Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 68

Although their meanings are not the same,
Sundry practices and mixed practices are alike;
Acts which are not the practice that leads to the Pure Land
Are all called sundry practices.

Breaking Fever

We have already seen that Shan-tao taught that the single most important of the five sundry practices, which are 'the practice that leads to the Pure Land', was reciting the sutras. He also pointed out that shomyo - saying the nembutsu - was the practice that included all of the rest. Shinran Shonin was so imbued with this - thanks to the diligent instruction that he received from Honen Shonin - that at a time of great crisis in his life it came back to him with great force. The story of this event was related in a letter that was written by Shinran's wife, Eshinni.

From about noon on the 14th day of the fourth month, 3rd year of Kangi, [Shinran] felt a cold coming on and went to bed in the evening. He became quite ill, but he did not let anyone massage his back or legs and would not let anyone nurse him. He just lay quietly, but when I touched his body, it was burning with fever...

On the dawn of the first day, passed in such a condition, he said in the midst of his great discomfort, 'It must be truly so.' So I asked him, 'What is the matter? Did you say something in your delerium?'

Eshinni then goes on to relate Shinran's explanation.

Two days after I came to bed, I read the Larger Pure Land Sutra continuously. Even when I closed my eyes, I could see each character of the sutra very clearly. How strange, I thought. Thinking that there should be nothing on my mind beside true entrusting, born out of the joy of nembutsu, I carefully thought about the matter. Then I remembered an incident which occurred seventeen or eighteen years ago, when I began reading the Triple Pure Land Sutras faithfully a thousand times for the benefit of sentient beings. I suddenly realised the grave mistake I was making, for while I truly felt that the repayment of the Buddha's blessing is to believe the teaching for oneself and then to teach others to believe, as in the saying, 'To believe the teaching oneself and make others believe, this is the most difficult of all difficulties,' yet I attempted to read the sutra as if to complement the saying of nembutsu which should have been sufficient by itself. Then I stopped reading the sutra. A similar thought must have still remained, lingering in my mind. Once people begin thinking like this, it's difficult to change. When I relised how difficult it is to get rid of self-generated faith and vowed to be constantly alert about it, there was no longer any need to read the sutra. And so on the dawn of the fourth day in bed, I said, 'It must be truly so.' Soon after he explained all this, he perspired profusely and became well.1

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho we read that Shinran dates the moment of his transfer from the twentieth Vow (the 'true' gate of self-power shomyo nembutsu) to the eighteenth Vow (the gate of true suchness, which is the epitome of the Primal Vow) at 1201 CE. This is the year that he met Honen. The story in this letter relates an incident, which occurred exactly thirty years later, when Shinran was fifty years old. Thirty years earlier he had abandoned the fever of religious practices for 'true entrusting, born out of the joy of nembutsu.' It seems to me very likely that the fever which befell him when he was fifty years old brought back into his consciousness an association of discomfort of this kind with devotion to religious practices and ritual as a way of gaining benefit for oneself and others.

The association of ritualistic religious practice - which is conducted in the hope of some kind of spiritual or material reward - with fever, is apt. Fever involves the same kind of raised bodily temperature that we experience in all exertion; and exertion represents an effort to gain control over both ourselves and events. It is not just ritualistic extertion that generates fever. Contrivance (hakarai), the attempt to adjust ourselves to fit into some kind of pre-ordained pattern so as to engender a desired outcome, is also a 'hot' disposition; it is feverish. The exertion involved may be subtle and complex but it has an underlying quality that is the same as fever: discomfort.

In this small series (#66 - 68) within the collection of verses based on the life and teaching of Shan-tao, Shinran is keen to lead us to a healthy understanding of the import of Shan-tao's commendation of the five right practices. On the face of it, Shan-tao seems to be suggesting an obligatory round of ritual activities, including meditation, which have the overall objective of gaining the merit required for birth in the Pure Land. In spite of this, Shan-tao suggests that the nembutsu is ultimately the prototype for all five; and it was Shinran's experience that in this context there arose for him the sweet cool breeze of shinjin, when the nembutsu had turned to joy and gratitude.

It must have been a terrible experience for Shinran - to go back in his mind to the feverish days before his meeting with Honen. No matter how fleeting it was, it also served to remind him of the things that are the most important; and when his fever eventually did break he must have relived the relief in discovering that shinjin is Amida Buddha's contrivance and nembutsu is his practice; and that the fever of exertion on Shinran's part is over.


1: The Life of Eshinni Wife of Shinran Shonin, by Yoshiko Ohtani, pp. 95-6.

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