Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 79

People who realise the true entrusting that is Amida's benefiting
      of others,
Because they are in correspondence with the Vow,
Accord with Shakyamuni's teaching and the words of the Buddhas;
Thus, there is nothing that obstructs them.

True Disciples of the Buddha

When we become a disciple of the Buddha, we say his name and trust in him. This is the way in which Shakyamuni's first disciples entered into the way of the Buddha-dharma. In the Agamas we read that, when Shakyamuni initiated monks to the order he called them: 'Come, oh bhikshu.' The new follower then advanced towards the Buddha and proclaimed his trust in him, as well as the dharma and the sangha. It was assumed from that time on, that followers would dedicate themselves to the way and abandon all contradictory ideas and beliefs, since these were nothing but debilitating distractions. In this way the Buddha-dharma forged its way as a universal religion that required dedicated discipleship - the first in human history to do so.

In this verse, if serene faith - the second of the three aspects of faith described in the eighteenth Vow - corresponds in meaning to the Sankskrit word prasada, it can be said that something more significant than the initial act of trusting is being discussed. Prasada is a word that carries high significance because it is a kind of faith, or trusting, that is serene, confident, luminous and joyful. Traditionally, it is seen as arising with 'entry into the stream'. Entry into the stream is the moment that we shift from mere intellectual assent to firm and unshakeable certainty about the truth of the way. Such a person becomes a shrotapanna if he or she is a shravaka or enters pramudita, the first 'stage' (Sk. bhumi) of the bodhisattava path.1

Shinran Shonin was quite aware of the remarkable significance of the Primal Vow of the Buddha and of 'serene faith' as one of its aspects. This is because followers in the path of sages liked to insist that the awakening of prasada was contingent upon leaving the state of an ordinary person (Sk. prthagjana). Shinran's objective - or so it seems to me, at any rate - in compiling his major work, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, was to demonstrate - by citing relevant passages from important and reputable Buddhist texts - that serene faith was realised by people who did not cease to be ordinary, 'foolish' beings. In the Chapter on Shinjin he quotes the passage from the Sutra of the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life, which describes Amida Buddha's qualities during his time of following the bodhisattva way, as absolutely flawless. He then concludes that section with these words:

However, since the beginningless past, the multitudes of beings have been transmigrating in the ocean of ignorance, sinking aimlessly in the cycle of all forms of existence and bound to the cycle of all forms of pain; accordingly, they lack the entrusting that is pure. In the manner of their existence, they have no entrusting that is true and real. Hence, it is difficult for them to encounter the unexcelled virtues, difficult to realize the supreme, pure shinjin. In all small foolish beings, at all times, thoughts of greed and desire incessantly defile any goodness of heart; thoughts of anger and hatred constantly consume the dharma-treasure. Even if one urgently acts and urgently practices as though sweeping fire from one's head, all these acts must be called 'poisoned and sundry good,' and 'false and deceitful practice.' They cannot be called 'true and real action.' To seek to be born in the land of immeasurable light through such false and poisoned good is completely wrong.

Why? Because when the Tathagata was performing bodhisattva practices, there was not a moment - not an instant - when his practice in the three modes of action was tainted by the hindrance of doubt. Because this mind is the Tathagata's mind of great compassion, it necessarily becomes the truly decisive cause of attaining the fulfilled land. The Tathagata, turning with compassion toward the ocean of living beings in pain and affliction, has given unhindered and vast pure shinjin to the ocean of sentient beings. This is called the 'true and real shinjin that is [Amida's] benefiting of others.'2

This shinjin, which includes 'serene faith' or 'prasada' is given to 'small foolish beings' who 'at all times' experience 'thoughts of greed and desire [which] incessantly defile any goodness of heart' and 'thoughts of anger and hatred constantly consume the dharma-treasure'.

In the verse above, it is the shinjin, which is Amida's, that transcends the petty obstructions and 'distractions' that otherwise inhibit everyone from following the way. It is given to such people unconditionally and places ordinary, foolish beings, into a status that is of the highest order of Buddhist discipleship.

When we think of this remarkable fact, there is always before us the troubling queston, 'If this is so, why do we find it so hard to accept?' Some people may be tempted to answer that Shinran's teaching on this point is incredible. Indeed, it is. A synonym for 'incredible' in the English language is the word 'inconceivable'. Shinran was under no illusions as to the fact that the clear evidence before us - which he cites in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - was unbelievable. He constantly describes both the Primal Vow and the birth in the Pure Land which it portends as 'inconceivable' (fukashigi). When people dismiss the idea that faith is transferred to otherwise utterly gormless people, they are only supporting Shinran's own perspective. No one is asking us to believe it. We cannot 'believe' something that is inconceivable because we cannot form a conception of it in our minds; that is quite obvious.

For this reason, the expression of true or Other Power faith is only known in terms that seem negative, until such features as 'serene' or 'joyful faith' are described. It is known in the people who have abandoned all attempts to believe or construct inconceivable reality for themselves and are settled and undistracted deep within, even though - at a certain level - they may live in a tumultuous mental and physical environment.


1: The three component groups of the sangha are shravakas (hearers or people who strive for their own emancipation), pratyekabuddhas (people who have already become enlightened without being part of the Buddhist community) and bodhisattvas (people who seek enlightenment for self and others).

2: CWS, p. 98.

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