Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 108

When the time came for the Buddhas' guidance through skilful means,
They appeared as Master Genku
And, teaching the supreme shinjin,
Opened the gateway to nirvana.

The Key

This verse and the one that follows are among only three verses of the section of the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters that is dedicated to Honen Shonin, which draw for inspiration upon the Senjaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu (Senjaku Shu). As we have already seen, Shinran Shonin rarely alludes to the work directly in his writing. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, section on Practice, Shinran quotes the passage which asks us to choose between the path of sages and the Pure Land way and, then, to choose between mixed and right practices and, finally, to choose between right practices the nembutsu. We have also considered Shinran's commendation of the Senjaku Shu in the concluding passages of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

Most of the verses that praise Honen are inspired by his biography, Saiho Shinan Sho. However, the second verse of this section (99) draws on the Senjaku Shu with special reference to its role in establishing the Pure Land way as an independent school of Buddhism. It seems to me, however, that this, and the next verse, point to a sentence that Shinran sees as a succinct summary of Honen's teaching, and consequently of Jodo Shinshu. The sentence reads:

With doubt you remain in the house of samsara; through faith (shin, Sk. shraddha) you can enter the capital of nirvana.

This sentence from the Senjaku Shu seems - to me, at any rate - to give us the clue and the key to Shinran's understanding of the essence of Honen's teaching. When he compiled the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, I believe that it was Shinran's specific intention to clarify just this point. He did not need to argue the case for the establishment of the Pure Land way as a distinct school, Honen had already done that convincingly. Neither did Shinran need to encourage his hearers to abandon every practice except the nembutsu. That had already become an established fact in his circle. However, due to the controversies that arose from Honen's teaching, Shinran clearly thought it necessary to shore up the central and pivotal purport of the teaching as he had received it.

Because of the title of his work and the way that the emphasis in Honen's writing seemed to be placed on shomyo, saying the Name, it is well known that some confusion had ensued in this matter. Was it sufficient to say the nembutsu just once in order to realise birth in the Pure Land and to attain nirvana; or ought one recite the nembutsu constantly? Was it quality or quantity that mattered? In his own way, Shinran found - as a close disciple of Honen, a careful listener, and one whose experience of the dharma was vital, profound and robust - a kind of middle way from within the Senjaku Shu itself. Here is another pointer to the way in which the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is the expression of Honen's true intentions.

It was neither saying the nembutsu once nor often that was the key point of Honen's teaching. It was shinjin alone that is important. Whether we say the nembutsu endlessly or utter it once, it is useless in bringing to light the power of the Vow without its being experienced 'in a moment beyond all misgiving'.

From this critical sentence in Honen's book Shinran sought to explicate the distinguishing feature of his teaching, that shinjin is the cause for 'open[ing] the gateway to nirvana'. Arguing and squabbling about ritual - that is to say, how and when the nembutsu should be practiced - is confusion, double-mindedness and doubt. If we are stuck on these questions of form and not substance we are destined to wander forever in samsara. This is not to devalue the nembutsu, for the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is imbued with it in the way that the dojo is imbued with the fragrance of incense because it is always burnt there. The nembutsu was the air that the followers of Honen breathed and I believe that it is the underlying assumption in all of Shinran's writing, even when it is not explicitly discussed.

The essential feature of Shinran's thought - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - represents the unfolding of the heart of Honen's teaching and a paradigm shift from previously held ideas about the nembutsu way. We do not need to reify Shinran's insistence on the significance of shinjin. We do not need to pluck nembutsu out of the house of shinjin, which it inhabits - dislocating it from its substance. The two are inseparable. What we have here is not the displacement of form by some idea of substance. After all, it is the Name that is the substance of shinjin.

From now on, though, thanks to Shinran's acuity - and the truth that awoke in him through the influence of Honen -, the nembutsu is no longer some kind of plea-bargain, not a merit-mill; not a ritual; not a demanding burden, a source of endless anxiety as to whether we have put enough effort into it; no longer a charm nor a talisman. Namu-amida-butsu is simply the still heart of reality, sometimes sounded aloud by those who hear, but always constantly heard in the depths of their being. Namu-amida-butsu is what they are and the mystery of why they live. Instead of being a mere outward form, it is, in essence, the inner, underlying disposition. The Name (myogo) is the kernel of the shinjin that opens the gateway to nirvana. It is the still point that is the deathless, the wishless, the undying, the unconditioned.

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