Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 17

To take refuge, with the mind that is single,
In the Buddha of unhindered light filling the ten quarters
Is, in the words of Vasubandhu, author of the Treatise,
The mind that aspires to attain Buddhahood.

Aspiration to become Buddha

We already know, from listening to Shinran Shonin in verse 58 of the Jodo Wasan, that true faith (shinjitsu shinjin) comprises the 'three minds': sincere heart (shishin), serene faith (shingyo) and desire for birth (yokusho). In Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Chapter on Shinjin, Shinran analyses each of these three components of faith and demonstrates that they are one. He was undoubtedly encouraged in this conclusion because of his keen sense of the single-mindedness affirmed by Vasubandhu.

The three minds initially appear in the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha, which is found in the Larger Sutra. In the Jodo Ron, Vasubandhu gives prominence to the concept of single-mindedness, asserting his sole refuge in the Buddha whose light is unhindered in the ten quarters. Later, Shan-tao would emphasise the importance of the three minds and Honen Shonin appears to have taken a similar approach. It was Shinran who was able to show that these three minds are mutually dependent and make up the single heart of truth that is shinjin.

It seems that, from Shinran Shonin's point of view, the phrase 'the mind aspiring for Buddhahood' (gansabusshin) is close, in its significance and meaning, to the phrase 'desire for birth' (yokusho) - one of the three minds. Certainly, the association of both impulses is integral to the single-minded faith that is endowed to Pure Land aspirants by Amida Tathagata in Namu-amida-butsu. 'The mind aspiring for Buddhahood' is obviously fundamental to pursuit of the Buddha's way. We would make no progress if such an attitude were not our starting point. When the mind aspiring for Buddhahood is realised it is the 'enlightenment mind' ( bodaishin, Sk. bodhicitta) and signals our entry into the first stage of a bodhisatttva (Sk. pramudita), the stage of joy.

The model for the 'aspiration' for Buddhahood can be no less than Shakyamuni himself. Although we are all familiar with the events of his last birth and his attainment of enlightenment, his history began an incalculable time before that, when he lived as an ascetic named Sumedha, living in a village called Rammaka. We learn from Shakyamuni that at that time there was a Buddha named Dipankara who visited the village. Hearing the teaching of this Buddha, Sumedha felt a powerful urge to abandon his worldly existence and to follow the dharma. Shakyamuni told his followers that the mind aspiring for Buddhahood awakened in him at this time and that it manifested itself in the Vow, 'to save all beings from the ocean of delusion'.

Amida Buddha, followed the same pattern, as do all who eventually awaken to enlightenment. It is the aspiration for Buddhahood which inspires and sustains the entire sangha and vivifies it - giving it meaning and purpose. In this verse, we learn that such an aspiration lies behind the wish to be born in the Pure Land as well. That is why it is often pointed out - as it was, for example, by T'an-luan - that the wish to be born in the Pure Land because one is attracted by its seeming comfort and congeniality is not a true basis for taking up the Pure Land way and is only an empty hope.1 It is the 'mind aspiring for Buddhahood' that is the motivating force for all of us.

The mind aspiring for Buddhahood often leads us down blind alleys and along diverting by-ways. For many of us this is the realisation that inspires us to turn to the Pure Land way, not any wish to be born in the Pure Land for any sweet and alluring pleasures that it seems to offer. The mind aspiring for Buddhahood is also not something that arises from self-concern. Its occasion is always prompted by the realisation of the first of the Four Truths: that all existence is suffering. It is impossible for the mind aspiring to become Buddha to come from any concern for our own well-being, since, due to the nature of Buddhist realisation (that there is no self and so on) - and the overall gist of the Buddhist way of life - self-concern is eliminated as being counter-productive.

That is why Shakyamuni's first impulse - and the one associated with the mind aspiring to become Buddha - was to offer himself as a plank so that the Buddha Dipankara could cross a muddy stream without getting his feet dirty.

In both of the stories that I have mentioned here, concerning the arising of the aspiration to become Buddha in both Shakyamuni and Amida, there is a common and critical factor, which is often alluded to in Buddhist texts - including the Abhidharmakosa-bhashyam of Vasubandhu - and that is the way in which this aspiration arises. Because it arises purely out of concern for others, we discover that its source is not from within ourselves. It always needs a final catalyst and this catalyst is usually a Buddha, the enlightened other.

All of us can look back on the moment that we first felt, or 'heard' an impulse to seek enlightenment, and it is invariably not because of our suffering (although this might be a relatively insignificant and subliminal factor) but the suffering of the world. We feel the suffering within our hearts, perhaps even groan at its weight and its intractable nature, and we long to find a way to alleviate it.

A common way to approach the problem of suffering these days is to become politically active, and although this is an honourable way of helping in some small way, the relief it brings is only transitory. It can be quickly undermined and overthrown, for one thing, and it can be open to abuse arising from the usual human frailties. At the realisation of these things, we may be led to religion, for we gradually realise how small we are in the scheme of things and how profound and inscrutable are the things which cause suffering in the world.

It is perhaps after 'barking up' many wrong trees that we turn at last to the dharma but not without meeting a Buddha. In our times this almost invariably involves taking a book off a shelf - or encountery some representation of the dharma; hearing His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, or seeing a serene Buddha rupa. Whatever the cause, the impulse to aspire to become Buddha may arise in the immediate sense from seeing the suffering of others. When Amida Buddha's shinjin arises in our hearts, however, we discover that it was Amida who set us on the course.


1: CWS, p. 108f.

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