Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 75

Persons who have thoroughly realised the true mind,
Because it is the diamondlike mind,
Are equal to those who accomplish
The three grades of repentance; thus Shan-tao teaches.


Repentance (sange) arose as part of the fortnightly uposadha observance during Shakyamuni's time. On these occasions the rules of conduct laid down for monks by Shakyamuni were recited. Anyone who had breached the rules was obliged to admit it and to apologise for it. Shame and self-reproach, then, has always been integral to Buddha-dharma. In the context of the Buddha-dharma, the offence that we admit to, is against ourselves; it is not a breach of divinely ordained law or an offence against a divinity.

When I first began to seek teachers of the dharma for guidance I was often told that 'regret' was one of the hindrances to progess in the dharma. Some of these teachers gave the distinct impression that repentance of past wrongs was in fact regarded with suspicion in the context of Buddhism. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as the Abhidharmakosa-bhashyam makes abundantly clear, repentance (Sk. kausidhya) has indeterminate significance. In other words, its force lies in the depth of sincerity and the accuracy of one's self-assessment. 'Regret' is a negative force when it involves regret that one has committed oneself to the pursuit of the dharma. Regret is also destructive when it is born of a sense of guilt.

Self-criticism is undoubtedly a very important feature of the dharma, but it should be honest. Genuine self-awareness and self-criticism is a part of any healthy spirituality. Failure to be genuinely self-critical can lead to self-righteousness or a kind of pathological self-loathing. The dharma is absolutely uncompromising in its requirement that we assess ourselves accurately, honestly and with a penitent heart.

Self-esteem is often put forward as an important part of a sense of well-being but I think that it is incompatible with the ethos of the dharma. Rather, we are called to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which are very different from self-esteem. As I understand it, self-esteem is an inherently anti-social disposition because it suggests that we may put our own needs and aspirations before those of others; that we may even promote ourselves at the expense of others. The promotion of self-esteem is, even now, contributing to the disintegration of social cohesion and the emergence of ruthless competition. It seems to me that such attitudes are out of step with the dharma.

As we shall see, when we come to the Shozomatsu Wasan, Shinran Shonin always understood his own reality with calm insight and found self-acceptance in the light of the Buddha. He was living the way of shinjin in which he was always acutely conscious of the two aspects of deep shinjin (nishu jinshin), which we have already touched upon. The first aspect is 'ki no jinshin', self-awareness, and the second is 'ho no jinshin', awareness of the dharma. These two aspects were outlined by Shan-tao in his writing, but they are not new. They represent the original uposadha practice in its Pure Land form, whereby the 'Buddha' is no longer Shakyamuni but is 'the present, living Buddha', Amida. This represents a very simple and straightforward relationship and underscores the continuity and significance of the Pure Land way in regard to its primitive origins.

In the uposadha observance, there was room for the criticism of others. Thus, Rennyo Shonin, in the Goichidaiki-kikigaki reminds us that the criticism of others should always be taken into consideration. In this regard, of course, we need to guard against the natural human tendency to be critical of others but not of ourselves. We also need to be mindful of the underlying grievances and envy that may come into play in that environment.

Only a person who is deeply self-aware can claim any moral credibility when speaking of the failings of others. Such a person would be very hesitant about offering criticism and then only with the greatest respect and care for the comfort and well-being of the other person. However, that having been said, there is a place for the opinion of others in the process of our own self-assessment. We do well to at least take note of what others say and to graciously accept whatever truth we may find it it.

A profound awareness of our own short-comings and wrong-doing is often accompanied by acute physical manifestations. We may blush with shame and embarrassment or even shed tears of despair at our intractable nature. Thus, in the Wang-shin-li-tsan, Shan-tao describes three levels of repentance. The first, is the highest form, in which one's shame and embarrassment is so acute that blushing is actually hæmorrhagic, the blood escaping through the pores of the skin. The second level of repentance is a median between first, and highest, level and the third and mildest level. In this latter form of repentance only the normal symptoms of acute embarrassment are evident.

Shan-tao saw immense power in the first and most acute form of repentance and pointed out that the outcome of the karma in question would be significantly less than it might otherwise have been.1 Once again, this is consistent with the traditional uposadha practice, whereby punishment could mitigated by a sincere apology.

These levels of repentance are encompassed by nishu jishin - the two minds of deep shinjin. Because the embrace and compassion of Amida Buddha is simultaneously evident, the physical and psychological manifestations of embarrassment and shame are simply transmuted into a profound and immovable (diamondlike) sense of gratitude and joy.

1: CWS, pp. 218-9

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