Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 67

Those who, though aspiring for the Pure Land of happiness,
Do not realize shinjin that is Other Power,
Doubt the Buddha's inconceivable wisdom and therefore dwell
In the borderland or the realm of indolence and pride.

Namu-amida-butsu is Everything

Shinran Shonin goes to considerable lengths in his marginal note to this verse to explain the term 'borderland' and makes it clear that mere recitation of the nembutsu as a ritual act in the hope of birth in the Pure Land is very unlikely to result in final release from samsara. Very few, he suggests, are able to realise buddhahood in this way and doubt is essentially incompatible with the way of Jodo Shinshu. This is not something of Shinran's invention: he is drawing upon a quite lengthy passage in the Larger Sutra.

Shinran implies that the way of awakening to tariki no shin - Other Power's shinjin - is not the 'easy way'. Instead, the lazy way is the way of self-power and leads to the realm of sloth and pride. This is for the kind of reason we explored when considering the previous verse, as we watched Shakyamuni's progress towards enlightenment, in which he relinquished his attachment to false views and came to terms with his demons. Similarly, the true way of nembutsu - the way of Other Power - is difficult, sometimes painful, yet resulting in ultimate nirvana - entry into the realm of happiness. It is difficult simply because it 'runs against the stream' - to use a metaphor coined by Shakyamuni when speaking of the dharma. It is difficult because we want to live according to false views, prejudices and assumptions; because 'seeing things as they really are' is hard to do.

It is an irony that the lazy way is to focus on the practice rather than the Name. It is ritualistic (and, therefore, basically out of step with the Buddha dharma) rather than penetrative and reflective. In Shinran's historical context, it is to be concerned about, for example, the number of times one says the nembutsu rather than opening oneself to its call. It is to be concerned with quantity, rather than quality.

The Name - Namu-amida-butsu - throws up questions for us; it sends us out seeking for teachers; it encourages us to think about ourselves and our relationship to the dharma. If we take up the way of nembutsu for ourselves, we come eventually to see why it is described as the form of the Buddha, and is itself our teacher.

Amida's Vow is, from the very beginning, designed to bring each of us to entrust ourselves to it - saying Namu-amida-butsu - and to receive us into the Pure Land; none if this is through our calculation.1

So the Pure Land way begins and ends in nembutsu. It is not a ritual act but something with which we develop a relationship and a dialogue. Ultimately this is mysterious but we are told throughout the Pure Land tradition that the Name was the form chosen by Amida Buddha, in which to act upon us and to open our hearts to hear the dharma. Those who follow nembutsu testify to its veracity and it is by far the most popular form of Buddhism in east Asia.

All our questing and searching focusses on the Name. Tariki no shin discovers us in the process. The quality of nembutsu changes from quest to celebration when the time is ripe - and often it is both repentance (turning from self-power) and joy. We shall see this more fully when we come to explore the section on Shan-tao in the Koso Wasan. The Name itself is all-important.

Because life is short and the quest urgent. When it comes to our spiritual life, it is unwise to waste our time in peripheral concerns. It is through the Name that we hear the Vow, and awaken to shinjin, which is the cause of birth in the Pure Land. In no other way can it be heard and we cannot be born without it. It seems to me that the value of teachings other than those of Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin are of use only to the extent that they throw light on the Name, or assist us in discussing it with others.

Let us turn to wise nembutsu teachers - especially Honen, Shinran and Rennyo - and sit at their feet ... and listen to the call of the Vow in Namu-amida-butsu. There is no more joyous thing that we can do.

Just trusting in the Name and travelling with the Buddha! How much more wonderful than making the nembutsu our own creation and realising only the realm of sloth and pride! For the happiest and yet hardest thing we can do is to relinquish control; since, in point of fact, we have none, anyway. And there is only one thing that can be trusted - the unconditioned.

1: CWS, p. 427.

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