Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 82

Seeing the sentient beings of the nembutsu
Throughout the worlds, countless as particles, in the ten quarters,
The Buddha grasps and never abandons them,
And therefore is named 'Amida.'

Nembutsu

This is the first in a series of five verses, which celebrate the teaching of the Smaller Sutra - the Amida Sutra.

Earlier in the Jodo Wasan, Shinran Shonin suggests that Amida Buddha's light reaches everyone, everywhere, no matter who they are. However, the Contemplation Sutra tells us that it is people of nembutsu who are actually embraced and not forsaken in the Buddha's light.

Each ray of light shines over the worlds of the ten quarters, embracing and never abandoning those beings who are mindful of the Buddha1.

The pre-eminent focus of the Pure Land way is nembutsu because the Name is the form, which is taken by the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha as it reaches into our time, place and consciousness. It is the form of the entrusting heart, which the Vow establishes in the hearts of those who accept the call of the Vow in the Name. Hence, the only manifest form of shinjin is Namu-amida-butsu. Amida's light embraces and does not forsake 'the followers of the nembutsu', and those who are aware of this naturally say the nembutsu.

Thus, although shinjin and nembutsu are two, since shinjin is to hear and not doubt that you are saved by only a single pronouncing, which is the fulfillment of practice, there is no shinjin separate from nembutsu; this is the teaching I have received. You should know further that there can be no nembutsu separate from shinjin. Both should be understood to be Amida's Vow. Nembutsu and shinjin on our part are themselves the manifestation of the Vow.2

There are three ways of understanding the term 'nembutsu'.

  1. Thinking of the Buddha (nembutsu, Sk. buddhanusmrti), and as a form of contemplative practice.
  2. Saying the Name (shomyo).
  3. The Name as the form of the Vow (myogo); the fulfilled form of Amida Buddha working in our lives.

Shinran Shonin saw Shan-tao's exhortation to say the Name (shomyo) 'whether standing, sitting or lying down' as an expression of the deepest inconceivable factors - entrusting heart and myogo - rather than as a formal ritual designed to generate certain outcomes like birth in the Pure Land.

It seems to me that we are well advised to disabuse ourselves of any anguish about faith. The life of the Pure Land way is best seen as a straightforward proposition: absolute, singleminded trust in the Name. When we know for sure that the Name is the only thing that is true and real in this world of delusion, that there is no other way that we who can not deliver ourselves can be saved, then we will also come to understand the ultimate source of shinjin, and be amazed to discover the power of the Buddha's Vow working in our lives.

Therefore master [Shan-tao] states:
[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realize true entrusting and aspire for birth.3

Adoring Namu-amida-butsu, we know and enjoy the embrace of Amida Buddha's light, which we can trust unconditionally and without concern for ourselves or our destiny. Shinran's understanding - that Shan-tao's advice to say the Name under all circumstances alludes to its spontaneity - removes all conditions or limitations. Everyday life is our dojo (place of practice) and we can be aware of the Name whatever we may be doing.

With Namu-amida-butsu as root and branch of our spiritual life we live within Amida Buddha's light and are led to an ever deepening awareness of his love and compassion... and his unremitting wisdom... and his universal, endless life.


1 TPLS I, p. 38.

2: CWS, p. 538.

3: CWS, p. 54.

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