Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 64

Provisionally guiding sentient beings of the ten quarters
        with the words,
'Direct your merits with sincere mind, desiring to be born,'
Amida revealed the true gate of the Name,
Vowing to enable beings ultimately to attain birth.

The True Gate

Shinran Shonin here introduces us to the process of birth through the twentieth vow of Amida Buddha, or the 'true gate'. The twentieth vow reads:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters, on hearing my Name, should place their thoughts on my land, cultivate the root of all virtues, and direct their merits with sincere mind desiring to be born in my land, and yet not ultimately attain it, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.1

In this verse, Shinran commends those who take up recitation of the nembutsu by 'self-power'. This effort, he says, will ultimately result in birth in the Pure Land. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho he tells the story of his own transfer through this gate of practice on his way to the assurance of final liberation at the awakening of the entrusting heart.

Thus I, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Sakyamuni, through reverently accepting the exposition of [Vasubandhu,] author of the Treatise, and depending on the guidance of Master [Shan-tao], departed everlastingly from the temporary gate of the myriad practices and various good acts and left forever the birth attained beneath the twin sala trees. Turning about, I entered the 'true' gate of the root of good and the root of virtue, and wholeheartedly awakened the mind leading to the birth that is noncomprehensible.

Nevertheless, I have now decisively departed from the 'true' gate of provisional means and, [my self-power] overturned, have entered the ocean of the selected Vow.2

The terminology that Shinran uses in this verse makes it quite clear that he sees the true gate, which is reciting the Name of Amida Buddha, as 'provisional' (hoben, Sk. upaya), and the resulting birth in the Pure Land as unfathomable: a manifestation of the universality of the Primal Vow. Hoben is a well-known term and describes the way that enlightenment transforms itself in order to reach into the consciousness of the unenlightened. We will have many opportunities to explore this process as we move through the cycle of Shinran's wasan.

Listening to Shinran one begins to realise that he understands Other Power to be ubiquitous and tireless: working through all means to bring all beings to awakening and liberation from samsara. In describing his arrival at the 'true gate' of self-power nembutsu in this verse, Shinran is not referring to Honen's teaching, which is the Other Power teaching of the Primal Vow, but to a process of abandoning 'sundry practices' and accepting only one practice: saying the nembutsu.

Although he recited the nembutsu in his aspiration for birth, Shinran eventually came to see, with the awakening of shinjin, that the self is illusory and powerless because its very existence arises from the contamination of primæval ignorance (avidya) and the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion (or querelousness).

Although the process of conversion through 'three gates' (sangan tennyu) was Shinran's personal experience, it is not necessarily mandatory for all of us. However, like Shinran, many of us at some time abandon 'sundry pratices', having exhausted our resources in that regard, and take up the beads with a view to giving ourselves over to saying the Name. This 'taking' up of the nembutsu, or turning to the 'true gate', as Shinran describes it, is a conscious act and has all the apparent marks of being something we decide to do ourselves.

As Shinran discovered, the Name, Namu-amida-butsu, is, in fact, Amida Buddha's call to us to entrust him. When we take up the nembutsu as our own practice we are situating ourselves in a way that is analogous to people who heard news of Shakyamuni, decided that he was their only hope, and went to listen to him.

Even though we cling to the notion that the Name is something good that we do in our own cause, our efforts nevertheless place us within the ambit of the Primal Vow, whereby the eventual awakening of the entrusting heart becomes inevitable.

Know that Shakyamuni, our loving father, and Amida, our compassionate mother, guide us to the entrusting heart as our own parents.3


1: CWS, p.229.

2: CWS, p. 240.

3: CWS, p. 464.

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