Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 35

The directing of virtue for our going forth is such that
When Amida's active means towards us reaches fulfilment,
We realise the shinjin and practice of the compassionate Vow;
Then birth-and-death is itself nirvana.

True Compassion

The Compassionate Vow of Amida Buddha (Sk. karuna) is consummated when birth-and-death (Sk. samsara) is itself nirvana. We shall explore this idea in the next few paragraphs.

When we were considering the previous verse, we wondered about the impact of the example and teaching of Shinran Shonin upon those who actually lived with and met him during his lifetime. Even more intriguing is the way he interprets traditional concepts and practices. His exegesis always seems to me to be utterly without guile or cunning; there is no artifice or contrivance in his perspective. Once again in this verse we encounter an explanation of the teaching of Vasubandhu and T'an-luan which is at once identical with, and yet radically different from, the way that it had been interpreted until Shinran. Shinran's 'genius' shows us, in a serendipitous way, the original intent of the teachings that he expounds.

T'an-luan explains, in his commentary on Vasubandhu's Jodo Ron, that the Pure Land aspirant turns over his acquired merit in a compassionate act for the benefit of others. Here we discover an idea which has its roots in the practice of maitri ('loving-kindness). Maitri (Pali, metta) is a kind of meditation in which the aspirant extends kind thoughts firstly towards himself, then to those with whom he or she is karmically bound, and for whom he or she has feelings of affection and love. Then one extends loving-kindness to those for whom the aspirant has indifferent feelings; and finally the practitioner's kindly intent embraces even those people and other living things that inspire a feeling of aversion.

The practice of parinama ('transfer of merit' - eko) brought to light the fact that maitri actually had an impact upon the well-being and welfare of those to whom it was directed. The recipient of maitri was touched by the loving-kindness of the other, even receiving it as an uplifting and redeeming mystic power. It could bring about the amelioration of suffering by infusing the recipient with the benefits accrued through æons of practice and purification, along the path.

Needless to say, maitri is not completely compassion. In the sense intended by the dharma compassion is no mere kindness (that is to say, fellow-feeling) but, as we have already seen, can only occur on the part of those who have understood and transcended the illusion of self, whereby there is a kind of identification with the other. It just never seems to have occurred to Shinran that such a state of mind could be contrived by an ordinary person (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) like himself. So it is that, when he reads T'an-luan's exegesis he doesn't read it in the way that it had been read by the majority of Buddhist followers until his time.

Shinran's unselfconscious acumen will be lost to us unless we remember the profound significance that the dharma affords to compassion. In the worldly sense, compassion is usually understood to mean sentimentality and a sense of pity for others - or even kindness - which is indeed the secular, low-level kind of compassion that is available to all of us in the moral edicts of both east and west.

These ideas are are all well and good but they do not even approach the profundity of karuna, compassion, within the scope of the dharma. To my mind, the epitome of the expression of this compassion is to be found in no less a source than the Larger Sutra. In this narrative we learn of Amida's forty-eight, original Vows (Sk. purva-pranidhana). These vows are primordial, underlying the very heart of reality. They are a rule of existence, integral to the natural order which encompasses both the law of karma and pratityasamutpada, the so-called 'rule of the cycle of causation', which is at the heart of the Buddha's teaching and enlightenment.

Amida's forty-eight Vows contain the key refrain, 'if they do not... then I will not'. In short, 'if they do not attain enlightenment, then neither will I.' So integral is anatman, no self, to existence, that nothing can happen without its having a universal effect. It is just not possible for any action to be taken entirely in isolation and - because it is the active flowing forth of the pure wisdom (prajna) that is itself the knowing of 'all consituent things (Sk. dharmas)' as void (Sk. shunya) - the pure compassion, which arises from prajna simply overwhelms the illusory existence that posits and even affirms a self. It is like breaking waves washing over lines that someone has etched in the sand.

This truth comes to light in shinjin whereby one sees the inherently illusory nature of self in the awareness that there is nothing that one can achieve as a creature of blind passion (bombu, Sk. klesha) and simultaneously assents to the power of the Primal Vow, which becomes evident at the same time; the obstacle of the illusory self having been momentarily removed. It is in this conjunction of seemingly contradictory facts that birth-and-death and nirvana are one.

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