Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 15

The light is more luminous than the heavenly bodies;
Thus Amida is called 'Light that Surpasses the Sun and Moon.'
Even Shakyamuni's praise cannot exhaust its virtues,
So take refuge in the one without equal.

The Limits of Language

The Buddha said to Ananda and Vaidehi, 'Listen carefully, listen carefully and ponder deeply. I will expound for you the method of removing suffering. Bear my words in mind and explain them to the multitude of beings.'

When these words were spoken, Amitayus appeared in the air above, attended on his left and right by the two Mahasattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. So brilliant was their radiance that it was impossible to see them in detail. They could not be compared even with a hundred thousand nuggets of gold from the Jambu River.1

We see here a perfect example of the way the dharma breaks into our deluded minds. The Buddha has been explaining to Vaidehi the method of contemplating the Pure Land. All of the vizualizations are self-generated. Then as soon as Shakyamuni says 'Listen carefully, listen carefully and ponder deeply!' he is telling Vaidehi to listen to words and ideas which have, as yet, no form. In that moment Vaidehi is free of conceptualization and open to the dharma. It takes form on the blue vacuity (the emptiness) of the sky, causing Vaidehi to fall to her knees and call the Buddha's name. 'World Honoured One!' she cries out.

In the Pure Land tradition the way in which the dharma will emerge from formlessness into a form that can be conceived is by this very means, 'Listen carefully, listen carefully and ponder deeply.' When this listening deepens, as it were, in that profound anticipation that occurs before something is said, the formless takes form as Namu-amida-butsu - as an image or as a sound.

The listening is fuelled by the absorbtion of the teaching - as in Vaidehi's case when she heard the description of the visualisations of the Pure Land - and remains dormant as seeds which sprout and break into our consciousness in an anticipatory moment that is free of all self consciousness; writing itself, as it were, on the primordial vacuity of emptiness, which is like a clear, blue sky.

Language is a necessity for the human organism2. Hence, even people whose hearing or speech are impaired need to create sign language. Over and over again we become ensnared in the net of words. Usually the Buddha Dharma is paradoxical - it uses language to transcend language - but a significant number of people reify the language, become idolatrous, never transcend the words, and wander yet more in the endelss stream of birth and death. The worst degradation of the dharma is when words are taken as the subject of their reference. We should let the words settle down and let go of them, and get on with life listening carefully, listening carefully.


1: The Three Pure Land Sutras, tr. by Inagaki Hisao, in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Revised Second Edition, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003 ['TPLS2']. p. 83.

2: For an account of Jodo Shinshu as a Buddhist path to realisation through engagement with language, see Asura's Harp Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path by Dennis Hirota, Universitätsverlag Heidelberg: ISBN 978-3-8253-5264-6; 3-8253-5264-I.

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