Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 70

Even when the time of the extinction of the sutras has come,
Foolish beings, by encountering the true teaching
      of the universal Vow -
The exposition of which was the fundamental intent of
      the Tathagata's appearance in the world -
Will think on Amida and attain enlightenment.

Hearing without Sutras

There is an ancient, anonymous Chinese poem:

Listen!
Not just with the ears:
Listen with the mind.
Listen!
Not just with the mind:
Listen with the spirit.

In the fifty-ninth section of the sixth volume of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin quotes from the Nirvana Sutra.

Again, there are two kinds of shinjin: one arises from hearing and the other from reflection. These people's shinjin has arisen from hearing but not from reflection. Therefore it is called 'imperfect realization of shinjin.'1

This quote appears in a section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, in which Shinran seeks to demonstrate that the twentieth Vow - birth through shomyo, reciting the nembutsu - is a 'temporary' or 'provisional' dharma teaching that is inadequate by itself because it is shallow and confused; based on one's own efforts. He concludes his list of quotations by pointing out that he has moved beyond this stage to the eighteenth Vow, the Vow of Other-Power shinjin as the cause of birth.

You will remember from our exploration of the section on the Larger Sutra in the Jodo Wasan that the practice of nembutsu, which Shinran associates with the twentieth Vow, may inexorably lead one naturally into the final stage of spiritual development that the Pure Land way offers; and that faith may spontaneously arise. Thereafter, shomyo nembutsu will have a fresh significance as the nembutsu of the seventeenth Vow of Amida Buddha. It is the Buddha's practice, and not ours.

Mustering his evidence from the sutras and the commentaries, we discover that the disposition of the follower of the nembutsu in this process is 'hearing'. This hearing is in the context of shomyo nembutsu, even if the sutras themselves are neither available nor capable of being understood by ordinary minds. It is a hearing that is deeper than just sound or intellect, although, obviously these two organs of perception are important. It is a hearing of the heart - reflection. It is a hearing that is beyond creeds or the course of events in the world. It is, indeed, ultimately not even dependent on the very sutras themselves.

This verse is associated with the questions raised in that section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. The point is that nembutsu and deep reflection upon oneself and the dharma allow for the spontaneous working of the Buddha's Primal Vow, and that this transcends any formal transmission of the teaching; remaining possible even though the sutras have passed from the human tradition. The remarkable thing here, too, is that it is not a highly trained monk or layman, imbued with talent and learning, that hears deeply and is set upon the path to enlightenment. It is ordinary people who may not even have received formal instruction in the sutras.

Tao-ch'o believed that the age of mappo (mappoji) would last 10,000 years. When this era comes to an end, sutras which contain the teachings of Buddhas - especially Shakyamuni - are expected to disappear. However, in the Shozomatsu Wasan, Shinran gives the distinct impression that he has come to the conclusion that the sutras are out of reach already. If this is so, it must represent a development in his thinking because, of course, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho makes much of the importance of the Larger Sutra as the true teaching. In any case, the juxtaposition of this verse, flowing from the previous one, suggests a qualification of something that is explicit in the allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path, to which it refers.

In the explanation of the allegory, Shan-tao pointed out that 'although Shakyamuni is no longer with us, we still have his teachings'; and these teachings encourage us to take the way to nirvana through the nembutsu. In this verse, however, Shinran is keen to point out that even without the sutras to guide us, the power of the Primal Vow is in no way weakened. It stands alone and resplendent, quite undimmed by anything that we could possibly conceive by way of thwarting its reality and power. Throughout the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran drives this idea home over, and over again. He quotes passage after passage to demonstrate that nothing thwarts the Vow - no evil or ignorance or lack of ability and talent. The only problem is our doubt: those internal obstructions whereby we attempt to do the work that is beyond our competence.

Here then, Shinran, taking up an idea found in Shan-tao's Ojo Raisan, reminds us that the Primal Vow is not dependent upon the existence of even the last residual vestiges of Shakyamuni's teaching. This verse also reminds us that the Primal Vow is not dependent on Shakyamuni, in the way that the sutras are, for their status is derived from having largely emanated from him. The source of Shakyamuni and other manifestations of Amida Buddha is the Primal Vow; it came first. In shinjin we can know the joy of the 'embrace that does not forsake' through the working of Vow, without any kind of mediation at all. In fact the agencies of mediation that once drew us to hear the call of the Vow fall away out of sight.

Without the sutras, what mechanism exists to convey the teaching of the Primal Vow to us? Clearly both Shinran and Rennyo Shonin were moved to write the Wasan and the Gobunsho, respectively, in order to address this very question. They were both able to make knowledge of the Primal Vow available to people for whom the sutras were as good as non-existent, in any case; because they could not read the literary Chinese in which the sutras were preserved. Rennyo's Gobunsho, especially, speaks not just in the vernacular but also in the idiom of his time.

It could also be said, with considerable justification, that for us, too, the sutras no longer exist. Even if we can read them in translation, for a significant number of people they are simply inaccessible because they contain ideas which are unfamiliar. Yet, even so, we can still hear the Primal Vow and enter the path to enlightenment through the Name.


1: CWS, p. 235.

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