Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 73

Sakyamuni Buddha, out of vast benevolence,
Instructed Queen Vaidehi, leading her to select,
From among all the lands manifested in the pedestal of light,
Amida's world of happiness.

The Thunderbolt

Chokumei is an imperial command, and yet when the word (chokushi te) is used in this verse, the term 'command' is carefully avoided and, in the above translation 'leading' is used instead. The reason for this choice is quite clear and comes from a sense that this verse should be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the Contemplation Sutra - to which it alludes.

The events in the Contemplation Sutra, which provide the content of this verse, refer to Queen Vaidehi's distress at being imprisoned for helping her husband - the King Bimbsara - during his incarceration by the crown prince Ajatashatru. In Vaidehi's distress, Shakyamuni comes to her to alleviate her suffering. He shows her all of the Pure Lands (that is, the 'tangible' environments of the enlightened ones) and gently urges her towards the choice of Amida Buddha's Pure Land. Surely, this story treats of - not only the way in which suffering beings turn to the dharma (as Vaidehi cries to Shakyamuni for help) but also - the spiritual choices we must make in life. In other words the Buddha Dharma takes the way of selection and choice rather than syncretism. Choice requires a measure of courage and selflessness - and the outright abandonment of attachment to teachings and ideas which are becoming ancillary to our emerging sense of spiritual truth.

In the Contemplation Sutra we read that Shakyamuni led Vaidehi gently towards her eventual choice of Amida Buddha's dharma. When Shinran comes to relate this event in his wasan he insists that it was Shakyamuni's command. I am sure there is a reason for this; it is because awakening is often sudden, instant, immanent and spontaneous - like a thunder-clap. We meet at this point - in Shinran Shonin's treatment of the story of Vaidehi's choice of Amida Buddha's Pure Land - something of Shinran's sense of Other Power (tariki). Tariki breaks into our consciousness unexpectedly, unprompted, unplanned and is not derived from our own efforts. So it is that when Ajatashatru himself awakens to the entrusting heart he declares in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

O, World-honored one, observing the world, I see that from the seed of the eranda grows the eranda tree. I do not see a candana tree growing from an eranda seed. But now for the first time I see a candana tree growing from the seed of an eranda. The eranda seed is myself; the candana tree is the entrusting heart that has no root in my heart.1

The difference between 'leading' and 'command' is very striking. To say that one is 'commanded to choose' is an oxymoron, of course. In command there can be no choice except - and here is the key thing - for assent. Yes, we can always choose not to obey a command. To do this in the context of the Pure Land dharma is to choose an eternity of mediocrity - endless rebirths through countless æons - a humdrum of endless suffering in heaven, hell, animal or human life. To assent means a decisive break with wandering (Sk. samsara) and ultimate freedom (Sk. moksha). Shinran does not see that there is any choice apart from assent.

When, again in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran examines closely the word 'namu' in its classical translation into the Chinese term 'kimyo' he discovers a similar significance:

... we see that the word namu means to take refuge. In the term to take refuge (kimyo), ki means to arrive at. Further, it is used in compounds to mean to yield joyfully to (kietsu) and to take shelter in (kisai). Myo means to act, to invite, to command, to teach, path, message, to devise, to summon. Thus, kimyo is the command [chokumei] of the Primal Vow calling to and summoning us.2

Although there are eight possible interpretations of myo Shinran chooses only 'command'. The potency of Shinran's perception is overwhelming. One can almost feel his sense of the Other Power's irresistable command. Shinran had no choice but to follow the command of the Name, which is to trust it for one's ultimate liberation.

In every life there arise moments when we encounter a fork in the road that we travel. Now, in religious imagery we are often bidden to choose a path between say this deity or that materialism, this heaven or that hell. But in the nembutsu the choice is this: between the path or not choosing at all. The path which leads to Amida Buddha is clear, when we meet it. In the Pure Land way we tell the story of The White Path and the Two Rivers. It is not a matter of choice between one path or another, but whether or not we make a choice at all; between the path itself or eternal inertia. It is in fact a choice between the only reality and that which is ultimately ephemeral. It is as though the thunderbolt - the shock of realization -, is real and this material world is transient and false.

But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world - this burning house - all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.3


1: CWS, p. 137f.

2: CWS, p. 38.

3: CWS, p. 679.

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