Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 71

Attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true
        essence of the Pure Land way;
The myriad practices and good acts are the temporary gate.
Unless one distinguishes the accommodated and the real,
        the temporary and the true,
One cannot possibly know the Pure Land that
        is naturalness (jinen).

The True Teaching

Truly we know that without the virtuous Name, our compassionate father, we would lack the direct cause for birth. Without the light, our compassionate mother, we would stand apart from the indirect cause of birth. Although direct and indirect causes may come together, if the karmic-consciousness of shinjin is lacking, one will not reach the land of light. The karmic-consciousness of the true and real shinjin is the inner cause. The Name and light - our father and mother - are the outer cause. When the inner and outer causes merge, one realizes the true body in the fulfilled land. Therefore master [Shan-tao1] states:

[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realize shinjin and aspire for birth.

Further, [Fa-chao2] states:

Attainment of buddhahood through the nembutsu: this is the true essence of the Pure Land way.

Further, [Shan-tao states:]

Difficult to encounter is the true essence of the Pure Land way.

Let this be known.3

The phrase 'nembutsu jobutsu kore shinshu' ('attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the Pure Land way [jodo shinshu]') was first used by Fa-chao nearly four centuries before Shinran Shonin completed the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It was not until well after Shinran's departure that the word 'shinshu' (true teaching) was used to describe the school of Buddhism which is based upon his teaching. Here, it means the teaching which will definitely lead to birth in the Pure Land and liberation from samsara because one has reached 'the stage of the truly settled' at the awakening of shinjin.

'Attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the Pure Land way' is an affirmation of the central place of shomyo (the mindful recitation of the Name - Namu-amida-butsu) in the Pure Land tradition. It was Shan-tao who first located the nembutsu as the crux of the teaching and designated other practices as 'sundry' and 'miscellaneous'. The term 'shinshu' is used to distinguish the teaching of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha from the unsettled nature of other paths in which the nembutsu has not become the manifestation of shinjin, the true cause of liberation.

In essence, the vital kernel of Shin Buddhist teaching is derived from three recensions of the Primal Vow, the vow which encapsulates all of Amida Buddha's vows - the eighteenth of all forty-eight vows in the Larger Sutra. If one collates all of the elements of two renditions from two different recensions of the eighteenth Vow in the Larger Sutra, along with the passage in the Larger Sutra, which describes the fulfilment of the Vow, three distinct phases of the single event of awakening in the Pure Land path are delineated:4

  1. Hearing the Name (Namu-amida-butsu) in association with the working of the light or wisdom of Amida Buddha
  2. The one thought-moment of shinjin, that is to say, becoming completely free of all doubt; accepting the Name with wholehearted joy and trust due to the realisation that 'I am unable to be liberated, yet Amida liberates me.'
  3. Saying the Name (Namu-amida-butsu) in gratitude - ho'on nembutsu - which becomes one's outward disposition for the rest of one's life

Here is another way of expressing the same event: hearing and fully understanding the call of the Primal Vow in the Name and light of Amida Buddha, shinjin arises and we express our complete trust in the Name by calling it to mind, or saying it aloud.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran demonstrates, in intricate detail through alaysis of traditional texts, how it all works together in this straightforward pattern of conversion and salvation. Thus Shinran fulfils the axiom that the true teaching (shinshu) is becoming a Buddha (at birth in the Pure Land) through (the working of) nembutsu.

Each one of those three phases of a single event calls for repeated reiteration and elucidation. Such is the purpose of the wasan.


1: 613-681; Shan-tao is the fifth dharma master in the Jodo Shinshu lineage.

2: 766-822; said to be an incarnation of Shan-tao.

3: CWS p 54f.

4: CWS, p, 80.

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