Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 31

Those who hear the Buddha's Name -
Going even through flames that fill
The great thousandfold world to do so -
Attain forever the stage of nonretrogression.

Mahasahasra Lokadhatu

The great thousand-fold cosmos (Sk. mahasahasra lokadhatu) refers in our terms to the entire universe, which is on fire because it is fuelled by the thirst (Sk. trsna) which is fed by ignorance (Sk. avidya). It is experienced as suffering (Sk. duhkha). Few of us need to be convinced about this.

We are reminded in this wasan of the Fire Sermon, which was made popular by the American poet Thomas Stearnes Eliot, in a poem of that name. It refers to the popular Agama1 sutra in which the Buddha taught that our minds, bodies, and the world are on fire. This is especially poignant because the imagery used in describing the world of the mind as being on fire is a powerful metaphor for the destructive nature of greed and anger.

The Larger Sutra describes the 'five burnings' which are the result of the way in which we get trapped in the world of thirst, desire and greed. It is not a moral judgement but a statement of fact. We cannot escape the fact that we are net consumers. We cannot live but by using more resources than we put back.

To live we must take life. For example, if we are infected with bacteria which threaten our lives, our body's immune system destroyes these living organisms in their billions. Our very existence is a consuming fire.

Seeing how hard it is to put out a fire if we are on fire ourselves, Amida Buddha contrived to become Namu-amida-butsu so that he could reach into the kernel of our being and call to us in his Name like a cooling rain dowsing a raging wild fire.

Namu-amida-butsu - the cool breezes of the dharma whispering to us to trust in him, arresting the fire's progress, allowing the residual fuel of our karma to exhaust itself. And when it is all burnt away leaving only the pure serene joy of nirvana to remain.


1: The agama sutras are a collection of short discourses from the Sarvastivada school, which is now extinct. They are not accepted as authoritative in the Pure Land School.

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