Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 26

At the behest of the Emperor of Wei,
He lived at Ta-yen temple in Ping-chou.
Later, near the end of his life,
He moved to Fen-chou.

A Short Life

Later, near the end of his life...

In the well-known dialogue between Shinran Shonin and Yuien-bo that is recounted in the Tanni Sho1, we discover that Yuien balks at the idea of death and is troubled by this - thinking that it signals some kind of betrayal of his shinjin. Yet Shinran admits to having similar misgivings. In all this, however, there is no hint that seeking actual, mundane longevity is in any way a genuine basis for seeking the nembutsu way.

The nembutsu has no impact on the length of our life. It did not allow the great nembutsu master T'an-luan to extend his days beyond his allotted 67 years. It will not result in a longer life for us either; the nembutsu will not bring us wealth, health or a life that is longer than the myriad factors which will lead to our death: a combination of genetic inheritance, general levels of health, fortuitous preventive measures and the avoidance of accidents.

Certainly, as we have already seen in the Jodo Wasan, the life of nembutsu may bring with it a measure of exhilaration and inner centring that may afford us a sense of confidence and spiritual poise - and these things may bring certain happy side-effects - but nembutsu based upon the hope of such outcomes will result in neither mundane nor ultimate advantage.

After a long illness, T'an-luan's most fragile life came to an end. We are told that the time of his death was surrounded by a number of auspicious signs, as though the world itself paid homage to this great man. His disciples were awed by the manner of his death - his profound and serene trust (shingyo, Sk. prasada) in the Buddha and his luminous nembutsu and comfortable demeanour.

Of course, T'an-luan attained long life in his birth in the Pure Land and realisation of nirvana. And every time we hear the words of Shinran we discover T'an-luan lives, still, in them. T'an-luan's quest for longevity in the mundane world - for, still he lives in his immortal words - is far beyond anything he could have imagined. But we can be sure that when he took up namu-amida-butsu, the burden of his hope for a long life in this world flew away.


1: CWS, pp. 665f.

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