Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 72

Sentient beings, having long followed the Path of Sages -
The accommodated and temporary teachings that are
        provisional means -
Have been transmigrating in various forms of existence;
So take refuge in the One Vehicle of the compassionate Vow.

The One and the Many

In this wasan, Shinran Shonin concludes his verses dedicated to the Larger Sutra and with it he summarises all he wants to say on this topic. The purpose of the sutra is essentially to reveal the 'One Vehicle' of the Primal Vow. The Vow is the manifestation of the ultimate dharma body, the One Vehicle.

Shinran includes an extensive section dealing with the One Vehicle in his Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In it he makes clear that he understands Amida Buddha (tathagata) to be the ultimate reality, no less, and he locates the relationship of the other vehicles to the One Vehicle. The other vehicles are the pratyekabuddha vehicle, in which people become enlightened without instruction in the dharma; the shravaka vehicle, in which people become enlightened by following the instruction of a buddha; and the bodhisattva vehicle, in which people follow the course followed by Buddhas to enlightenment. These three vehicles are not part of the One Vehicle but serve as expedients which draw disciples to it. What, then, exactly is the One Vehicle?

In the term ocean of the One Vehicle, One Vehicle refers to the great vehicle (Mahayana). The great vehicle is the Buddha vehicle. To realize the One Vehicle is to realize the highest perfect enlightenment. The highest perfect enlightenment is none other than the realm of nirvana. The realm of nirvana is the ultimate dharma body. To realize the ultimate dharma body is to reach the ultimate end of the One Vehicle. There is no other tathagata, there is no other dharma body. Tathagata is itself dharma body. Reaching the ultimate end of the One Vehicle is without bound and without cessation. In the great vehicle there are no 'two vehicles' or 'three vehicles.' The two vehicles and three vehicles lead one to enter the One Vehicle. The One Vehicle is the vehicle of highest truth. There is no One Vehicle other than the One Buddha Vehicle, the Vow.1

Shinran goes on to define the full phrase 'ocean of the One Vehicle'. It is an ocean because it takes in every conceivable kind of human character and personality at any kind of intellectual, moral, ethical, æsthetic, ascetic, philosophical, scientific, cultural, ethnic, national, class, caste or occupational level. In other words, the One Vehicle carries all beings, without exception, to enlightenment. Just as an ocean ejects the floating corpses of the drowned, so the ocean of the One Vehicle ejects the putrid 'deeds' and the darkness in mind of all human beings, including those who follow the 'two' and 'three vehicles.' Rather than being the ultimate goal, these vehicles serve as provisional means for final embarkation on the One Vehicle of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

The ocean of the Vow does not keep within it the dead bodies of the sundry good acts of the two vehicles, that is, the middle and lower vehicles. Hardly does it keep, then, the corpses of the empty, transitory, false, and deceitful good acts and the poisoned and impure minds of human beings and devas.2

The dharma is a raft, a vehicle, which is ultimately abandoned. However, since there is a vehicle on offer, it is very difficult to conceive of doing without it at the outset. The analogy of crossing the stream using one or other of the rafts or vehicles that are available is addressed by Shinran in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - and in his letters - where he describes the One Vehicle of the Vow as being 'sudden' (that is to say, 'immanent') and of 'crosswise transference'. One switches sponaneously (naturally, jinen) from one shore to the other - from the shore of samsara to the shore of the certain attainment of nirvana - in an instant so brief as to be imperceptible; at the moment that we unequivocally relinquish the 'mind of self-effort' in Namu-amida-butsu.

But, apart from this, why are the 'two' and the 'three' vehicles excluded from the One Vehicle of the Primal Vow? The 'two' and 'three' vehicles are intended to provide a way to awaken to the truth of 'no self' (Sk. anatman) and their practices are bent to that end. However, when compared with the One Vehicle of the Primal Vow they are superficial, treating symptoms and not the disease. The disease is blind ignorance (Sk. avidya) - the source of our conditioned and suffering existence.

It is not ultimately possible to overcome illusion by having recourse to those things which are produced by it - for example our 'conscious mind' (Sk. mano-vijnana) and sub-conscious mind (Sk. manas). Hence, it is clear that the 'two' and 'three' vehicles can not be the ultimate depth of the Buddha Dharma.

A path in which a course is minutely laid out and which focuses on particularities tends to exclude a vast mass of people who do not function in that way themselves. It does not take into account the fact that every single person - no, every living thing - is unique. While it is comforting for us to identify in tribal ways - either by seeking to conform to the expectations of the group, or by following a preordained pattern of behaviour and external presumptions about who we are - the truth is that we are inevitably each of us utterly unique. Few of us can programme ourselves within a set formula and often the attempt to do so can be very painful and self-destructive. That is why the urge to relegate and categrorize people according to various measures - for example, skin colour - is wicked and cruel.

The one dharma body is at once immanent in and transcends the infinite variety of the many- it is a vast 'ocean' teeming with life. To attempt to reach it by progressing along a minutely planned path is like walking on the ocean when, in fact, we are already deep within it. We will only become seasick and battered, tossed about in the stormy corporeality of existence. The Name in the Primal Vow calls us to yield and to float within the serene security and tranquillity of the 'ocean of the One Vehicle'. The way to attain true liberation is to allow ourselves to become flooded with the light of the Buddha's wisdom and compassion in the Name.

We know truly, then

says Shinran,

that it is as a sutra states, 'The ice of blind pasions melts and becomes the water of virtues.'3


1: CWS, p. 60f.

2: CWS, p. 62.

3: CWS, p. 62.

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