Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 16

Vasubandhu, author of the Treatise, took refuge
In the unhindered light with the mind that is single;
He teaches that by entrusting ourselves to the Vow's power,
We wil reach the fulfilled land.

The Mind that is Single

One of Shinran Shonin's most common themes is 'single-mindedness'. It is a theme, which has its origins in Vasubandhu's Jodo Ron and lies very much at the heart of Shinran's strong sense of identification with him. Taking his example from Vasubandhu, Shinran begins The Song of Faith and the Nembutsu (shoshin-nembutsu ge) - the centre-piece of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - in a simlar vein, 'I take refuge in the Tathagata of Infinite Life! I adore the Inconceivable Light!' (kimyo muryoju nyorai, namo fukashigi ko).

The verse at the beginning of the Jodo Ron opens with a similar refrain, 'With my whole heart: I take refuge in the Tathagata of Light Shining Unhindered Throughout the Ten Quarters' (kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai). The two opening lines of the Shoshinge are undoubtedly intended to reflect Vasubandhu's opening line. They are written in two parts because of the metre, which is modelled on long precedent. The Twelve Adorations (junirai), attributed to Nagarjuna, provided the model for much subsequent liturgical work, including the Shoshinge.

The Tathagata of Light Shining Unhindered Throughout the Ten Quarters is reputed to have been a form of the nembutsu greatly admired and praised by Shinran and in the Chapter on True Buddha and Land in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho Shinran pins down the specfic title of the Buddha of his focus as 'Tathagata of Inconceivable Light'. The aspect of Tathata which most impressed Shinran and, before him T'an-luan, was light; the wisdom which pervades all things is the form taken by the light.

Although infinite light is a name used in the Larger Sutra this emphasis on light finds its origin most clearly in Vasubandhu. It was developed by T'an-luan and cherished above all other qualities of 'that which pervades all things' by Shinran. To my mind it is a most attractive and compelling emphasis. Among many reasons, probably the most significant at a spiritual level is the contrast between the effulgence of the deep wisdom at the heart of things and the evanescent and shadowy nature of our own existence. The fact that both Vasubandhu and Shinran relish the unhindered nature of this effulgence is also deeply significant because it signifies the fact that we do not become Buddha, but Buddha becomes us: filling our hearts with his irresistible wisdom and joy, and surrounding us in his embrace - just as we are; revealing us as we are.

Still more noteworthy is the inspiration Shinran draws from the phrase Vasubandhu uses in the context of taking refuge in the Tathagata of Light: 'With my whole heart'. The term that Shinran uses more than any other for the focus of his sense of the awakening that is at the heart of the Pure Land way - shraddha, confident trust, or faith - is shinjin or 'wholehearted faith', or 'wholehearted trust'. In faith there is no duplicity, it is single-minded, it is wholehearted and unequivocal.

When we first encounter this fervent single-mindedness, we are perhaps tempted to see hints of what is often described as 'monotheism'. However, this is not really what transpires in the relationship bewteen the Buddha of Infinite Light and Pure Land followers. It is a good idea to try to remove our thinking away from theistic ideas, when we approach the Buddha Dharma.

Describing the dharma in either theistic or atheistic terms does not really fit the context of Buddhist experience and teaching; and is to draw on resources, which are not particularly pertinent. It is not helpful to describe the dharma as atheistic because Buddhas are more than human: they are transcendent and omniscient. Neither are they creators of the existing order, since it is the actions (Sk. karma) of the consituents of the order that do this. In any case, we discover in some of Shinran's letters, that his world view incorported a plethora of deities and Buddhas. He was no monotheist. He was a Buddhist through and through and accepted a multiplicity of divine orders and entities.

Shinran's attraction to Vasubandhu's phrase 'taking refuge with my whole heart' is not an assertion that only one Buddha exists. Furthermore, if we look at the passages from the Pure Land Masters, which Shinran uses in his Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we are often struck by the insistence on the part of most of them, but especially Shan-tao, that the Pure Land way involves an intense concentration of the will; an effort to focus exclusively on Amida Buddha. A clear illustration of this characteristic in Shan-tao's thinking can be found in his Allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path. He suggests that we must reliquish all attachments, distractions, fears and temptations and focus our minds only upon the goal - Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. Shan-tao also describes the intensely focussed practice of repentance in the Pure Land Way; an activity so concentrated that one weeps tears of blood.

Shinran, on the other hand, is a man at peace with himself, in spite of his self-deprecation. He is a man of gentle heart and his single-mindedness does not seem to have the ferocity that appears to be present in the writings of his predecessors. As we come to appreciate this, it begins to dawn on us that Shinran is actually bathing in a light which outshines all other lights. It is the light itself which eliminates all rivals for his attention. There just is not room for any other light in Shinran's heart. His devotion is not intense or fierce; it is relaxed and free.

What happens for Shinran, or so it seems to me, at any rate, is that the light in which he bathes and which heals his heart and fills him with deep, deep love and gratitude, is the source-Light. It is the light that gives form to Amida Buddha. Shinran's 'single-mindedness' is the single ultimate reality, the dharma body itself. The source at the heart of reality, it fills the universe with its effulgence. There just is no other light; and it is the dharma body itself which is single-minded in calling to Shinran in the Primal Vow and allowing him to trust it.

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