Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 93

Tathagata is none other than nirvana;
Nirvana is called Buddha-nature.
Beyond our ability to attain it in the state of foolish beings,
We will realise it on reaching the land of peace.

On Being True to Ourselves

'Foolish beings' translates the word bonji (Sk.: prthagjana, Pali: puttujana). We have often discussed this term in these essays and it deserves continued contemplation by those of us, who seek to follow the Pure Land way, because it is for precisely 'people like us' that the Pure Land way was bequeathed by the Buddha and the sangha.

Readers will remember that the Contemplation Sutra lists nine levels of spiritual development and suggests ways in which people's spiritual condition can be addressed accordingly. From this, the tradition has drawn a set of doctrinal analyses of the status of prthagjana - one who has yet to enter the stream and attain the first stage of enlightenment. The dharma delineates a hierarchy of stages for spiritual progress - a kind of spiritual caste system - through which one moves as a result of action; practice. A person who has not yet stepped upon the threshold of enlightenment is a prthagjana - bombu, in Japanese.

Prthagjanas ('foolish beings') have varying degrees of awareness. Some are completely ignorant and impervious to any kind of spiritual values, while others are ready to listen to the dharma and begin the task of seeking the way.

When Shinran Shonin uses of the term 'foolish being' in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, he means almost everyone; ordinary people who are preoccupied with the business of feeding themselves and their families, of survival, and who are given to all of the usual human attachments. These are the people - the mass of us - who are the objects of a bodhisattva's boundless compassion because we are preoccupied with necessity, craving and commitment; and have few opportunities to know the bliss of the dharma.

For Shinran, then, the prthagajana is an ordinary person, who is given - in the usual sense - to no particular virtue or vice. He sees an 'ocean' of beings, a mass of people. Although, when Shinran comes to look within his own heart he discovers the intractable nature of his ordinariness, he nowhere accuses individuals of ignominy. In fact, he seems to hold his fellow travellers in the highest regard and affectionate warmth, because he sees in them the working of the Primal Vow, which he adores. Furthermore, as we have already seen, Shinran sternly admonishes us not to make value judgements in assessing others.1

In the context of Shinran's teaching, a prthagjana is one who belongs to 'the public' (as we say these days); one who may be considered either good or bad, wise or foolish. The Primal Vow is for us all. In mediæval terms terms he is speaking of 'Everyman'; not necessarily an idiot, a fool or an illiterate simpleton.

There is, then, nothing for us to become; we do not need to become either wise or foolish. People who turn to the nembutsu know one thing with absolute clarity. They know that without question not only do they need the power of the Primal Vow; they know that indeed there is, in fact, no other power, anyway.

In the nembutsu people become like kittens, soft and pliable enough to allow their mother to carry them to safety in her mouth. They relax into the tender care of Amida Buddha over and over again - with every breath that carries not necessarily the sound but the intention of Namu-amida-butsu. Other than that there is nothing needed. We only need to become ourselves, exactly, precisely as we really are. We do not have to develop into anything other than this and we have no special significance beyond what is imparted to us by Amida Tathagata.

Realising the joy and relief of Amida's support within our hearts, we may or may not become manifestly changed; any transformation is known only with any certainty to us and to Amida Buddha alone. In fact, it seems to be the case that most people who live within the happy and brilliant light of Amida Buddha became more keenly aware of their own unsubstantial nature.

Neither do we need to struggle to become a target of Amida's compassion by playing at being something we are not. We do not need to become obsessed with our depravity but just turn our hearts to entrusting in Namu-amida-butsu.

It is this that gives us pause and becomes the problem for us; that causes the Pure Land way to become the 'most difficult of all difficulties'. It calls upon us to abandon our usual 'results-oriented' way of thinking. It calls upon us to abandon the kind of posing that is natural to us as human beings; the way that we seek to find our level within society - by being this or that kind of person. We hunger for meaning and significance within a group or tribe - the fundamental unit of human society. In order to do this we often need to deny aspects of ourselves and cast ourselves into someone else's mould.

The sad truth is, however, that all of this involves unnecessary pain and wasted effort. In fact it is not ultimately possible to draw any guaranteed meaning from the externalities of existence. The only reality primarily accessible to us is Namu-amida-butsu.


1: CWS, p. 459.

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