Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 50

I praise Amida's wisdom and virtue
So that beings with mature conditions throughout the ten quarters
        may hear.
Let those who have already realised shinjin
Constantly respond in gratitude to the Buddha's benevolence.

The Infinte Debt

When Shinran Shonin set out to write the Jodo Wasan, he did so from the fullness of his heart. He had already completed an exposition of his understanding of the Pure Land path, The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation of the Pure Land Way (Ken Jodo Shinjitsu Kyogyosho Monrui, also known as Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and Honden). Now, in writing these verses (wasan) he is taking up his brush to create not only a personal expression of his joy in the Pure Land way but obviously also a liturgical form for the use of his followers. Surely, Shinran intended the wasan to be the main vehicle by which he passed the dharma down to posterity.

The wasan are in the the common linguistic forms of his day. What is more, they are framed in the genre of popular music - the 'rap' of his time. They are cast in a rudimentary poetic form, and easily committed to memory by ordinary people. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, on the other hand, is written in the scholarly language of his geographical location and his time, literary Chinese - the language of the Buddhist canon. For this reason, I see the wasan as Shinran's greatest monument. Not only are they intended for ordinary people but they are full of ideas and concepts, which challenge and arrest our attention. They are not simplistic, childlike verses, designed to satisfy intellectual laziness and a lack of curiosity. They do not render the dharma necessarily 'easy to understand'. They are demanding, and with good reason.

Shinran's teacher, Honen, is renowned for an exchange in which he commented that those with whom he discussed the dharma and who were well-educated and sophisticted had great difficulty in attaining the shinjin and going to be born in the Pure Land, but those with few claims to scholarship and academic acheivement were far more likely to awaken to the path. Furthermore, the Pure Land way - as I have often pointed out - includes prthagjana, ordinary and foolish people. While it is a commonly held view that this perspective amounts to an injunction to followers of the Pure Land way to acquiesce in stupidity, this is very far from the truth. Those who truly understand how unwise, morally frail and lacking in knowledge they really are normally respond - or so it seems to me at any rate - in a quest for greater wisdom, personal growth and increased knowledge. Like children, we start every day fresh and open to new ideas; always ready to accept change and hungry for more knowledge.

The Pure Land way is repeatedly described as 'the way of easy practice' (igyobon) but in the Larger Sutra it is spoken of as 'the most difficult of difficult ways'. Yet, however difficult at first the path towards the liberating realization of shinjin in the here and now may be, one's joy and sense of indebtedness is overwhelming. This indebtedness - this sense of gratitude - is, in a sense, the 'practice of shinjin'.

Those who have already attained Faith
Should always try to repay His Benevolence.

How is such a debt repaid? Essentially it is impossible to do so. But, during a troubled time in his life, Shinran developed a very clear understanding of just precisely what form the repayment takes. His wife, Eshin-ni relates this incident in one of her letters, now preserved in a collection rediscovered in 1923, titled Eshinni Monjo.

From about noon of the 14th day of the fourth month, 3rd year of Kangi, Shinran felt a cold coming on and went to bed in the evening. He became quite ill, but he did not let anyone massage his back or legs and would not let anyone nurse him. He just lay quietly, but when I touched his body, it was burning with fever. He also had a severe headache, something beyond the normal. On the dawn of the fourth day, passed in such a condition, he said in the midst of his great discomfort, 'It must be truly so.' So I asked him, 'What is the matter? Did you say something in your delerium?'

Then he replied, 'No, it's not delerium. Two days after I came to bed, I read the Larger Pure Land Sutra continuously. Even when I closed my eyes, I could see each character of the sutra very clearly. How strange, I thought. Thinking that there should be nothing on my mind beside true entrusting, born out of the joy of the nembutsu, I carefully thought about the matter. Then I remembered an incident which occurred seventeen or eighteen years ago, when I began reading the Triple Pure Land Sutras faithfully a thousand times for the benefit of sentient beings. I suddenly realized the grave mistake I was making, for while I truly felt that the repayment of the Buddha's blessing is to believe the teaching for oneself and then to teach others to believe, as in the saying, 'To believe the teaching oneself and make others believe [ji shin kyo ninshin] is the most difficult of all difficulties,'yet I attempted to read the sutra as if to complement the saying of the nembutsu which should have been sufficient by itself. Thus I stopped reading the sutra. A similar thought must still have remained, lingering in my mind. Once people begin thinking like this, it's difficult to change. When I realized how difficult it is to get rid of self-generated faith and vowed to be constantly alert about it, there was no longer any need to read the sutra. And so on the dawn of the first day in bed I said, 'It must be truly so.' Soon after explaining all this, he perspired profusely and he became well.1

This account of the profound physical and spiritual crisis of Shinran is extremely revealing. The breaking of his fever at the moment he realised that he had awakened an old habit, from the days before he relinquished self-power nembutsu and accepted Amida Buddha's shinjin, is a remarkable metaphor for a sense of joy and relief. We also have several issues clarified for us in this passage - for one, that saying the nembutsu is the way that we respond to Amida Buddha's blessing.


1: The Life of Eshinni, Wife of Shinran Shonin - Yoshiko Ohtani, italics and emphasis mine.

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