Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 50

The practicer should remember that these three aspects of
      [untrue] shinjin
Are established with one leading to another;
Because one's shinjin is not genuine,
It is not shinjin that is decisive.

On Belief

The key words in this verse are 'three aspects of [untrue] shinjin' (sanshin) and 'practicer' (gyoja). This latter word is variously translated but, essentially, it means 'practicer'. The character for 'gyo' is the famous 'walking' character and it suggests a way of life, a path and a journey. 'Faith' (shin) without the character for 'heart' (jin) - as in 'shinjin' ('believing mind', sk. prasanna citta) - is usually seen as rendering the Sanskrit term 'shraddha'. It has the sense of confidence, rather than the 'true, believing mind, or heart of Amida Buddha', that is 'shinjin'.

As we draw to a high-point - so powerful that it can easily be described as an epiphany - in these concluding verses of the section on T'an-luan, Shinran continues to critique the entire notion of faith and belief. Although 'gyoja' is used in association with 'shinjin' in the Tanni Sho, it seems to me that Shinran Shonin is deliberately using the term here in seeking to distinguish the true shinjin (shinjitsu shin, Sk. satya shraddha) from the false.

The whole notion of faith (Latin: fides) and belief (credo) is extremely vexed and in our post-Enlightenment world it is regarded with suspicion. This makes it quite difficult to convey the main principles of Jodo Shinshu because the Japanese word 'shinjin' is used - in ordinary terms - in a wide context; sometimes very close to our English-language understanding of faith. Needless to say, faith is usually understood to convey an idea of the unquestioning acceptance of an assertion - often without proof. This has nothing whatever to do with Other Power faith, Amida Buddha's faith. The Buddha-dharma actually supports the proposition that trust comes in concert with verification. Jodo Shinshu is no exception to this principle.

In the secular world, it is generally held that we give intellectual assent to a process of knowing that is closely aligned with scientific method. People consider themselves to be unwilling to accept an assertion that does not have 'proof'.

That knowledge in our society is dependent on proof is, in my view, an urban myth. Most knowledge is initially accepted by most people on the basis of trust. This trust is usually only verified later when we experience positive technological outcomes and there is often a considerable lapse of time between initial trust and the acceptance or rejection of an assertion.

One of the great topical examples of this is that a few years ago it was maintained that scientific research had shown that a low-fat diet would result in weight loss. However, in spite of the fact that millions of people accepted this assertion on trust, there was a significant increase in obesity. The original claim has recently been revised (following new research) and we are being told now that a balanced diet which includes fats is important. We are back to the old idea that the way to lose weight is to cut down on overall energy intake and increase energy expenditure - surely a self-evident truth. This demonstrates that there is no final truth in the realm of science; it is always in a state of flux and development. More significantly, it illustrates the way in which we accept something because it sounds authoritative, rather than on the basis of proof.

Marketing techniques are based on our innate credulity. We can easily be convinced that something is true, not by seeing proof, but by the way in which the proposition is made. An excellent example of this is a campaign to promote refined cane sugar in Australia several years ago. Research prior to the campaign found that about 70% of the population were absolutely convinced that refined cane sugar was detrimental to their health and well-being. However, after a strong promotion - in which the main sugar manufacturer in Australia continually used the slogan 'Sugar: a natural part of life' - the number of people who believed that sugar was bad for them fell to 30% - a complete reversal of the situation before the campaign began.

Belief is a very precarious way of proceeding but there is no way that we can function in this world without it. It is an integral part of what it means to be human. We cannot function in daily life without a large measure of assumption, expectation and trust. We believe that we are rational and dependent on proof, but the truth lies elsewhere. Recent research into business decisions has found that executives who consider themselves to be 'hard-headed realists' and pragmatists - who study endless statistics and 'facts' before making a decision - make the same number of 'correct' decisions as would have occurred on the basis of chance. It is now understood that the best way to get the optimum 'hard-headed' decisions is by using machines. Clearly, human beings are almost completely incapable of forming purely objective and pragmatic judgements. Most judgements are made on the basis of belief.

What about belief in the matter of deep spiritual and lasting verities; those matters which lie within the purview of religion? To my mind there is something much more important going on in the realm of religion than is immediately obvious and I have long been of the view that it is not the so-called material world that is ultimately 'real' - it is this which is, by and large, the realm of mere belief. To function in the physical world, we depend on a complicated belief system consisting of a massive structure that involves assumptions, authority, habit, prejudice, popularity and expectation. In this realm that we find a comfort-zone; it is where we feel at home. It is when our assumptions about this comfort-zone begin to crumble that we turn to religion.

It is not because our society has turned its back on belief that religion is currently so disparaged but because in western society (the minority of humankind) our sense of well-being is shored up by luxury and, when necessary, sophisticated psychological and medical interventions that are not available to the vast majority of people. We are very lucky. In spite of our inability to wean ourselves of this privilege it is probably only a temporary state of affairs.

The spectacular and unsettling emergence in recent years of the far more real and lasting reality, which is the irrational and dark side of 'human nature', has begun to topple our smug belief-structures and may yet serve as a catalyst, whereby we abandon our facile belief systems and find the certainty that comes from religious conviction - the faith that arises from direct first-hand experience and a deep encounter with the truth.

The Buddha-dharma proposes that it is possible to see beyond our habitual belief structures and to know the enduring reality, which underlies all things. True shinjin is knowledge like that.

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