Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 42

Beams of light, thirty-six hundred
Thousand billion in number,
Shine brilliantly from within each flower;
There is no place they do not reach.

Many Lights

The rays of light streaming from the flowers in the transformed Pure Land represent an instance in which the effects of the Pure Land extend beyond its transcendant nature and out into the realm of desire, the realm of wandering. We see one way in which the infinite karmic power of the Buddha, resulting from his Vow and æons of pure practices, bringing his Vow to perfection, can transcend the limitations of the illusioned world in which we dwell. 'Light' as we already know is the wisdom of the Buddha, making itself manifest in the lives of the unelightened.

The metaphor of flowers as the source of the rays tells us of the infinite variety of ways in which the dharma is apprehended by an infinite variety of beings, and many are the circumstances in which the dharma is heard and received. Infinite is the variety of people who listen and respond.

Our prime example of the compex, specific and individual nature of the dharma's approach to us is Shinran Shonin. He explains his personal path in the final section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which we define as 'turning through three vows' (sangan tennyu). Yet, there is only one shinjin (entrusting heart) and one enlightenment, so the endpoint is always the same despite the diversity of ways that the dharma nurtures us.

Sangan tennyu describes a process of progress through the nineteenth, twentieth and eighteenth of Amida Buddha's Vows. We will consider it in more depth when we encounter it again, later in the Jodo Wasan. For the moment, it serves to illustrate the way that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha accommodates different levels of spiritual evolution and character.

In Shinran's view the nineteenth Vow is explicitly outlined in the Contemplation Sutra. This is the 'essential gate' of good behaviour and meditation. Shinran began his quest as a diligent monk but eventually this way, and turned to the 'true way' of the twentieth Vow, which has resonances with the Amida Sutra. This is the Vow of self-effortive recitation of the nembutsu.

Shinran locates his arrival at the threshold of this ultimate Vow in the year 1201, which is the time of his meeting with Honen Shonin and the nembutsu way. This is the Vow of shinjin since nembutsu and it are inseparable. Shinran however, did not advocate sangan tennyu as a formal process. Ultimately, he encourages us to abandon the first two ways because they are in fact provisional and expedient, leading to birth in transformed pure lands and not the 'birthless birth' of the true Pure Land and nirvana.

The course by which Shinran moved into the ultimacy of the eighteenth or 'Great Vow of Merit Transference' (abandoning self effort) is not necessarily our course in this life. On the other hand, perhaps it could be said that our circumstances have led us to hear the call of the Primal Vow as a result of the fact that, at some stage - either in this life, or in the infinite past - we have lived the essential way of the nineteenth Vow. The dharma approaches us in accord with our nature and circumstances just as it approached Shinran in his monastic setting where he began to realise that all of his efforts were to no avail.

The variety of method and personality is infinite like the colours of flowers and rays of light in the transformed Pure Land. There are many lights and many ways of seeing.

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