Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 25

When sentient beings in the various forms of existence
        throughout the ten quarters,
On hearing Amida's Name of transcendent virtues,
Come to attain true and real shinjin,
They greatly rejoice at what they have heard.

Hearing the Name

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the Chapter of Practice (gyo), Shinran Shonin carries out an exhaustive etymological analysis of the first word (namo) of the Nembutsu in its classical Chinese cognate (kimyo) and concludes

Kimyo, therefore, is the command of the Primal Vow, summoning us to trust it.

This is a powerful statement because it leaves no room for us to do anything except respond.

The 'Primal Vow' refers to the source of vows that find verbal expression in the The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. Bodhisattvas make vows at the first stage in the same way that, at a certain point in our development into adults, we make a decision and plan a course of study or action with a view to attaining certain objectives in life. However, before the vows are expressed an inner aspiration or motive has already formed itself. It is this deep intention that is equivalent to the Primal Vow.

Because we are all prey to our previous actions we are often thwarted in our plans, but the bodhisattva's career is so selfless and sublime that it attains cosmic proportions, and its virtue is able to ultimately overcome karmic hindrances.

A bodhisattva makes his or her vows and then strives to live up to them. Eventually they are fulfilled when, like Shakyamuni, the bodhisattva successfully imparts the content of enlightenment, and the fruit of his vows, to those who hear his voice. The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha refers at once to both all of his seminal vows and the core vows, which I have ennumerated in an earlier essay. Especially significant is his eighteenth Vow.

If all sentient beings, hearing the Name and rejoicing in faith even once - through the Buddha's sincere endowment - desire to be born in His Land, they can obtain birth instantaneously and dwell in the non-retrogressive Stage ...

This verse stands alone and its power would prevail whatever its antecedents may be.

The word hear ... means that sentient beings, having heard how the Buddha's Vow arose - its origin and fulfilment - are altogether free of doubt.1

This hearing is profound, visceral, crucial, basic, and primordial; simple, but not at a time or in a way of our choosing; its momentary subliminal occurrence is not capable of isolation for retrospective analysis; its existence can only be known as the total abandonment of both self-effort - and the wish to manipulate events to suit our individual needs by magic or petitionary prayer. In other words, it is the arrival of unshakable absolute trust, which arises from this profound awakening - and a heart that sometimes sings in serene joy.

In Shinran's thinking the Primal Vow was initiated by the very reality that lies at the heart of things. This reality manifests itself into a discernable form. Moving within the law of karma, and in a way that creatures like us can comprehend, it expressly acts for the purpose of reaching us and lifting us out of the round of birth-and-death, the suffering existence that binds us.

This model of action is reflected in the way that Shakyamuni forsook the high ground of his enlightenment and moved into the tumult of the market-place to approach people who could hear his voice and gain the same liberation that he already knew. The Primal Vow is the prototype of this yearning to liberate the suffering masses. It only differs in the important sense that it is not bound by time or circumstance, transcending both.

However, it is the 'Name' (myogo) in the Vow that lies at the heart of this experience and understanding. Hearing 'the origin and fulfilment of the Vow' finds its direction and focus in a tangible, knowable thing: the Name. As we progress through our reflections on Shinran's wasan we will have many opportunities to unpack the expression of the Primal Vow, which is the 'inconceivable Name' (myogo fushigi). We will discover how it is that, in hearing it, shinjin blooms for us in the here and now.


1: CWS, p. 112.

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