Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 99

When we say 'Namu-amida-butsu,'
The benefits we gain in the present are boundless;
The karmic evil of our transmigration in birth-and-death
      disappears,
And determine karma and untimely death are eliminated.

Following Shinran Shonin

This verse probably sums up in four lines the most significant mundane benefit of the life of nembutsu. 'Karmic evil of our transmigration in birth-and-death disappears,' implies that since all previous maladroit deliberate actions (Sk.: akusala karma) have been expunged as the germ (Sk.: bija) of our destiny - and overwhelmed by the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha manifested in Namu-amida-butsu - we are now able to live free of all anxiety. This is a benefit arising from the settled heart (anjin) of the person of other power (Amida Buddha's) faith.

This verse refers to the 'ten enefits in the present life', which Shinran listed in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.1 None of these benefits offers material gain or mundane benefit. The benefits in this life are deeply significant because they provide for matters of the heart and our sense of spiritual security.

Is the purpose of religion to deliver comfort and material gain in this life or to resolve profound and seemingly intracable existential questions? I believe that religion that is true is first and foremost the latter. Comfort and material gain can be delivered in other ways, independent of religion. For one thing we can be born into wealth, or gain it as a result of our effort.

In pondering this question perhaps it is apposite to consider why we do, indeed, follow Shinran. And is it possible for a person who lives within an entirely non-Japanese context to follow Shinran? Is his teaching culture-bound and out of the reach of people of varied backgrounds? These last two questions ought to be disposed of first. Obviously, if we answered either or both of them in the negative there would be no point in exploring the first question.

The English language has seen the publication of many works which deal with the topic of Jodo Shinshu and I discern two distinct approaches. One group of writers sees Shinran's teaching as inherently universal and free of any cultural limitations; other writers are not so sure.

A limited cultural perspective is patently incorrect, for Shinran's teaching is a legacy of Buddhist culture. He knew nothing else, since he was ordained at the age of nine. Life in a monastery was substantially the same from Afghanistan in the west, through the deserts of central Asia to Nara in the east, from Ulaanbator in the North to Borobodur and Sri Lanka in the south. Therefore Shinran is the product of a universal teaching and a universal, trans-national culture - the Buddha Dharma. While his own teaching is in part a response to the environment and conditions of his day, there is little that is unique about these. War, persecution, lust, anger, political corruption, authoritarianism, poverty, farming and family life; all of these are common, universal themes.

The best way to begin to feel at home with the teaching of Shinran is to make an effort to gain a grounding in the Buddha Dharma itself, for many modern commentators assume that later cultural accretions are inherently a part of Shinran's thought. It seems to me that one should familiarise oneself with some understanding of Buddhist thought and culture. A definition of Buddhist terms can be gleaned by resort to plain-language resources. The Abhidharma is one such resource, but it is daunting for most people. It is the Buddha Dharma itself which will best assist us in developing our appreciation of Shinran and enable us to find his writing - in, for example, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - familiar territory where we feel at home.

It is best to use a variety of resources in approaching Shinran's teaching. For example, it is a good idea to consult several translations of the same text. An incomparably useful resource is the Ryukoku University publication A Glossary of Shin Buddhist terms. This is useful when using the Ryukoku Translation Series translations, which have superb footnotes and hiragana and kanji, as well as a romanji rendering of the original.

Why do we, then, follow Shinran? My answer is this. Shakyamuni Buddha, following his enlightenment, set in train centuries of experimentation with - and exploration of - his teaching. In the course of this the Larger Sutra gained prominence and the nascent 'Pure Land' tradition flickered into life. Many books were written, many problems addressed and many experiences of the life of the nembutsu were recorded. After hundreds of years one man who was able to find total release from within the Pure Land tradition was Shinran.

Shinran is the last in a long line of men and women who sought to live within the light of the Larger Sutra and of Amida Buddha. Shinran was privileged, however, to be able to draw on what had subsequently developed, over hundreds of years, into a vast and rich resource, which his incisive genuis was able to assemble into a cogent and accessible form. It is for this reason that I follow Shinran. In other words, I accept his guidance before all others, as the principal interpreter of the Larger Sutra and the most comprehensive and accessible exegisis of it to have emerged since it was first delivered.


1: CWS, p. 112.

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