Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 53

Having turned from the little road,
Of a myriad practices and good acts
And entered the great path of the Primal Vow,
      which is true reality,
We will quickly attain the enlightenment of nirvana.

Greeting the Dawn

This verse is probably the most forceful assertion, in all of Shinran Shonin's writing, about his deepest conviction: that the sole and absolute reality is the Primal Vow (hongan, Sk. purva pranidhana) of Amida Buddha. The power in this verse comes from its succinctness and elegance. 'The great path of the Primal Vow' refers, in one line, to everything that is important. The great path is the one vehicle, which embraces everyone, no matter who they are.

The great path is given its verbal expression in concrete form in the Three Pure Land Sutras; mainly, of course, the Larger Sutra. Here the Primal Vow is delineated into a string of forty-eight Vows, of which Shinran identified five key statements in the eleventh, twelfth, seventeenth, eighteenth and twenty-second vows. This list can be further refined to the eighteenth Vow, then to the nembutsu. The whole process gives us an insight into the meaning and significance of the Name that we say.

Of course, we have touched upon these matters before. In any case, all of this is couched in narrative about the way that Amida Buddha took form as a bodhisattva and actually made these Vows. In this we are permitted to see that the Primal Vow finds its active expression in the Pure Land sutras. Indeed the sutras are the way that the Vow calls to us.

In one way or another each of us becomes aware of the call of the Vow through some kind of agency that originally derives from the sutras, which in turn manifest the Primal Vow. In my view, however, the finest exponent of the Primal Vow and the sutras is in fact Shinran. He had as his principal resource, related sutras and the accumulation of teaching over centuries in the commentaries of the dharma masters. He was able to collate them, reflect on them and to draw out a cogent doctrine from them.

Shinran saw in this material a gradual refinement of the Pure Land dharma through the active engagement of Amida Buddha as dharma body as compassionate means. But the refinements in expression through the ages are really only a repeated lustration of an ancient core message. It becomes encrusted with an accretion of doctrinal speculation until its original point is lost.

From the beginning, however, the Buddha-dharma has called us out of samsara and into the way to nirvana. The 'little road of a myriad practices and good acts' is a way of trying to evade the call of the Vow of Amida Buddha. Time and again the original message that is at the heart of the eighteenth Vow, the Primal Vow, that entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha we say the Name, is overshadowed by complexity: the 'little road' of religious practices.

Every exponent of Amida Buddha's dharma, however, calls upon us to shrug off the 'little road' of religious practice and turn to the light of the Primal Vow.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next