaka Sutra. Those who have not reached the first stage remain 'beyond the pale'; 'foolish beings' (bombu); the equivalents of spiritual pariahs.

It seems to me that a necessary component of a human sense of significance and belonging has more to do with who is kept out of the group, rather than who has shared values and common ties. I cannot think of an exception to this rule. Every human group and society deliberately excludes individuals who either refuse - or are unable - to conform.

Exclusion is a manifestly cruel punishment. It is such a strong argument against non-conformity that a lot of people prefer to live in misery or distress rather than endure it. In our own consumer society, for example, many long-term unemployed people show all the signs of the psychological distress that comes from exclusion. In a society which, like ours, is governed by the flowing stream of public opinion, the creation of pariah categories varies from generation to generation.

Many schools of the Buddha Dharma have willingly held onto a rule of exclusion; in spite of the attempts of many modern proponents who claim otherwise. Ordinary people must take second place in the scheme of salvation; the value of the monastic way of life is considered the main - if not the only - focus of Buddhist practice. However, in the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, Shakyamuni explains how Amida Buddha could deliver ordinary people from the round of birth and death by the power of his Primal Vow. This teaching, which embraces all, forsaking none (sesshu fusha) has been the basis of the rich and joyous tradition of Pure Land Buddhism.

It is no wonder then that, as he put his brush to paper to create the wasan we are now considering, Shinran's heart must have been bursting with a joy which simply could not be suppressed. For he had just finished the first draft of his great masterpiece, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, in which he had amassed written evidence to support his conviction that, thanks to Amida Buddha's Primal Vow, the hierarchical assumptions which had prevailed in the Buddhist world are not immutable. He showed that ordinary people - and especially women - were in fact the primary focus of the Buddhist way; that a way to liberation from birth-and-death was clearly available to all. Those ordinary folk who had taken second place in much of Buddhist history, could now come in from the cold.

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