Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 23

Their countenances, dignified and wonderful, are beyond compare;
Their bodies, delicate and subtle, are neither human nor deva.
Theirs is the body of emptiness, the body of boundlessness,
So take refuge in Amida, the power of nondiscrimination.

Nirvana

The words

Take refuge in Amida, the power of nondiscrimination. (Sk. sama ta balam).

allude to nirvana as 'sameness' - 'nondiscrimination'.

The realisation of nondiscrimination, that 'the cycle of birth-and-death is nirvana' is seen by Shinran Shonin as oxymoronic for an ordinary, unenlightened person (bombu). The Pure Land way offers a path that is contrived by the Buddha for people like us.

Nondiscrimination cannot come by means of our self-induced calculation because self is ultimately an illusion. It has no actual power except to ensnare and capture us. When no self - the not-self, which is also emptiness - is in play, buddha nature is able to function spontaneously (jinen) according to its essential character. The attainment of nirvana - the power of nondiscrimination - is spontaneous and is the fulfilment of Amida's shinjin, which has been alive in us and leads us to the dharma. It is just one instance of the spontaneous, free or natural power of the dharma (jinen &/or honi).

Dharma nature is free, natural and spontaneous. It actually walks the path for us if only we will let it; if only we will let go of our own conceits. The spontaneous activity of the dharma is the underlying theme of all of Shinran's writing but especially the wasan. We become intensely aware of this as we draw closer to them. I am sure that Shinran wrote the wasan in that way - with a sense of shunyata supporting the brush and finding the words within his heart.

It is impossible to resist the sense that the wasan are being composed by one whose heart was full with the song and joy of shinjin, and the nembutsu of adoration: Shinran completely open to the dharma and free of his own self. As a manifestation of the seventeenth Vow of Amida Buddha1 the wasan are also vehicles for openness to the dharma - freeing us from our self absorption.

Needless to say, from the time that we first awaken to Amida's inconceivable light until the dawning of sameness - nirvana - it is the power of not-self, of emptiness, Amida's shinjin, or buddha nature which takes each step. It can be heard in the sound coming from within that manifests itself as Namu-amida-butsu.


1: If, when I attain Buddhahood, the countless Buddhas throughout the worlds in the ten quarters do not all praise and say my Name, may I not attain supreme enlightenment. (CWS, p. 13)

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