Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 83

The Buddhas, countless as the sands of the Ganges or as particles,
Reject the small good of the various practices
And all alike wholeheartedly encourage beings
To realize shinjin that is the inconceivable working of the Name.

Only the Name

In this, the second verse that is inspired by the Amida Sutra, Shinran Shonin reminds us that all the tathagatas of the universe exhort us to take up the Name of Amida Buddha to the exclusion of all other practices. The verse especially suggests that the Name (myogo) itself works upon us, to awaken the entrusting heart in a way that is imperceptible. There is a reciprocity here: exclusive trust in the Name itself generates a feedback loop whereby the entrusting heart is nourished and sustained; enlivened in our hearts. This is why I suggested, in my reflections on the previous verse, that for ignorant beings like us the tangible reality is in fact the Name; it is really all that we need to be concerned about: trust and adore only the Name.

Remember that this verse is discussing myogo, the Name as the form taken by the Vow. We hear it and it inspires trust in us. This, I think, is the reason why it is so important to deliberately limit our spiritual life to the Name alone. It seems to me that this involves, 'hearing' the Name by cherishing the teachings we have received through the ages, discussing its meaning and significance with our fellow travellers upon the way of the dharma, and listening to dharma talks from teachers who enjoy sharing the entrusting heart of the Name with others.

In all this the nembutsu itself resounds in the background as we say it in trust.

Amida's Vow is, from the very beginning, designed to bring each of us to entrust ourselves to it - saying Namu-amida-butsu - and to receive us into the Pure Land; none of this is through our calculation.1, 2

According to Shinran, the practice of the nembutsu has been fulfilled by Amida Buddha, both in the sense of its causation and its effect. So there is no need for us to think that by saying the Name we are achieving anything on our own behalf. Saying the Name is a natural thing for us, said in happiness whenever we remember that we are 'embraced and not forsaken' by the Vow.

Needless to say, both active engagement with the Name in the ways that I have suggested above, and the exclusive nature of it as the focus in our spiritual life is problematic for many people. Some people seem to feel a genuine need for other 'sundry' practices.

Lest we should think that Shinran is here talking about 'some' religious practices, it is worth knowing that he actually means any religious practice whatever: mangyo no shozen, literally, 'small good of ten thousand practices.' For, nothing can add anything to the Buddha's working, and nothing we can do can eclipse his virtue.

So, I would like to suggest that an exclusive engagement with the Name is an aspect of Shinran's teaching that we ought to take very seriously indeed. This is because there are so many things that we do in association with religious belief, including meditation and trying to be better people, which deflect our attention from the dharma to ourselves. The whole structure of Pure Land Buddhism is away from ourselves. For we are bombu, ordinary folk who sincerely recogise our limitations. When we are out of our own self-conciousness, we allow room for the blessed dharma to work all by itself.

But this is a necessarily superficial explanation because we are discussing things here that are beyond the six realms of samsara; we are engaging with the source of light, whence all wisdom and compassion comes, and from which all buddhas are conceived and born: the Primal Vow.


1: CWS, p. 530.

2: I have been taught that nembutsu that is not cognisant of Amida Buddha's message or a manifestation of the entrusting heart is 'empty' nembutsu (kara nembutsu). In other words whenever we speak of the Name or nembutsu, faith in its inconceivable working is assumed.

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