Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 85

The Buddhas' protection and witness
Arise from the fulfilment of the Vow of compassion;
So let those who attain the diamondlike mind,
Respond in gratitude to Amida's great benevolence.

Practicing Great Compassion

The compassionate Vow animates in us the practice of great compassion: the very substance of the way of nembutsu, and in its outworking in our daily lives.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin lists ten 'benefits in the present life'. Many of the remaining verses of the Jodo Wasan are concerned with these but none is more important and more cardinal to the very heart of our existence, as nembutsu people, than the ninth of these: the 'benefit of constantly practicing the great compassion'.

The compassionate Vow reads:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, the countless Buddhas throughout the worlds of the ten quarters do not all praise and say my Name, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.1

Shinran was very conscious of the significance for himself and for us in the acceptance of the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha. This is because it results in a change of status whereby our attainment of Buddhahood becomes settled, we realise the 'diamondlike true mind', 'transcend crosswise the paths of the five courses and eight hindered existences' and attain the 'stage equal to Maitreya' (the next Buddha). Shinran therefore gives strong emphasis to this Vow; as signifying and vivifying our very raison d'être. The compassionate vow is a vocation, a calling. As this verse says, the way to 'repay Amida's great benevolence' is to 'constantly practice the great compassion.'

There are many places in Shinran's writing where he uses strong language to impress upon us the crucial urgency of 'practicing great compassion' - living the seventeenth Vow - inorder to repay our incalculable debt to Amida Buddha. He speaks of the effort as being so ardent that it will result in our 'bones being crushed'. It is easy to understand his insistence on this obligation because it is surely very hard to resist. Anyone who is deeply aware of their profound inadequacy in the matter of their own salvation - release and transcendence - knows that the idea of ever repaying the debt incurred is impossible to imagine. It is tempting to default altogether because any effort, no matter how great in our eyes, pales into miniscule irrelevance in the face of the wonder of Amida Buddha's great Vow.

But its importance cannot be stressed enough, for without it no one will 'hear the dharma', for one thing; and, for another, we will be repressing and oppressing our spirits and our own hearts and squashing the life out of our existence. We will be living as though we are living in an iron mask, never expressing outwardly that which cries out to be expressed and to be heard.

'Constantly practing the great compassion' is nothing more nor less than shomyo - saying the nembutsu. Shomyo is actually defined by Shinran Shonin himself in the first verse of the Jodo Wasan collection:

Those who truly attain shinjin,
As they utter Amida's Name,
Being mindful of the Buddha always,
Wish to respond to the great benevolence.2

Saying the Name of Amida Buddha as we think of him, is shomyo, the 'practice of great compassion'. That we could repay Amida Buddha is, of course, absurd. Shomyo is in essence, Amida Buddha's practice. And, in the Pure Land path there is no practice of great compassion other than Amida Buddha's Name.


1: CWS, p. 13.

2: CWS, p. 321.

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