Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 29

Beings born in the Pure Land in the past, present, and future
Are not solely from this world;
They come from Buddha lands throughout the ten quarters
And are countless, innumerable, beyond calculation.

Two Truths

The phrase 'past, present and future' presents a challenge. For, samsara is ultimately illusory; in reality, neither the past nor the future exist. However, when we understand the Buddhist concept of 'two truths' we can accept that in a conventional, practical and objective sense, the world of time and illusion (enveloped - samvrti) is tangible, since we are enmeshed in it. Indeed, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva wrote that the highest truth (paramartha satya) cannot be expounded unless we have recourse to conventional truth (samvrti satya). All the same, he also said that nirvana cannot be realised apart from the highest, transcendent truth.1

Time belongs to the samvrti satya (conventional truth); the true, fulfilled, Pure Land does not. Scientific investigation, technology and social movements like the European enlightenment could well belong to samvrti satya and have a tenuous relationship with ultimate truth (paramartha satya). It is ridiculous, of course, to dismiss 'worldly truth' as of no value. While it is not ultimate, it is nevertheless 'truth' and is often of immense practical significance. A good example of this is the science of medicine, which works very much in parallel with the ultimate values of a bodhisattva.

Throughout his writings, Shinran Shonin constantly alludes to stages of development, especially in his own experience and of moving from one plane of awareness to another. In doing this, he seems to be continuing with the tradition of working within 'two truths' at the same time, and moving between them.

It can be said that Shin Buddhism belongs to the ultimate, spiritual truth (paramarta satya) and it certainly leads to ultimate transcendence, since the Pure Land is 'other worldly' and untainted by conventional truth. There is nothing illusory about it, although it sometimes seems to lack any objective reality to people without shinjin. That is because it is not possible know it except by the power of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The fact that it seems feasible to us, in contrast to our own evanescent context, is testimony to the Power of Amida's light.

And what of those from the 'past, present and future' who enter Amida's Pure Land? Well, with unmatched eloquence, that very phrase testifies to the process of moving from illusion to enlightenment.


1: Madhyamakavatara, VI, 10.

My exposition here is obviously over-simplified. The concept of two truths was expounded by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva. It is suggested that those who wish to study his thought in greater depth begin with Nagarjuna's Philosophy by K. Venkata Ramanan, Charles E Tuttle, 1966, recently re-issued by Motlilal Barnasidass.

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