Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 33

Of the five inconceivabilities taught in the sutras,
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma
    is supreme;
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma
Refers to Amida's universal Vow.

The Inconceivabilities

The sutras teach that there are five inconceivabilities: first, the inconceivability of the number of sentient beings; second, the inconceivability of karmic power; third, the inconceivability of the power of dragons1; fourth, the inconceivability of the power of meditation; fifth, the inconceivability of the power of Buddha-dharma.2

T'an-luan draws upon the list of five inconceivabilities in his treatise Daichido Ron. It comes from Vasubandhu's statement that the 'glorious aspects of the Buddha Land are provided with the inconceivable power.' Ever a profound commentator, T'an-luan draws on his rich textual resources to expand the reference in the base text. In this passage, he points us to a general theme - one that we can draw upon now and not just in the Pure Land. He speaks of the 'Power of the dharma', linking it with the universal Vow (guzei). The power - the power of the Vow - is inconceivable (fushigi), just as the Buddha of light is inconceivable.

Why are these features of reality 'inconceivable'? There are many reasons, of course, but in a religious sense it seems to me that there is an element of serendipity, surprise, unexpectedness and initial unfamiliarity about the power of the dharma. Surely T'an-luan is following Nagarjuna in warning us about the fact that the dharma cannot be 'owned' by us; that, in the final analysis, we are forced to let go of our concepts and expectations.

In the essays about the Jodo Wasan, we were able to contemplate the limitations of language and of artifice in dealing with deep, ultimate realities. In the world of religious experience, this has frequently been the source of endless anguish and difficulty. Perhaps two key moments in human history point to this problem. The first is the well-known time in Hebrew history during the reign of the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV. The emperor insisted that the Jews enshrine an image of God (zeus) in their Temple in Jerusalem. The bloodshed that ensued and the horrible punishments that were endured are legendary and recorded in the first Bible, the Septuagint, which was written in Greek.

In the history of the Roman Empire, the eastern Empire - which survived in Byzantium for over a thousadnd years until 1453 - was wracked with turmoil over and over again, during the periodic ascendency of the iconoclasts, who rejected the use of religious images. In both of these cases there was a sense of community revulsion at the idea that what they held to be the ultimate reality could be captured in images - or even named!

In our own Buddhist history, the early community rejected the representation of both images of Buddha and even the written form of his words. This tradition lasted for almost 400 years. However, the sangha itself undertook to sanction the representation of the dharma in intelligble form when it began to write down the teachings that had been passed down from the Buddha. Not long after this images began to be used in temples as well.

At about this time, Nagarjuna felt it necessary to remind us that neither images nor the written word were ultimately reliable. The truth is that the dharma is simply not capable of being fixed and constructed within the human mind, nor replicated in words or images. Of course, this may be a source of anguish, but it is without doubt the truth. The human mind is a very strange, pliable and unreliable instrument, in any case.

Some religious traditions have sought to reslove the hiatus between the fanciful nature of human mental constructs and language and the profound dharma, the reality that is beyond words. There are many ways of doing this, some of them quite imaginative. One is to claim that a book or a collection of books was written by the reality or people inspired by it and that it is safe for us to trust wholeheartedly in this. Another is that a person or a formula represent the deep truth in a tangible form. Nagarjuna clearly rejected such ideas. In his Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra he suggests that to trust such things is as dubious as taking note, not of the moon, but of the finger that points to it;3 there is not even any relationship between the two, except that the finger indicates direction.

Yet, T'an-luan who was strongly aware of Nagarjuna's warning, can speak of the 'inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma'. T'an-luan is here indicating the reality of that which cannot be seen, constructed, represented or thought about, but only known.

How then do we come into an association with the 'power of the dharma beyond intellection'? Both Shinran and T'an-luan have an answer: by shinjin. By trusting and trusting alone. The Larger Sutra speaks of the awakenning of this trust in the passage on the fulfilment of the eighteenth Vow. It is when we 'hear the Name'. This hearing, as Rennyo points out, is not mere auditory hearing with the ears; and the Name is actually in itself a complex set of propositions - especially kimyo kin jippo mugeko nyorai - 'I take refuge in the Tathagata of light unhindered throughout ten quarters'.

When we hear this in our hearts, we shall awaken to the 'inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma'. Throughout the rest of the Sanjo Wasan, the way to hear is explained in full.


1: That is, the forces of nature.

2: CWS, p. 193.

3: CWS, p. 241.

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