Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 74

Shakyamuni and Amida are our father and our mother,
Full of love and compassion for us;
Guiding us through various skilful means,
They bring us to awaken supreme shinjin.

Compassion's Parents

The verse from Shan-tao, which inspired this verse does not itself mention Amida Buddha. It was Shinran Shonin, who decided to include him. It would seem that Shan-tao saw Shakyamuni as the main source of compassion because it was he, who delivered the sutras, which describe the way that Amida Buddha has opened a way for all people. It was natural for Shinran to give a pre-eminent place in the scheme of things to Amida Buddha. Shinran no doubt had a very focussed sense of indebtedness towards Amida. It was, after all, Amida Buddha who was the most immediate source of his deliverance. Shinran frequently reminds us that Shakyamuni's main rôle was simply as the bearer of knowledge about Amida Buddha; or as an agent of Amida Buddha.

It is clear that in Shinran's thinking the shinjin of Amida Buddha excludes all other Buddhas as the source of our liberation - except for the role that other Buddhas have in praising Amida Buddha's Name and causing it be heard throughout the universe. Furthermore the term 'Buddha' in Shinran's writing often means Amida, even when quoting from the Nirvana Sutra, which is ostensibly a discourse by Shakyamuni. Hence the quotations from the Nirvana Sutra in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho about Buddha-nature are, in Shinran's eyes, concerned shinjin of Other Power - Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

In this verse Shinran seeks to remind us of Amida Buddha's shared significance as a parent of compassion that we discover how he and Shakyamuni lead us. There is an allusion, which takes us back to the allegory of Two Rivers and a White Path; for it tells us that, although Shakyamuni is no longer with us, 'we still have his teachings'.

We are most likely to be led, then, in the context of the received teachings, and it is they that are contrived by the two Buddhas as the skilful means that awaken supreme shinjin in us. In the teachings we hear of the Name, which in turn is the 'call of the Vow'. It seems to me very likely that this is the way Shinran saw it, too. A significant part of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is dedicated to a demonstration of the role played by each of the three Pure Land sutras and, more specifically, the Vows of Amida Buddha in leading us through a series of deepening levels understanding - to a point at which we are ready to accept, in joy and gratitude, the shinjin of Amida Buddha.

Shinran called this process sangan tennyu and we have met it more than once in our discussion on these pages. The process describes us starting out upon a practical road of religious practices (the 'Essential Gate') and moving through a phase, during which we are exclusively dedicated to saying the nembutsu, until we finally come to rest in a stable state of trust (shingyo, Sk. prasada) - an internal, sparkling luminosity; which, may nevertheless, literally bring to light much that is from time to time painful and confronting. But, it seems that there is a conscommitant capacity to endure, and in spite of all, a deep, underlying joy.

It is apparent to me, then, that we cannot escape a dynamic synergy in the way that the leading of our 'compassionate' parents works upon us and in our lives. It depends on us listening to - and striving to understand - the teaching and delving into the ways in which its power and relevance impacts upon us. But overarching all is the inconceivable and radiant light of Amida Buddha and the 'revered Name of supreme virtues'1.


1: CWS, p. 54.

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