Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 2

Those who say the Name while they doubt
The Vow beyond conceptual understanding
Attain birth and abide for five-hundred years
Vainly within a palace; so it is taught.

On Being Trapped

Shakyamuni1 lived in times, during which people in his country - Benares, now in India - lived as many still do today: within a caste system in which human beings are graded into classes depending on their birth. People generally believed that by carrying out certain rituals they could amass sufficient virtue to enable them to be born into a higher caste. Shakyamuni criticised this, however, and revealed a new ‘caste’ system, which was religious and ethical in nature. It was not dependent on rituals but on the development of mental faculties and led, over time, through either four or ten stages. In simple terms, at the first stage of enlightenment, a person moves from the status of an ordinary person to the ‘stage of joy’ (Sk. pramudita); but such entry onto the first rung of spiritual maturity is impossible while the three fetters prevail.

These fetters describe a state of addiction to trepidation so strong that it oppresses us. They have an habitual quality and, like a person who is bound by chains, we need to ‘snap out of them’. In fact, the fetters all describe a human tendency to prevarication and a preference for the comfort of the known - a kind of vertigo or even cowardice in the face of the task ahead.

The most overbearing fetter is doubt, or equivocation. In the wasan Shinran uses two Japanese words for doubt: utagai in this wasan and - in the third volume of verses - giwaku. A person who enters the first stage of the Buddhist path has unshakeable faith in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Shinran in this wasan laments the fetter of doubt which imprisons us in a glorious world of our own creation. The dharma (the Vow - ultimate, infinte truth) is inconceivable and cannot be structured as a mental object. It liberates us from all fetters and the contivance that keeps us in the thrall of samsara.2

So, what shall we do? If doubt is such a serious obstacle to the Buddhist way, is there some way we can challenge and conquer it?

The Pure Land tradition has discovered, in the teachings handed down through the ages and in the experience of ordinary people, that to entrust oneself to Amida Buddha in the Name (Namu-amida-butsu) is the only way. As the great Australian Buddhist thinker Marie Byles said towards the end of her long life of profound Buddhist practice:

It is not easy to relax and let go, and plunge into the flood with only a simple phrase as your life-belt and the very-nature-of-things-as-they-are. It is not easy but it is a great relief when you do so.3

Thus, Marie Byles describes relinquishing doubt. This sounds like 'blind faith' but it is not so. We will see as we proceed through Shinran's wasan that in fact it is the most profound wisdom and light that informs shinjin; and it is this and only this, which can eliminate our doubt.


1: 'Shakyamuni' is another name for Gautama Buddha (563-483 BCE), and means 'Sage of the Shakya Nation'. Gautama was the principal founder of the cultural, philosophical, speculative and religious system we call 'Buddhism'. It is properly known as Buddha Dharma.

2: samsara: literally 'wandering'; the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.

3: Buddhism in Australia, Paul Croucher, p. 73.

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