Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 78

Concerning those who have not realised true and real shinjin,
Shan-tao teaches that they 'lack one mind';
Know, therefore, that all who lack this mind that is single
Do not yet possess the threefold shinjin.

Transcending Avidya

This verse is remarkable for its striking interpretation of these words from Shan-tao's Ojo Raisan:

One who has the Three Minds will necessarily attain the Birth. If he lacks one [of them], he will not attain the Birth.1

Shan-tao is referring to the 'three minds' that were listed in the Contemplaton Sutra: sincere mind, deep mind and the mind to transfer merit. If one of these is lacking, he says, then birth will not be attained. Shinran Shonin, however, sees this from a fresh angle. His approach is outlined in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Chapter on Shinjin. Here we discover that the three minds that Shan-tao is talking about are the three aspects of the single faith of the eighteenth of Amida Buddha's vows: sincere mind (shishin, Sk. prasanna-citta, also shinjin), serene faith (shingyo, Sk. possibly prasada) and the desire for birth (yokusho). This faith, with its three aspects, is 'inconceivable, indescribable and ineffable' and, therefore, not our creation.

One of the ways that this verse can be read takes Shinran's perspective on the 'one mind' of shinjin - comprising the 'three aspects' of the eighteenth Vow - to mean that, if this one mind is missing, all three aspects are missing. Shinjin cannot be incomplete. Every aspect of it is integral to it.

In the Ojo Raisan - and, of course, his commentary - Shan-tao makes frequent reference to the three minds that are delineated in the Contemplation Sutra. The last of these is the 'mind to transfer'. It assumes the creation of merit, which can be utilised in support of one's effort to attain birth in the Pure Land and nirvana. All followers of the dharma, without exception, are familiar with the creation and transfer of merit (eko, Sk. parinama). The question is, however, 'How can a person, who is in the thrall of ignorance, create merit?' This inevitably begs the question: What and who, then, can be trusted? Who is devoid of the ignorance that renders interpretation and practice unreliable? It will be be remembered that T'an-luan set out a list of reasons for following the Pure Land way and that they are redolent with concerns about the unreliability of hermeneutics in the age of declining dharma.

Although Shinran and most of the extant Pure Land tradition is dependent on Shan-tao as founder and teacher, Shinran had a remarkable ability to transform inconsistencies in the teaching, which risk overall misinterpretation. However, I do not think that this verse represents a conscious and radical critique of Shan-tao's emphasis and the tacit resonances in his teachings with the path of sages. In this case the transfer of merit is the prime example. It must also be said, that Shinran seems quite certain that in writing, for example, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and the Wasan, he was being entirely faithful to the insights and teachings of his dharma master, Honen Shonin.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Shinran transcends logical problems about the unreliability of interpretation in a way that is the natural outcome of his experience of Other Power. The three aspects of the one mind of faith is inconceivable because it is not born of the ignorant assumptions and assessments of an ordinary person but because it comes from the pure light of Amida Buddha. Shinjin cuts through our ignorance by itself, spontaneously, naturally, and without either our assistance or contrivance. Self power is essentially the power of ignorance, and can no longer be trusted. Other Power is absolute and free.

From the time of his meeting with Honen in 1201 CE, it seems clear to me that Shinran considered the nembutsu he said to literally no longer be his doing. It was the light of the Buddha, living and active, breaking into the world. It gave Shinran the capacity to cut to the heart of things and to see old ideas in a radically new - but eternally implicit - way. Suddenly, he sees everything with brilliant clarity: transfer of merit is not the act of a being created by ignorance but the Buddha's transfer of his merit to us. The nembutsu that Shinran says is the Buddha's work. In this way, ignorance is transcended.

Although ignorance remains intractable in his own internal reality, Shinran is nevertheless free from its thrall by turning outwards, as it were, to the light and life of Amida Tathagata.


1: RTS, Vol. VI. p. 103.

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