Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 4

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.

The Dawn

Entering the way of Nembutsu and awakening to shinjin was the moment that Shinran Shonin found an altogether new life and became free.

I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Shakyamuni, discarded sundry practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow in 1201.1

This was the time that Shinran at last joined the nembutsu movement led by Honen Shonin. For him it was like a new birth. A quote from the writings of Nagarjuna, which Shinran used in the second section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho2, reminds us of 'the person of the first fruit' in the bodhisattva way as one who is 'born in to the house of Tathagatas'. Of course, the awakening of shinjin is not exactly this but it is like it. For Shinran it was a new dawn.

Entering the nembutsu life, abandoning religious practices, and trusting completely in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, was for Shinran - as it is for us - life's primary purpose, and the fulfillment of his birth. From that day in 1201, when Shinran was twenty-nine years old, his life was a celebration of his joy – a celebration, which was so infectious that it spread the love of the nembutsu way to hundreds, and ultimately to millions, of other people.

In Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls Shinran says of this awakening:

The compassionate light of the Buddha of unhindered light always illumines and protects the person who has realised shinjin; hence the darkness of ignorance has already been cleared, and the long night of birth-and-death is already dispelled and become dawn. Let this be known. … Know that when one realizes shinjin, it is as though dawn has broken.

Not quite birth, but a complete new chapter – a new day in a new life – occurs when we abandon self-power practices and embark on the life of shinjin and the nembutsu.

Since that time in 1201, Shinran experienced grief, he knew sickness and despair, but he never despaired of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and its embodiment as Namu-amida-butsu.

Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment is not the same thing as shinjin in Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhas have attained enlightenment; ordinary people realise shinjin and gain enlightenment upon birth in the Pure Land. Needless to say, both enlightenment and shinjin are deeply transformative events.

Just as Sakyamuni taught all of his sutras after the great awakening, all that we know and revere of Shinran and his writings is the product of his awakening to the shinjin of Amida Buddha. This is the joyful, appreciative Shinran. It is the Shinran, not of theory but of experience, not of mere dogma but of truth; ever the truth at once of his inner reality and the glorious dawn of Amida Buddha’s infinite light and life.

Whenever Shinran alludes to the experiences in his life that led to his awakening, he always recounts it as a process of leaving things behind: 'discarding', 'departing', and 'abandoning'. He tried the Tendai Pure Land practices but he discarded them; he abandoned sundry practices, like meditation, devotional exercises and rules of discipline; he abandoned self-centered nembutsu, which - in his own words – was an attempt to create a stock of virtue for ourselves:

Sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana3 and all good people make the auspicious Name of the Primal Vow their own root of good; hence, they cannot give rise to shinjin and do not apprehend the Buddha's wisdom.4

For this Shinran, the new dawn of his life was when he was twenty-nine years old. His story, from his perspective, begins at that point. Everything up to that time could only ever, thereafter, be described as having been abandoned, in the way that a butterfly leaves its cocoon behind forever.

I believe that Shinran is the epitome of humanity, the 'light of the world', because he found the light, liberation and settled shinjin that each and every one of us really seeks. In our depths, such liberation, and light, and peace calls us all.

It is a very profound and quiet voice, and we can take many wrong turns; our lives are filled with inducements to find fulfillment in superficial things - material goods, ideologies and causes -, which make more noise than our deepest wish.

Shinran took wrong turns, too, but for him the way was harder than it is for us because he was a pioneer. All we need to do is to listen to his teaching of the dharma, because he has travelled the path and reported its course back to us.


1: CWS, p. 290.

2: CWS, p. 19.

4: 'Hinayana' ('Small Vehicle') refers schools like the Sarvastivada, which is now extinct. The focus of their teaching and practice was on the Abhidharma, an analysis of the elements of existence and of the cosmos.

5: CWS, p. 240.

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