Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 70

More difficult even than trust in the teachings of
       Sakyamuni's lifetime
Is the true entrusting of the universal Vow,
The sutra teaches that it is 'the most difficult of all difficulties,'
That 'nothing surpasses this difficulty.'

A Lesson from Trees

osmosis n. ... 2. Biology the diffusion of fluids through membranes or porous partitions.1

Difficult as it is to attain, Shinran Shonin nevertheless expresses joyful faith (shingyo) in this way:

How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension!2

In other words he has become steeped in the Vow: imbued with it. He says elsewhere that he has grown acutely aware of his own complete inability actively to eradicate his bonno. In fact, the more steeped in the universal Vow he becomes the more aware he is of his own ignorance and incapacity. Hence, he is overcome by joy!

A good metaphor for the path in the Pure Land tradition is 'osmosis'. By steeping ourselves in the dharma - the teaching of the nembutsu way - we can allow suchness to seep into our consciousness and overwhelm our evil karma, though 'defiling passions' (bonno Sk. klesha) remain until final release. So, part of nembutsu is 'hearing the dharma' (chomon - listening, listening). When one hears the dharma well, shinjin arises and liberation is assured at that very moment.

Listening is itself inexpressible because it is profound and not mere listening; active engagement in the form of attention to the teaching is essential. To this end we do well to make time to listen to - and reflect upon - the teachings as often as we can.

Our main resources are the three Pure Land sutras, and the writings of T'an-luan, Honen, Shinran and Rennyo. Nevertheless, Shinran's wasan and the letters of Rennyo, will provide us with everything we need to hear the dharma.

If we are starting out in the life of hearing the dharma, it is a good idea to select a single resource, like the wasan, become familiar with it and then gradually expand one's horizons. We may become intrigued by questions that come to mind and begin a profound exploration which could conceivably lead us into the magnificent halls of Shinran's great categorised and annotated anthology of Pure Land teaching, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. Once we begin to familiarise ourselves with this epitome of the dharma, we enter an endless source of truth and delight.

Plants grow and become healthy by being saturated by light during the day and being firmly rooted in the soil from which they draw water and nutrients. Trees always stand as a metaphor to me of the Pure Land way. In the nembutsu we bathe in the light of Amida Buddha's wisdom and compassion; and in paying close attention to the dharma we absorb our spiritual nutrients and quench our thirst for truth.

At night, trees rest from growth and the nutrients they have absorbed become integrated into their structure.


1: The Macquarie Concise Dictionary, 2001.

2: CSW, p. 291.

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