Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 102

Genku, at the age of fifteen,
Became aware of the reality of impermanence;
Manifesting a long-cherished aspiration to reject this defiled world,
He entered the path to enlightenment.

Growth

This verse commemorates the moment that Honen Shonin went to Mt Hiei to begin in earnest his career as a monk. Although he had been initiated as a monk when he was nine years of age, the reference here is to the total dedication that is required in the Vinaya at the time that the aspirant takes his major vows and expresses his firm aspiration to enter the bodhisattva path. The main feature of this event is the promise to save all beings from suffering by following the path until all suffering is exhausted: and then to enter final nirvana oneself.

The most telling feature of this verse is the way that it tells us that the Buddha-dharma is an dynamic and living organism. Although one enters a particular stage one never arrives at the goal but only at ever new beginnings. In the Pure Land way the 'turning of the mind' (eshin) that sets us upon the path of Other Power shinjin is a beginning - the start of a process of eternal growth until the entire stock of suffering is exhausted and we, too, can enter our rest and final liberation.

We move through stages of development as a result of greater and deeper levels of understanding. It was only after realising in the very depth of his being that 'impermanence' (Sk. anitya) was one of the certain characteristics of existence that Honen was ready to move on to the next stage of his journey. Even Shakyamuni after his enlightenment continued throughout his life to unfold the depths of his knowledge in a gradual way. He did not explain everything at once and needed to lead his disciples one step at a time. Once each person had reached a certain level of understanding, then he would move them on a little further.

Rennyo Shonin sugggests in one of his letters that the person of shinjin is the one who keeps asking questions; who continues growing and discovering more and more about himself and the dharma. Zuiken Inagaki said similar things. In his introduction to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho he points out that developing an understanding the dharma, especially the relationship between practice and shinjin in the Pure Land way, is a life-long endevour. Similarly, he said that deepening understanding of ourselves is like peeling an onion: the deeper we go into our kleshas, our 'afflicting passions' (bonno) the more we discover. Shinran Shonin, spoke about Amida Buddha's shinjin in an incremental way. He said that his sense of indebtedness to the Buddha was constantly deepening and growing.

Shinjin as a process of development, however, does not mean that we should have a lack of focus or clear boundaries, with which to delineate what is important from what is distracting or irrelevant. The traditional analogy that is used to describe our inner disposition is that of a stringed instrument. Indeed, this analogy arose for Shakyamuni when he discovered the middle way.

During the time of ascetic practice, in which Shakyamuni deprived himself of any comforts - to the extent that he almost starved to death from his self-mortification - he overheard a musician speaking to his pupil. The musician pointed out that if the strings of the intrument are too taut, they are likely to break and make playing impossible. On the other hand, he said, if the strings are too slack they cannot produce any music at all.

This homely lesson induced Shakyamuni to give up his ascetic practice in pursuit of the way and gave him insight into the nature of the middle way (Sk. madhyama pratitpad). I think a similar analogy can be applied to the Pure Land way. If we are too rigid in our outlook, thinking that, having turned from the path of sages to the Other Power way, there is no more growing or deepening of understanding to be pursued, then we are too rigid, become ossified and will break. If we are too slack and associate the way with every passing fad and extraneous piece of information, then we become lost altogether. There will be nothing of enduring worth in what we have to say or to share with others.

I have no doubt that when Honen turned his steps towards entering the path to bodhi as he travelled to Mt Hiei, he was well aware of the arduous path that lay ahead for him. Those who awaken to the faith of the Other Power discover that they are entering upon a new journey.

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