Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 80

Those who are free of even a moment of doubt,
Having been able to hear the nembutsu of the Pure Land way,
Are praised as 'rare and excellent persons,'
And are ascertained to 'have realised right-mindedness.'.

Myokonin

Shinran Shonin seems to see the Primal Vow as absolute. This is especially so, when it is in the form expressed in the eighteenth of Amida Buddha's forty-eight Vows. Because the Primal Vow is absolute and our existence is conditioned and composed of illusory thinking (bonno, Sk. klesha) it is inconceivable for us. For this reason it cannot be distorted or thwarted and neither can it be contrived or generated by us. Its working is spontaneous, free and outside our control. That is why the person who hears the nembutsu even once 'free of even a moment of doubt' is, in Shan-tao's phrase, a 'wonderful, and admirable person' (myokonin). Shan-tao also says that the person of nembutsu is of the highest rank, a rare person and unsurpassed among human beings.

'Myokonin' is often also used to describe revered cult figures in Jodo Shinshu. These men and women are characterised by the fact that they are unlettered, simple folk. This is a somewhat controversial use of the term but the exceptional followers described as Myokonin remain popular within the tradition. Needless to say, we are often exhorted by the wise not to take them as exemplary; they are not role models. In the strict sense of the term anyone who hears the nembutsu 'free of even a moment of doubt' is a person of true, settled Other Power faith and, therefore, a myokonin in the way that Shan-tao and Shinran intended.

The 'wisdom that pervades all things', Buddha, is majestic in its lucidity and the dharma is elegant. However, some people yearn for a concommitant simplicty in their approach to the dharma. We live in a very complex world and it is certainly understandable that many people hunger for a 'sea-change' - as the saying goes - and wish to flee complexity and find a simple way. The fact is that we are just not simple, uncomplicated beings. Few of us live simple, uncomplicated lives. To pretend that we are is to pretend that we have already arrived at the final destiny sought by those who journey on the way.

The exceptional so-called 'Myokonin' are rare if they are genuinely simple, uncomplicated people but in our age such uncomplicated simplicy of living has gone forever. The true myokonin is an ordinary, unremarkable person like you and me. Such people have found the relief of the nembutsu way in Amida's shinjin, have often confronted an heroic struggle with his or her demons, confusion and pain, before arriving at hearing the nembutsu 'free of even a moment of doubt'. They are 'rare and admirable' not because of any intrinsic virtue but by virtue of the Name and faith that is given to them by Other Power.

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