Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 35

The hall and bodhi-tree of seven precious materials
Belong to the Pure Land of the transformed Buddha-body,
      a provisional means;
Numberless are the beings born there from throughout
      the ten quarters,
So pay homage to the sacred hall and bodhi-tree.

A Safety Net?

Thus Shinran Shonin calls upon us to offer our appreciation for the existence of keshindo - the transformed land where we cannot see the true Buddha. This is the land which is not the ineffable pure light of the true Buddha and land. The land of pure light is the land of pure wisdom and is the destination of those for whom Amida Buddha's shinjin has become settled. Instead of being a shaky thing, dependent on the vicissitudes of mood and limited capacity which assail us all, it is the joyful, settled entrusting of Amida Buddha. It is firm, unshakeable and clearly not of our creation.

True shinjin is, frankly, impossible for us ordinary people. 'Unshakeable' belief can be an immature neurotic clinging to views; it can be reinforcement of identity and self-centredness. If true shinjin arises within us, we are touched by Amida's wisdom, our birth in the fulfilled land is settled here and now, our take on life is transformed and - although we may not become better or more intelligent - we eventually pass on to the true Pure Land. It is as difficult for us to awaken true shinjin as it is for us to conceive of the true Buddha Land of light.

The keshindo is described in fine detail in the Contemplation Sutra, one of the key Pure Land sutras. Such physical features as the jewels which adorn the teaching hall and the bodhi tree are presented to us. This land is not the true land but it is not false, either. Since true shinjin cannot be created by such imperfect and unwise people as us it is the place where most of us more or less choose to be born. There are two ways to be born there. One is the way of the nineteenth Vow of Amida Buddha, which is outlined - according to Shinran - in the Contemplation Sutra and includes both meditative and non-meditative good such as avoiding the ten bad actions and the practice of generosity. Then there is the path of the twentieth Vow of the 'True Gate', which is the exclusive recitation of the nembutsu.

From the point of view of the Buddha Dharma, there is simply no way to transcend birth-and-death, or wandering in birth-and-death, except by transcending our self - because it is ultimately illusory and false. Yet it is in our nature to think that by doing something we can initiate some kind of outcome. Indeed, this is the law of cause and effect, which is central to the Buddha's teaching. However, Shakyamuni also taught that 'if there is no cause, there is no result'; 'seeds not sown do not bear fruit.' So we continue in our practices and striving, and decline Amida Buddha's offer. Exclusive practice of the nembutsu does not bring release, if it is still 'our' practice:

Truly we know that those who perform single praxis with a combined mind do not attain great joy. Hence, the master [Shan-tao] states:

'Such people do not realize the Buddha's benevolence and do not respond in gratitude to it; though they perform practices, they give rise to contempt and arrogance in their hearts. For they act always for the sake of fame and profit; they have been enveloped in self-attachment unawares, and do not approach fellow practicers and true teachers; preferring to involve themselves in worldly affairs, they obstruct themselves and block others from the right practice for birth.'1

The keshindo (temporary Pure Land) is certainly an option for us - especially those who just cannot bring themselves to abandon all self-effort, including - paradoxically - their beliefs, and completely trust their destiny to Amida Buddha. But it is a pity not to take up Amida Buddha's offer to supply all we need to transcend the world of birth and death, since, thanks to the efforts of Shinran, the choice is laid before us. The temporary Pure Land is a kind of prison and it accommodates our trepidation, which is a hindrance to complete abandonment to the Primal Vow.


1: CWS, 239.

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