Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 34

Amida has fulfilled the directing of virtue,
Which has two aspects: that for our going forth
    and that for our return.
Through these aspects of the Buddha's directing of virtue,
We are brought to realise both mind and practice.

Hearing the Light

The men and women who met Shinran Shonin in person are often in my thoughts. The lifting of heavy spiritual burdens and the relief that his teaching brought them was a source of inexpressible joy. Just imagine it. You are a man or woman, very likely a hard-working farming family, or a member of a despised class. Everything you need to do to survive and live up to your human responsibilities militates against your realisation of final release.

You clearly understand from birth that your future destiny is determined by your actions during your life. Right from the very beginning you are trapped in a bind: fishers need to kill, in order to supply their markets and survive. Farmers, too, have little hope and may need to hunt to feed themselves and their families. Merchants must always be conscious of the need to make a profit. They should be firm in exacting a fair price for their goods - and this sometimes means being harsh and pitiless. All of these necessities in life are detrimental to a good rebirth.

Like many people of the world who aspire to follow the Buddha-dharma, you know that conventional morality expects you to mainain an income for the welfare of your family. Even if you do abandon your responsibilities, you may find it impossible to ignore the natural yearnings for comfort and companionship, to say nothing of the bodily needs and urges, which not only run counter to the Vinaya, but - in the quirky way that life has - may simultaneously contravene conventional mores as well. So, like thousands of people in east Asia you turn to the nembutsu way as your only option.

As life progresses and death draws near, however, new anxieties arise. Am I sincere enough? Is my nembutsu consistent enough? Do I say the nembutsu often enough? Or, in hearing readings from the Ojo Ron of Vasubandhu, you may wonder if your accumulated merit is sufficient to transfer (eko, Sk. parinama) for your benefit and the benefit of others. A very devout follower would develop a deepening sense of anxiety and concern.

Time is passing but you are becoming more and more deeply enmeshed in samsara. Your nembutsu is not enough, you are not sincere enough, your virtue is - freedom is - drifting away; all hope is fading. You discover yourself to be too small, too shallow and too fragile to offer merit on your own behalf, to say nothing of the obligation you have to others in following the bodhisattva path.

So it is, that people's concerns were so deep and perplexng that they were willing to travel through mountains and valleys, heat, wind, hail and snow to meet Shinran and sit at his feet to hear his message.

Burdened, worn, despairing, trapped; hopelessly enmeshed in samsara; defeated by life and devoid of hope, you listen at last to the dear master. In verses like this one, Shinran first reminds us of the words of great teachers. In this case, it is T'an-luan that he is talking about. T'an-luan, in turn, is explaining Vasubandhu's words. He points out that in the phase of going to the Pure Land our merit is transferred to help ourselves - and others - in this important and urgent quest. Again, when we return to samsara with 'bliss bestowing hands', our merit is transferred to help others in their return to the world of samsara as bodhisattvas.

Oh! How your heart would sink! Oh! How deep would be your despair! 'I have no virtue to transfer. I can't even utter nembutsu in sincerity. There is no hope at all! All is finally lost'

But Shinran's eyes light up. He lifts his head. Before you is a man who is radiant with understanding, and truth, and mercy. 'We are speaking here,' says Shinran 'of the virtue transferred to you by Amida Tathagata. His virtue is immeasurable, overwhelming, his light embraces you... forever; it is unhindered, untrammelled by anything - even the darkness of your heart. It is unconquerable.'

Then, slowly at first, realisation dawns. 'This nembutsu I say is not mine; it is Amida's! He says it and, in saying it, he tells me of his embrace; his power will take me to the Pure Land - will bring me to see my Buddha nature, awaken to enlightenment. Oh! The tears of relief and joy!'

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