Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 119

It is taught, concerning Namu-amida-butsu,
That its virtue is like the waters of the vast ocean;
Having myself received that pure good,
I direct it equally to all sentient beings.

Eko

Shinran Shonin must have intended to complete his task of writing wasan at this point. It seems that, having praised both the Buddha and the Seven Dharma Masters, he assumed at first that nothing more needed to be said. Very soon, it seems, he began to look around him and to see every deepening evidence of the world of declining dharma. In a way that is characteristic of followers of the dharma, however, this awakenning did not develop into a rabid critique of society or of prominent and powerful people but into a self-understanding that is at once trenchant and lyrical. As we turn our full attention to the Shozomatsu Wasan we shall grow comfortable with the significance of this.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and in other writings, Shinran does indicate a significicant level of social awareness. He is clearly critical of the forces of violence and injustice that prevailed in his society but, in his later years, his eyes turn inwards. We can only be thankful that he had the opportunity to compose the Shozomatsu Wasan, because in these verses, we see the light, the wisdom of Amida Buddha, in stark relief as it reveals to Shinran the truth of mappo, not so much in the external world but ever more in the inner world that is his true heart.

In this verse, Shinran clearly intends to draw his series of wasan to a close by selecting as its basis the concluding verse of Nagarjuna's Twelve Verses of Homage (to Amida Buddha). The verse expresses the sentiment that is well-known in the Buddhist community - extending merit to all other beings. The return of merit (eko, Sk. parinama) is, as we have seen, the fundamental principal of the dharma, derived from such concepts as, not-self (Sk. anatman) - in its corollary: the 'inter-connectedness' of all things.

Nagarjuna's form of eko suggests that the virtue of the Name will lead to birth in the Pure Land for those who say it. Shinran has a quite striking and different emphasis. Rather than seeking to turn over any merit that he may have acquired by writing the wasan, Shinran first tells us of his gratitude for the Name. He has received its virtue and seeks to share it with others. Whereas Nagarjuna says ...

May whatever goodness that I have attained that is pure
Be shared with all beings for birth in the Pure Land.

... Shinran has no sense at all of having any merit or virtue of his own to share. Instead, he is enlivened by a sense of indebtedness and joy for having received the virtue of the Name. It is the 'purity' of the virtue of the Name that Shinran seeks to share.

The impulse to express our gratitude and indebtedness for the virtue of the Name is a natural outcome for those who accept it. This impulse manifests itself, especially, in the desire to share it with others. The entire corpus of the wasan collections is evidence of the way that Shinran felt moved to share his appreciation with others. A similar impetus drives the creation of these essays.

We have already seen that, when Shinran boiled the essence of the way of nembutsu down to its essentials he described it as, 'Saying the nembutsu and awakening faith in oneself we awakening it in others (ji shin kyo nin shin)' - to use the immortal words of Shan-tao.

Another interesting comparison between Shinran's poem and Nagarjuna's is the fact that the latter speaks of the Buddha, whereas Shinran substitutes the Name, Namu-amida-butsu. Shinran had come to realise, as did the earlier dharma masters, that the form taken by Amida Buddha is his Name. This idea is very problematic for many people and hermeneutics associated with it are sometimes not as helpful as they might be. I also find it hard to speak of it in a thoroughly satisfactory way. However, it is always incumbent upon us to try.

When we discuss the Name in abstract form it is called 'myogo', in action, it is the saying of the Name - 'shomyo'. Whereas 'Amida Buddha' is inherently formless and abstract - even when 'hoben hosshin', the dharma body as compassionate means - the Name as 'shomyo' engages us. We cannot say the Name without being impacted by it, no matter how slight or inconceivable this may seem. For ordinary, distracted people like us, there would be no point in Amida Buddha presenting himself as some kind of remote object. He became the Name because it is the only possible way to engage us. Thus the Name is not distinct from shinjin.

Amida vowed to take into the land of bliss those who say the Name, and thus to entrust oneself deeply and say the Name is to be in perfect accord with the Primal Vow. Though a person may have shinjin, if he or she does not say the Name it is of no avail. And conversely, even though a person fervently say the Name, if that person's shinjin is shallow he cannot attain birth. Thus, it is the person who both deeply entrusts himself to birth through the nembutsu and undertakes to say the Name who is certain to be born in the true fulfilled land.1

Trying to describe how the Name works in our lives is as difficult as describing the flavour of an exotic fruit to someone who has not tasted it. Our attempts to explain the nembutsu are only ever approximations. Nembutsu-shinjin must be tasted by each one of us for ourselves. Like previously untasted fruit the description is nothing, when compared with the actual experience of the fruit itself.

Like Nagarjuna and Shinran, it is also my wish that you will accept the virtue of Namu-amida-butsu, and find birth in the Pure Land of limitless light; discovering now the compassionate embrace that does not forsake.


1: CWS, p. 539.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next