Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 91

The Supreme that is unexcelled is true emancipation;
True emancipation is none other than Tathagata.
When we attain true emancipation,
We become free of desire and free of doubt.

Stepping into the Unknown

The next two verses in this section of the Jodo Wasan contain ideas drawn from the Nirvana Sutra. We know from his use of the long passage of this sutra, which recounts the story of the crisis surrounding Prince Ajatashatru, that it was especially that story of the awakening of faith that most captured Shinran Shonin's attention.

Needless to say, an important section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is the section on 'attainment' - the goal of the Buddha Dharma. Here Shinran is keen to put the Pure Land way firmly into the context of the bodhisattva vehicle - the Mahayana as it came to be known. 'Attainment' is the 'highest of the highest' - nirvana. Being 'free of desire and free of doubt' is nirvana.

Nirvana has many names, as we have already seen. Tathagata is one of them; and in the reference in this verse, Shinran is especially speaking of the dharma body as dharma nature (hossho hosshin), the ineffable truth, which pervades all things.

In these verses we are discussing matters which are completely beyond our empirical knowledge. We are obliged to take Shakyamuni Buddha at his word in a provisional way until we taste these realities at first hand. Within our Pure Land sangha (the community of sagely monks and nuns, women and men through the ages) there are those whose knowledge of nirvana, the dharma body, indeed comes from first-hand experience.

The most important of these is, of course, Shakyamuni and in the Pure Land tradition, Shinran revered 'the seven dharma masters', whose insights developed and refined the teaching through the ages. It is important to remember that these dharma masters were not just clever, knowledgable people, but profoundly wise, enlightened men, who had a close understanding of the truths with which they dealt. Their teaching was not just based on knowledge, study and a firm belief in their own authority; they were experienced practitioners.

Two examples will suffice to illustrate what I mean. From my point of view, one of the strongest affirmations of Amida Buddha's reality comes from the fact that Shan-tao actually saw him while in samadhi. The same can be said for the Larger Sutra, which relates the story of Amida Buddha's emergence and enlightenment.

Why should we trust Shakyamuni and Shan-tao? Because, these two men (among a few others) first of all are manifestly concerned about our ultimate well-being and secondly their premisses begin where we stand.

The Four Noble Truths expound the primary concerns of the Buddha Dharma; the acceptance of which defines us as Buddhists. The Truth, as we all know, is in four parts: the nature of existence (Sk. dhukkha), the cause of dhukkha (avidaya, ignorance - or trshna, thirst), that there is a way out (nirodha) - and that this way is the taught by all Buddhas: refrain from all evil, turn to the dharma and clarify the mind. When Shakyamuni expounds dhukkha, we know just exactly what he is saying. Life is very difficult and we know exactly what he means when he says that even pleasant things are painful in the end. When Shakyamuni says that there is a way beyond ignorance, he is leading us beyond what we know - to things that are intitially unknown.

Throughout the entire range of the Buddha Dharma we are first addressed 'where we stand'. These things, like the first of the Four Noble Truths, we readily understand. Having nodded in agreement with the first contention we are then offered a way forward. It is only in moving forward, beyond what we know, that we begin to discover, step-by-step, with increasing certainty, that this is indeed a way that can be trusted.

So it is also in the Pure Land way. As Rennyo Shonin says, it is only in reaching out to cling onto the sleeve of Amida Buddha that we will eventually discover, at first hand, the supportive power of his compassion.

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