Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 72

The mind and practice of self-power do not bring one
Into the fulfilled land established through the power of the Vow;
Hence, sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana
All entrust themselves to Amida's universal Vow.

Forgetting Mt Everest

Mount Everest is 8 850 metres above sea level and is the highest mountain in the world. In 1953 Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first people who successfully climbed to the summit. Recently I heard a recording of the news broadcast from the BBC, which announced the success of this remarkable feat. The extraordinary thing, however, was the announcer's use of language. He said that Edmund Hillary had 'conquered' Mt Everest. This suggests that Hillary had somehow subjugated the enormous bulk at the peak of the Himalayas! It is typical of our human hubris that we could say that. The claim is in fact quite ridiculous and absurd.

There is a remarkable irony in events like this because the very bulk of Mt Everest in fact supported the mountain-climbers, it was the foundation of the entire endeavour. How strange that in reporting this event the imperative presence of the very mountain itself was forgotten. The mountain was not praised for its part in the event; as the raison d'être of the expedition and the fame and adulation that it brought; that it offered its support throughout; that every step that the mountain-climbers took was upon its mighty back.

The Himalayan range, of which Mt Everest is the highest peak, has been building to its present height from sea level for 30 million years. In that time it has become a watershed for the Indian sub-continent. It now forms a climatic barrier in which rising air assures the regular preciptation that keeps the major water-courses running all the time, with seasonal fluctuations associated with ice-melt. It is home for a huge variety of plants and animals who are able to survive in the shady and cool valleys at middle altitude. The waters that constantly flow from it serve to irrigate staple food, fruits and pastures for huge numbers of people and other animals.

As we constantly sit at the feet of Shinran Shonin and listen to his words in his collected writings - and especially the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - it becomes possible to hear more deeply than is immediately apparent in the literal meaning of his words. Indeed, he is trying - in his writing - to speak to us of things that reach beyond anything that can be captured in a simple phrase. He speaks of things, indeed, that are so ineffable that they defy any attempt to capture or own them for ourselves. True, it can all be summed up in Namu-amida-butsu, but who can define that in a single sentence? If it were possible, then why was it necessary to write about it so voluminously? Why was it necessary to teach and lead with such care? It is because once something is said, implicit exclusions arise, and a mounting list of qualifications is then needed.

Shinran is, in fact, telling us of something in the spiritual sphere that is far more venerable, but not unlike, the ancient and tortured growth of the great Himalaya and the resulting blessings - life-giving blessings - that it now freely offers. Through geological research we can speculate, with considerable accuracy, about the history of the Himalayas. We can even tell the story of the earth itself, and how it came to form - and provide us with all of the wondrous gifts that we can draw from it. More: we can even now begin to calibrate the age and the timeless processes that formed the universe. But, beyond these things - and deeper in time than anything that we can calculate - is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, who, suggests Shinran, is old beyond calculation.

Yes. It is Amida that is the 'wisdom that fills all things'; his life imbues all dharmas - all factors of existence. So when sages of the Hinayana (Sk. arahant) and the Mahayana (Sk. bodhisattva) awaken to nirvana after their long journey along the steep, taxing and sometimes precipitous path to enlightenment, they should not be like the man announcing the 'conquering' of Mt Everest in 1953. They ought never to forget what it was that supported their steps all along the way.

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