Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 81

When people are not in correspondence with the Primal Vow
Various conditions arise to trouble and confuse them.
To lose sight of shinjin in confusion
Is to 'lose right-mindedness.'


This verse is based on a passage from Praises on Birth in the Pure Land (ojo raisan) and, once again, compares the weak and vacillating mind of a person of conficting desires (bonno, Sk. klesha) with the pure mind transferred by Other Power. However, the original passage is concerned more with the distincton between 'mixed' and 'single' practice. 'Mixed' practice includes the contemplative practices prescribed in The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. Perhaps, in light of this, we might pause to consider the place of meditation in the Jodo Shinshu tradition.

Jodo Shinshu is based on Shakyamuni Buddha's samadhi of great tranquillity, and his practice of contemplating on all Buddhas. We are told in the Larger Sutra that Ananda noted Shakyamuni's radiant demeanour. He assumed that this radiance arose from the 'contemplation of all Buddhas, past, present and future.'1 Shakyamuni praised Ananda for his perspicacity; he was correct. Having come into union with Amida Buddha in this way, Shakyamuni was then able to recount the events that were the genesis of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. In this sense, Pure land Buddhism is dependent upon meditative practice.

Meditation also plays a role in the development of the Pure Land tradition. As we have already seen, Vasubandhu, the great Yogacara patriarch, developed a practice of calming (Sk. samatha) and insight (Sk. vipashyana) meditation, which was built around Amida Buddha, his Pure Land, and the demands of the bodhisattva path.

Later, Shan-tao, working under the instruction of his teacher Tao-ch'o actually saw Amida Buddha in the course of his meditation practice during samadhi. This is a very important moment in the Pure Land tradition because, like Shakyamuni, Shan-tao had a direct personal union with Amida Buddha, through samadhi. Hence, Shan-tao is reckoned in our tradition to have been a more recent manifestation of Amida Buddha himself.

Although from Shan-tao's point of view, the 'five auxiliary' practices are 'single' and exclude what he meant by 'mixed practice', by the time the tradition had reached Shinran Shonin, this had been refined to saying the nembutsu by itself. This central and exclusive focus reached its maturity in the teaching of Honen Shonin; and Shinran asserts its finality in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

The right act is the nembutsu. The nembutsu is namu-amida-butsu. Namu-amida-butsu is rightmindedness. Let this be known.2

In both this passage, and the verse that we are considering now, the word translated as 'right mindedness' is 'shonen'. The right attitude is to be settled in Other Power shinjin. Any other practices, especially meditation, are eclipsed by the shinjin of Amida Buddha transferred to us. In any case, the truth is that, in the last dharma age, meditation is no longer possible.

If one attempts meditation with a focussed mind, the stallion of illusions begins to rage in one's heart and goes on a stampede within the six objects corresponding to the six sensory organs. And if one attempts to devote oneself to the meditative practices with a distracted mind, illusory thoughts may lead one to commit the ten transgressions, much like a monkey flitting from tree to tree. It is impossible to calm the stallion and stop the monkey.3

These words of Honen Shonin make it clear that meditation has become a futile and even dangerous practice. 'Impossible' is a strong and unambiguous word; meditation is not practiced in the Pure Land school of Buddhism.

1: CWS, p. 8.

2: CWS, p. 18.

3: The Promise of Amida Buddha, Honen's Path to Bliss, tr. Joji Atone & Yoko Hayashi, Wisdom Publications, 2011, p. 329.

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