Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 90

The Great Sage Shakyamuni teaches
That Amida's land is easy to reach,
And calls the sentient being who doubts the Pure Land path
A person lacking eyes, or lacking ears.

Many Questions

'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'
1

My first encounter with this verse was troubling because it seems to intend a cruel and pejorative assessment of irreligious people. It is always possible that the verse is intended to be encouraging to those nembutsu followers who faced opposition, calumny and even persecution. But does it succumb to a common feature of human discourse, the tendency to argue - ad hominem; disparaging those with whom one disagrees? So in this case those who do not accept the Pure Land teaching are charactarized as monsters - organically deficient; freaks of nature. They are people without the most important organs of receptive communication.

For reasons that I hope will become apparent, the juxtaposition of ideas in this verse leads us to wonder about Shinran Shonin's intentions in composing these verses. On the face of it he wrote them in the common idiom - both musically and in a literary sense - as way of reaching 'ordinary people', bombu, for whom the Pure Land way is intended. But even a cursory look at the wasan will surely make clear that his intention is nothing of the kind. That is surely a conventional view but it seems to me, at any rate, that the content of the wasan involves two key elements. The first is certainly an expression of the joy of liberation by way of the Pure Land dharma; but the second is the profound nature of the content. As we survey the wasan, it becomes abundantly clear that they raise huge issues and questions.

Let me be more precise. The wasan seem to be structured in such a way as to arouse the interest of ordinary people, because they are lyrical, tuneful and simple in structure. Obviously, they are easy to commit to memory. Yet, at the same time, they challenge our minds and hearts. They are replete with ideas and terms, which invite further investigation, enquiry and deep reflection. At every step of the way we are challenged by them; and some of them - like this one - are quite confronting. The wasan of Shinran Shonin then, while not qualifying necessarily for a description as exalted as 'koan', are superb little didactic gems. Memorable and attractive they are; the source of sometimes anguished self-examination and exploration - this, they are as well.

Questions that arise on meeting this verse, are these:

  1. Why is both ease of birth and doubt included in the same verse?
  2. Why are only the organs of sight and hearing mentioned?
  3. Why is the image of those who neither 'see' nor 'hear' so grotesque, in the sense that they are without eyes or ears - blank heads?
  4. Why are there people without any spiritual sensibilities?
  5. Why are such people seen as deficient in the two most important organs of receptive communication?

At this point, it would serve you better if I withdrew and did not present what I think to be the answer. That - or so it seems to me - is what Shinran Shonin intended in writing his wasan. In other words, this particular verse affords an excellent opportunity to offer a tried and true pattern to you for the way in which the dharma is most satisfactorily approached. In searching for the answer to these questions one discovers the astonishing and breathtaking genius of Shinran; and, in doing so, we discover his unique capacity to actually deliver - step by step - complete, utter and total salvation. And he would be eager to insist that none of this arises from his own genuis but solely from Tathagata Amitabha. And, then - how marvellous is the realisation that in listening to Shinran we are hearing reverberations from the deepest past, the greatest depth - eternal truth itself?

I already have in mind the solution to these questions but the answer which I find, because of my personal background and prejudices, may have no eternal value to you.

What is most remarkable is that, in spite of the fact that we may come to ostensibly quite different conclusions, yet the same Namu-amida-butsu and the same shinjin is at work.

Truly, the most enduring lessons are learnt in the our own urgent quest for the most enduring answers.


1: Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898.

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