Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 55

It is taught that ten kalpas have now passed
Since Amida attained Buddhahood,
But he seems a Buddha more ancient
Than kalpas countless as particles.

The Infinite

This is an extremely interesting and important verse. At first sight it seems rather innocent but it carries deeply significant insights into the depth of Shinran Shonin's view of Amida Buddha.

But first, a small digression; and that is to point out that Shinran avoids a rigidly literal interpretation of sacred texts. He approaches them with reverence but with reason as well. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, for example, he draws on a wide reserve of textual and commentarial resources. His hermenuetics are those of a thinker who uses the full spectrum of developed ideas. These developed ideas are, after all, the outcome of millennia of spiritual experience. Sacred texts can have no value or meaning unless they are 'proven' on the anvil of the mass of human experience. Shinran is, therefore, empirical in his approach and I think that those who take the trouble to actually read his more scholarly work will come to see him as a surprisingly 'modern' thinker. He argues in such a way as to be convincing to us in the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless, while he is empirical, he is not solipsistic; he goes to great lengths to seek out the opinion of writers whom he considers to be authoritative. Finally, Shinran always tries to uncover the full depth of the meaning of the texts he uses. He is an exegete of formidable talent. Hence, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho he quotes approvingly Nagarjuna's exhortation to rely 'not on words but on meaning'. Following this quote he is most emphatic about the need for clarity that is based on an awareness of this and other similar counsel by Nagarjuna.1

In this verse, Shinran alludes to a statement in both the Larger and the Smaller Sutra (Amida Kyo) which asserts that Amida has been a Buddha for 'ten kalpas'. A kalpa is extremely protracted, to the point of extravagance. 'Ten kalpas' is a phrase, which combines immense duration with an additional multiplier; so it is altogether something that is beyond calculation or imagination.

In any case, Shinran considers that the juxtaposition of 'ten kalpas' and the term 'Amida Buddha' is an oxymoron. This is because 'amita' means literally 'infinite', since 'mita' - a unit of measurement (it has the same grammatical origins as metre) - is negated by the addition of the Indo-European prefix 'a', equivalent, of course, the the Anglo-Saxon 'un'. How can the infinite be a mere 'ten kalpas' old? Shinran actually satirizes the whole idea in a marginal note in which he extends 'ten kalpas' (jikko) to 'innumerable mote dot kalpas' - 'kalpas countless as particles' (jinden kuongo) - and goes on the say that Amida Buddha is 'older' even than this. Amida Buddha transcends time since he is older than time itself; Amida Buddha is the source of enlightenment and of the Buddhas.

For Shinran - following the Pure Land tradition - there is ultimately no reality except Amida Buddha and the spontaneous working of his power. He is all and we can not know him just so long as we resist his wisdom and compassion.

1: CWS, p. 241f.

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