Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 13

Of those who encounter the power of the Primal Vow
Not one passes by in vain;
They are filled with the treasure ocean of virtues,
The defiled waters of their blind passions are not separated from it.

Meeting the Primal Vow

The 'Primal Vow' is more than a paragraph in a sutra; it is profound, and an integral part of existence. Many metaphors can be used to describe it; and many similes. Shinran Shonin saw six specific Vows of Amida Buddha, related in the Larger Sutra, as giving it accessible form. In the last part of the Section on Practice, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran utilises similes from both the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Larger Sutra to burst into a wonderful song of praise in the form of a litany, which describes the virtue of the Primal Vow.

The Primal Vow is compared to the Great Void (muhen), a Great Vehicle, a beautiful lotus, Zenken the king of medicine, a razor, an army's banner, a sharp saw, a sharp axe, a zenjishiki, a leader, a spring of water and, again, a lotus.1 Each simile is also defined for us. This wonderful litany follows two earlier lists of metaphors. One of these describes the nembutsu, and the other describes Nembutsu followers themselves.

The 'virtue' of the Primal Vow is meant not just in the sense of 'value' and 'goodness', but also in the sense of 'power'. But there is more. Shinran prefaces his litany of praise by asking:

... the ocean-like One-Vehicle of the Universal Vow is consummated with the unhindered, boundless, supreme, excellent, ineffable, unspeakable, and inconceivable utmost virtue. Why is it so? Because the Vow is inconceivable.2

If the Vow cannot be conceived of, yet is identified with five Vows in the Larger Sutra, what is significance of the Sutra itself? It is clear that we are speaking of something far more profound and significant than can find expression in the words of a Sutra. This brings to mind some concluding words in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which Shinran takes from Nagarjuna:

When Shakyamuni was about to enter parinirvana, he spoke to the Bhiksus, 'From this day forward, depend on the dharma, not on those who teach it; depend on meaning, not on words; depend on wisdom, not on discrimination; depend on the sutras that completely reveal the Buddhist principle, not on those that do not completely reveal the Buddhist principle...'3

Thereafter follows the metaphor of the 'finger pointing at the moon', which Nagarjuna famously used. There is, then, nothing reliable; not even - in the final analysis - religious texts, teachers, discrimination and partial expositions. The Primal Vow is the dharma but descriptions of it are inadequate and its virtue is real because we cannot hold it as something that we can rationally, imaginatively or in any other tangible way form as a concept.

Vasubandhu Bodhisattva and Master T'an-luan, who wrote the commentary of Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Pure Land, work in a robust synergy to provide us with a workable exegesis of the working of the Primal Vow; how it takes form and expresses itself in a way that we can apprehend and understand. We shall come to a full exploration of this, when we get the the verses that are concerned with T'an-luan.

The Primal Vow is an absolute principle of existence, very like the notion that 'for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction', or Archimedes' principle, and so on. As concepts associated with the physical world, such ideas really have no genuine relevance in the world of the dharma, for the dharma is deeper and real. Yet, in order for us to 'encounter the Power of the Vow' it must take form and find expression. The Primal Vow is: that for every problem, there is a solution; every poison has an antidote; and every disease has a cure. These nostrums many not be entirely true in the physical world but Shakyamuni discovered that our suffering and blind existence can be met with a pre-existing solution and the way out.

This is essentially the meaning of the Primal Vow. It addresses our core dilemma, which is that our karmic bondage and our karmic evil is intractable; that, for us, there seems to be no way out - a cosmic, existential 'Catch 22'. An encounter with the power Primal Vow is the spontaneous discovery that our profound dilemma has already been provided with a solution that leads us out of wandering and to our final release (Sk. moksha). When this discovery is made, Namu-amida-butsu bursts forth from deep within, because that is the form it has taken to reach us.

Whatever we may think of the nembutsu that we say, it is not 'our' nembutsu. Before we even say it, meeting Namu-amida-butsu is the way that we 'encounter the power of the Primal Vow'. It is inconceivable, so trying to conceptualise or give our nembutsu some kind of status is miss the point. Accepting and saying, Namu-amida-butsu, we just leave everything to the Buddha. Nothing else is needed.


1: CWS, p. 66-67.

2: RTS V, p. 74.

3: RTS V, p. 200.

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