Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 61

Provisionally guiding sentient beings of the ten quarters
        with the words,
'Aspire with sincere mind and desire to be born,'
Amida revealed the temporary gate of various good acts
And vowed to appear before them [at the time of death].

Sangan Tennyu

Shinran Shonin is here referring to Amida Buddha's nineteenth Vow, which he identifies with the Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Contemplation Sutra). The nineteenth Vow and the Contemplation Sutra seem to encourage people to approach the Pure Land way by taking up practices that are hard to distinguish from the path of sages. The way to liberation, which the Contemplation Sutra posits, is a regimen of meditation, and self-discipline in the form of rules of conduct or precepts. Success in these practices will be affirmed by a vision of Amida Buddha at the time of one's death.

The nineteenth vow reads, as follows:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters - awakening the mind of enlightenment and performing meritorious acts - should aspire with sincere mind and desire to be born in my land, and yet I should not appear before them at the moment of death surrounded by a host of sages, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.1

Shinran first of all categorises this vow as 'provisional': the Vow of the 'falsely settled'. The nineteenth Vow provides a way to nirvana for people who are unable to transcend their own power and self. At the same time Shinran calls the nineteenth Vow the 'essential gate'. This accords with the convention used by Shan-tao (613-681), the fifth dharma master of the Jodo Shinshu lineage.

How can something that is 'provisional' also be 'essential'? Is there some kind of imperative, which mandates that we must follow the stages of Shinran's personal journey in order to reach the gate of birth through Other Power shinjin?

Shinran certainly entered by this 'essential gate' on his way to liberation by Other Power. Nevertheless, from the secure ground of Other Power, he came to realise that he was actually wasting his time with a set of principles, which ultimately he did not really need. Could he have moved directly into the 'inconceivable gate' of the eighteenth Vow - the 'Vow of Sincere Mind and Entrusting' and 'the stage of the truly settled' - without first traversing the 'essential' gate of the nineteenth Vow?

It must be said that many people have discerned evolutionary stages in spiritual development. For example, the protestant philosopher Søren Kierkegaard identified three stages of spiritual development: the æsthetic, ethical and religious.

On the face of it, it would seem that Shinran underwent a similar process in his spiritual endeavours. In the sixth Chapter of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we learn that this begins with the nineteenth Vow, which is both ethical and æsthetic. In the graphic descriptions of the Pure Land, which we encounter in the Contemplation Sutra, Shinran sees an æsthetic moment - a kind of 'overture', a preliminary stage, a threshold between the mundane and the spiritual, that serves to attract seekers to the Pure Land way. Then, the twentieth Vow is very like the 'religious' phase of Kierkegaard's thought, for it is characterised by spiritual hunger and conviction, seeking for union and transcendence, through active engagement with the practice of saying the nembutsu. However, the eighteenth Vow goes beyond Kierkegaard's schema. It brings release and freedom, the life of 'naturalness' (jinen), and union with supreme Buddha, the transcendence even of 'religion' as it is commonly understood.

The twentieth century writer Hermann Hesse in his novel Siddhartha also describes a similar process of staged spiritual evolution. It begins with awakening to existential pain, followed by the adoption of ethical practice, then a ritualistic, 'religious', contemplative stage. All of these culminate in total transcendence, mystic union.

Shinran's own experience of traversing the nineteenth, twentieth and eighteenth Vow as a process of spiritual development is called 'turning through three Vows' (sangan tennyu). As we have seen, these are:

  1. the nineteenth Vow, which is an 'expedient', 'temporary' phase of ascetic practice, that was initiated by the æsthetic appeal of the image of the Pure Land;
  2. the twentieth Vow, a religious phase, in which only active engagement with nembutsu as a practice was necessary; and
  3. finally in the eighteenth Vow of complete entrusting in absolute Other Power; release, relief and ultimate liberation.

In these three Vows - the nineteenth, twentieth and eighteenth - Shinran identifies his own movement from the æsthetic-ethical to the religious and then to sublimity. Shakyamuni Buddha followed a similar pattern. He became aware of the need to transcend suffering (æsthetic); then took up a path of rigourous discipline (ascetic); then entered a phase of contemplation (religious); finally discovering complete transcendence in his enlightenment.

After Shinran had come to the final stage of his own spiritual development he spoke as though he had completely abandoned the earlier stages, and left them behind. He then entered the gate of true shinjin, which leads to the attainment of Buddhahood at birth (in the Pure Land). Shakyamuni, too, did not advocate the path he actually followed. Instead, he revealed the truth he had realised after his enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. So Shinran advocates shinjin first and foremost. He clearly does not see the necessity for us to follow sangan tennyu as he did.

In the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we can see that Shinran's reflection on his experience resulted in the formulation of a view of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows as expedients: as alternative ways of salvation for those who are unable to come to terms with Other Power shinjin. The nineteenth and twentieth Vows are provided by the compassion of the Buddha for those who need to remain in control of the process of salvation themselves, and are still not able to finally relinquish the self into the undying and trustworthy embrace of Amida Buddha. However, Shinran does not recommend them as a staged path of spiritual development that others need to follow.


1: CWS, p. 208.

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