Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 63

All the good acts and myriad practices,
Because they are performed with a sincere mind and aspiration,
Become, without exception, provisional good
That will lead to birth in the Pure Land.

Various Good Deeds

Good deeds with pure intent will, as everyone knows, bring propitious results. In this verse 'good deeds and numerous practices' means both meditation and adherence to various kinds of precepts. These were especially important in the path of sages but are also part of the teaching of the Contemplation Sutra and the way of the nineteenth vow of Amida Buddha.

Most people are aware of the five precepts, the eight precepts and, in the case of monks and nuns, the Vinaya - a list of rules which were developed case by case to develop solutions to problems that arose in the early sangha. The five precepts were part of the code of conduct that prevailed in India at the time of Shakyamuni.

My reading of the Vinaya is that Shakyamuni was sensitive to public expectations for the sangha and was concerned to enact restraints on behaviour that would bring the sangha into disrepute. This suggests that a basic rule of thumb for us all is that we should be 'good citizens' and, if we also take a vow of celibacy (Sk. brahmacariya) in a monastic role, we ought to be careful not to demean that way of life in our bearing and attitudes.

As they have been passed down to us the five precepts are not killing, not stealing, not comitting adultery, not lying and not using drugs that 'cloud the mind'. The eight precepts are taken by lay followers on special days and by novices in the sangha. The days of special observance are usually the rokusainichi - 8th, 14th, 15th, 23th, 29th and 30th days of each month. Some people make it a weekly observance and choose the day of the week on which they were born and others go further and observe eight or ten days.

The eight precepts are essentially the five precepts except that complete abstinence from sex is enjoined and there are additional precepts, the most important of which is not eating after midday. As it is very difficult for lay people to keep these, some people observe the days of abstinence by not eating meat, giving special emphasis to the most important precept against taking life. The Mahayana Sutra of Upasaka Precepts enjoins the observance of at least one precept, if the others cannot be kept. For example, if one lives in a household of carnivores, abstinence from alcohol is an option; it will cause the least disruption to others!

When Shinran speaks of the 'provisional good', he means that the way of the nineteenth vow can serve as the basis for birth in the Pure Land. However, this 'birth' is constrained by one's attachment to self power and is not the full awakening that rides upon Other Power shinjin. We will explore these ideas as we traverse the latter part of the Shozomatsu Wasan towards the end of this cycle of essays.

Ultimately there is no escaping the critical importance of a thoroughgoing change of heart by way of the awakening of the entrusting heart. Shinran has salutary things to say about this in his booklet Notes on 'Essentials of Faith Alone'.

Pure precepts indicates all the various Hinayana and Mahayana precepts - the five precepts, the eight precepts, the ten precepts of morality, all the Hinayana codes of precepts, the three-thousand regulations of deportment, the sixty-thousand regulatory practices, the diamondlike one-mind precepts of the Mahayana, the threefold pure precept, the fifty-eight precepts expounded in the Brahma-net Sutra, and so on - all the precepts for monks and for laypeople. To maintain these is 'to uphold' and to violate them is 'to break.' Even saintly people who observe these various Mahayana and Hinayana precepts can attain birth in the true fulfilled land only after they realize the true and real entrusting heart of Other Power. Know that it is impossible to be born in the true, fulfilled Pure Land by simply observing precepts, or by self-willed conviction, or by self-cultivated good.1


1: CWS, p. 458.

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