Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 4

Mahasattva Nagarjuna, appeared in the world,
And distinguished the paths of difficult and easy practice;
Thus he leads us, who are wandering in transmigration,
To board the ship of the universal Vow.


Without doubt the metaphor of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha as a (sailing) ship is most enchanting and instructive. The phrase, which has a number of variants and uses in Shinran Shonin's writing, was first coined by T'an-luan in his commentary on Vasubandhu Bodhisattva's Treatise on the Pure Land. Shinran quotes the passage concerned in Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, section on Practice, 'Thus the path of easy practice may be compared in its comfort to being carried over waterways in a ship.' T'an-luan is here discussing the easy and difficult paths. Shinran tells us in a marginal note accompanying this verse, that the 'difficult path' is the path of sages, and the 'easy path' is the Pure Land way. This, of course, is a time-honoured classification, formulated, indeed, by Nagarjuna.

In the same section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran expands on the theme of sailing in the power of Amida's Vow in this way:

Thus, when one has boarded the ship of the Vow of great compassion and sailed out on the vast ocean of light, the winds of perfect virtue blow softly and the waves of evil are transformed.1

This sentence occurs in a discussion about the 'single calling of the Name'. It is no surprise, then, that he also uses the metaphor in 'Notes on Once Calling and Many Calling' in the form 'ship of the Buddha's Power'.

The final use of the metaphor in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is again in the section on practice.

It dries up the ocean of ignorance and causes beings to flow into the ocean of the Vow. It brings one to ride on the ship of all-knowing wisdom, so that one sails out into the ocean of beings.'2

The force of this metaphor can be understood if we remember that the samsaric existence is often described as a river or a stream. We shall come across and discuss the 'Story of the Two Rivers and a White Path' when we reach the verses on Shan-tao. Samsara is in this context shown to be something overwhelming in which we can become lost, disorientated and eventually overwhelmed by drowning. It is extremely treacherous and perilous and becoming entrapped by its currents is something any sane person would want to avoid. Yet, at the same time, Shinran loves to turn this threatenning imagery into the 'Ocean of the Vow of Amida Buddha'. The Vow at once encompasses beings drowning in samsara and saves them by its compassionate embrace.

More significantly, the image of samsara as a river or a sea reminds us that there is in fact no way we can traverse it without a vessel. Added to this is Shinran's use of the image of the Ship of the Vow in association with discussion about the 'Once Calling or Many Calling' of the nembutsu. This refers to a subject that was urgent and controversial during the time that the Pure Land movement was led by Honen Shonin. People worried about the nembutsu as ritual. That is to say, there was discussion based, on the one hand, about whether or not the nembutsu had some intrinsic power of its own and only needed to be said once to effect birth in the Pure Land; or whether it was the person reciting the nembutsu who needed to exert power in attempting to recite the name as often as possible. In much the same way that Nagarjuna at once demolished the opposing forces which he encountered in offering a 'middle way' that transcended both extremes, so did Shinran in this case.

Given that we need a vessel to cross the sea of samsara, the people who hold that quantity of nembutsu is important are like people who want to travel in a canoe and row it themselves. There is an element of 'other power' in that they are floating in the canoe but they also feel that it is necessary to row. Shinran's vessel is slipping silently by them with sails billowing in the wind of Amida's shinjin, transferred to beings as they entrust themselves in Namu-amida-butsu. The number of nembutsu from this perpective becomes quite meaningless.

When we take up Shinran's metaphor - the ship of Amida's Vow - we become aware that a vessel to carry us on the journey of the dharma is an absolute necessity and we are invited to serve as passengers. In fact there is only one thing we need to do.

Time is running out. As we move through life, towards its inevitable conclusion, there is a journey which all of us per force now must make. There is a ship that will carry us to our destiny and there is only one thing we need to do in regard to it. All we need to do is get aboard. If we were drowning and a ship sailing past threw out a rope to pull us aboard, would we take hold of it? Some of us might want to know if the ship was capable of taking us to safety, or whether the commander was trustworthy. Some of us might decide that, whatever the risks, we have no other option. In the case of this ship and the ship of Amida's Primal Vow, the same questions prevail. And in both cases, we will not know the answer until we get aboard and sail to safety.

1: CWS, p. 56.

2: CWS, p. 68.

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