Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 37

Vasubandhu speaks in his Treatise, of 'the mind that is single';
Master T'an-luan, in his commentary, explains that
This is shinjin - itself Other power -
That we who are possesses of blind passions attain.

Sarana

This verse refers to T'an-luan's commentary on the opening verses of Vasubandhu's Discourse. We have already encountered 'the mind that is single' in the wasan about Vasubandhu and seen the great importance Shinran Shonin gives to it. You will remember that Vasubandhu begins his discourse with a very striking and resounding confession of his 'single-minded' sarana ('going for refuge') to 'the Tathagata of unhindered light shining throughout the ten directions':

O World-honoured one, with the mind that is single,
I take refuge in the Tathagata of unhindered light
Filling the ten quarters ...1

T'an-luan explains that the 'World-Honoured One' is Shakyamuni and, by extension, all Buddhas. Then he goes on to outline the saying of the nembutsu, in the specific form of Kimyo Jinjippo Mugeko Nyorai, 'Taking refuge in the Tathagata of light shining throughout the ten directions,' as constituting the first and second 'mindful practices': the 'gate of worship' and the 'gate of praise'.

T'an-luan asks us, rhetorically, why this Tathagata is the only Tathagata that Vasubandhu worships and praises. His answer is that the phrase 'Tathagata of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions' is the name that exactly describes him as 'the illuminating body of wisdom'. For both T'an-luan and Shinran, the Tathagata is absolutely and only Amitabha, Buddha of boundless light. When we use the shortened version - 'Amida' - it is specifically and only this Buddha about whom we are speaking. This Buddha is synonymous with 'wisdom' - prajna. Also, the phrase in which the nembutsu is usually expressed - Namu-amida-butsu - T'an-luan specifically defines as Kimyo jin jippo mugeko Nyorai.

It is not surprising, moreover, that Vasubandhu should take refuge 'single-mindedly'. He was a yogin, a meditator and 'single-mindedness' is a key aspect of mental training in the phase of samatha, calming. Once - through singlemindedness - the mind is settled, then one enters dhyana, concentration, and vipasyana - insight. Hence, it is clear that Vasubandhu selected Amitabha as his focus precisely because he is prajna. Since the distinguishing feature of Amitabha is wisdom, it must have been obvious to Vasubandhu that insight was consistent with it.

In his commentary on the opening section of Vasubandhu's Discourse, T'an-luan does not mention 'ordinary people' (bombu, Sk. prthagjana), and as we have already seen, he pays scant attention, thoughout, to 'Other Power'. To Shinran, however, such emphasis as T'an-luan gives is unequivocally present since Amida is wisdom itself. When one reads Shinran's major treatise, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, it is easy to see how Shinran draws these seemingly disparate concepts together. Why does a discussion on the Tathagata as wisdom elicit a sense of ourselves as 'full of evil passions'? Why does Vasubandhu's worship and praise of the Buddha of light unhindered in the ten directions call forth 'faith (shinjin) of the Other Power?'

The answer, in Shinran's terms, is elegant and simple; but vispasyana (insight) and samatha (calming) are reversed. The light shows us that we are 'beings full of evil passions' and brings us to repose in the acceptance of shinjin.

In the Chapter on Shinjin in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran explains in great detail what he understands 'single-mindedness' to be. And the shinjin of the Other Power is, above all, serene trust (shingyo Sk. prasada). If we take refuge in the 'wisdom that fills all things' we shall see and understand our own genuine organic reality. The inevitable outcome - more likely, the simultaneous outcome - is that we shall see immediately that we cannot transform things homeopathically, we cannot redeem with the unredeemed, see with blind eyes, hear with deaf ears, transcend self with the self.

Such insight is impossible, or so it seems to me at any rate, for one who is inherently ignorant and blind. Such insight must be of the Other Power. And, having such insight, we must know spontaneously (jinen) where the insight comes from for it cannot be from us; it must be the 'Other', the unconditioned. At such a moment the acknowledgement of the Other Power arises, and it takes the form, Namu-amida-butsu, which means 'taking refuge in the wisdom that pervades all things'. Implicit in this acknowledgement of the wisdom that is other than us, there is, surely, a peace more profound than the superficial and ubiquitous turmoil of our minds - 'tariki no shinjin', the Other Power's faith.


1: CWS, p. 191.

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