Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 65

Shakyamuni, revealing the 'essential' gate
To lead people of meditative and non-meditative practices,
And provisionally teaching the right and sundry practices,
Wholly urges us to perform the saying of the Name alone.

Many Options: A Single Choice

As we have already seen, when considering the Jodo Wasan, Shinran Shonin aligned the 'essential' gate (yomon) with the nineteenth Vow of Amida Buddha. You will also remember that he attested to the fact that his spritual pilgrimage had begun with the 'essential' gate. He then moved through the 'true gate' of the twentieth Vow (which is saying the nembutsu with 'self-power') and finally entered the gate of the eighteenth Vow, which - in the wasan - he described as the gate of true thusness (shinnyo no mon). This spiritual path is called sangan tennyu, 'turning through three Vows'.

The decription of the first stage in this process of conversion may give the impression that the 'essential' gate is so called because there is some kind of formal process, through which we must pass in order to reach the final stage of the 'gate of true thusness'.

The 'essential' gate in fact describes the necessary features of practice for Pure Land aspirants who wish to attain birth in the Pure Land by their own power. Those who do not think that they can endure this path, which is identical to the path of sages, may arrive directly at the 'true' gate or the gate of 'true thusness', instead.

Again, the essential gate is provided by the Buddha by so that people may eventually come to the realisation of Other Power. For Shinran, much of Shan-tao's instruction is a provisional teaching. The right practices, which Shan-tao advocates, are five. The first is the chanting of sutras; the second is contemplating Amida Buddha (based, mainly, on the instructions that are given in the Contemplation Sutra). Next comes worship. This would involve anjali (gassho), prostrations and processions around the image of Amida Tathagata. The fourth of the five right practices is saying the Name (shomyo) and the fifth is adoration - making offerings of incense, lights, food and perhaps tea to the Buddha. Shan-tao's instructions regarding these five right practices admonish us to avoid self-power; and that we ought to carry them out with a view to gaining birth in the Pure Land.

Of these five practices, Shinran - following the lead of Honen - took the saying of the nembutsu to be the 'single act' and the other four right practices as 'auxilliary'. Over many centuries, the nembutsu had clearly become the single most prominent practice in the Pure Land stream. More importantly, the Name is the heart of the Primal Vow.

For Honen and Shinran the nembutsu was the only practice. Both Shan-tao and Honen made it clear that the nembutsu should be said in a way that is free from self-power (with an entrusting heart) and in the aspiration for birth in the Pure Land. For Shinran, the 'senju nembutsu' - single practice of the nembutsu, first expressed by Vasubandhu in the phrase 'Single-heartedly I, take refuge in the Tathagata whose light penetrates the ten quarters' - is the practice of Amida Buddha, an expression of his entrusting heart; and is said, not in the hope of gaining birth in the Pure Land, but as repayment for the settlement of terms whereby one's birth is assured.

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