Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 73

When we come to know truly that we are possessed of
      blind passions,
And entrust ourselves to the power of the Primal Vow,
We will, on abandoning completely our defiled existence,
Realise the eternal bliss of dharma-nature.

The Ridgepole is Broken

Ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya) involves the assumption that we comprise an isolated, self-sufficient and permanent entity. It is easy to understand how this happens: our sensory perception is inevitably self-referencing, especially when we are in pain. The natural state of things is 'permanence and bliss': tathata, nirvana or any of the other synonyms for 'that which is true and real'. But upon this essential reality is built a structure, like an excrescence that gradually occludes any glimmer of the original 'permanence and bliss'. This construction becomes another intractable mountain of a very different kind from the one I used as an analogy in my previous essay, and its contents become so complex and inter-woven with everything that we 'experience' that it is soon impossible to unravel.

We all know the way that the building of pain is constructed; how the house of samsara is formed. The technical term for this process is pratitya samutpada ('dependent origination') and it is often described as having twelve sequential factors associated, in turn, with past existence, present actions and the future outcome. It was pratitya samutpada that Shakyamuni contemplated when he reflected upon the experience of his awakening, some seven days after the event.

From ignorance arises karmic activity; from karmic activity arises consciousness; from consciousness arises name and form; from name and form arises the six sensory organs; from the six sensory organs arises contact; from contact arises feelings; from feelings arises desire; from desire arises grasping; from grasping arises birth; from birth arises old age and death, anxiety, sorrow, pain, suffering and anguish. This whole accumulation of suffering arises in this manner.1

It is often pointed out, from the perspective of the Buddha-dharma, that ignorance has nothing to do with a lack of knowledge. Yet, clearly, it certainly precludes knowledge of those things that are important for our release. There are, of course, many kinds of knowledge, but Shakyamuni's awakening brought him the redeeming knowledge, which he eventually felt moved to impart to others for their well-being.

There is one penetrating fact about the events surrounding Shakyamuni's enlightenment: it was the discovery itself (of the great mass of things that had arisen from ignorance, and had constructed his existence until then, and the way that it had kept him in its thrall) that removed the power and destroyed the ultimate reality of bondage in samsara. It was the discovery of pratitya samutpada, itself, that cleared the way for Shakyamuni to see things as they truly are; thus freeing him forever. It was in beholding the dependent origination itself that took away its reality and power. Having seen it as it was, it could no longer impinge upon him and create the resulting bondage, which, until now, had been inexorable.

I sought the builder of this house of suffering, but I was unable to find him. The samsaric wheel revolved around and around and I again and again repeated lives of suffering. However, you, builder of the house, I see you now. You shall not build a house again. All the rafters are broken and the ridgepole is destroyed. My mind takes leave of craving and attains nirvana.2

In the Pure Land tradition, the awakening that carries us to nirvana is the Primal Vow's shinjin, transferred to us in Namu-amida-butsu. Just as Shakyamuni saw the 'builder of the samsaric house', so nembutsu followers become aware that everything they do is built upon the fatal supposition that the samsaric self can demolish itself. It is the profound realisation that all that we thought would be good, and useful, and skilful in leading us to Shakyamuni's discovery, is a structure built upon the organic ignorance that infests our existence.

Deep mind is the deeply entrusting mind. There are two aspects. One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha's Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth.3

As, when Shakyamuni saw 'the builder of the house' it lost its thrall and he became free, knowing nirvana, so at the very moment that true shinjin reveals the truth that the follower is comprised of contaminating afflictions (bonno, Sk. kleshas), they are 'seen through' and lose their power to deceive, revealing the only power to be that of reality itself.


1: BD, p.20.

2: ibid.

3: CWS, p. 85.

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