Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 91

Our teacher, Master Genshin,
Following the discourse of Master Huai-kan,
Quoted the Sutra of the Bodhisattva's Dwelling in the Womb
To clarify the realm of indolence and pride.

Trapped in 'Paradise'

Since there are thousands of differences in the causes of birth in the provisional Buddha-lands, there are thousands of differences in the lands. They are termed 'transformed bodies of skillful means' and 'transformed lands of skillful means.' Being ignorant of the distinction between true and provisional, people misunderstand and lose sight of the Tathagata's vast benevolence.1

The Treatise on the Pure Land states, 'I take refuge in the Tathagata of unhindered light filling the ten quarters.'

Concerning the true land, the Larger Sutra states, 'Land of immeasurable light' and 'Land of all-knowing wisdom.'

The Treatise states, 'It is infinite, like space, vast and boundless.'

Concerning birth, the Larger Sutra states, 'All receive the body of naturalness (jinen) or of emptiness, the body of boundlessness.'2

When a person has entered completely into the Pure Land of happiness, he or she immediately realizes the supreme nirvana; he realizes the supreme enlightenment. Although the terms differ, they both mean to realize the enlightenment of the Buddha who is dharma-body.3

I have collected this group of three quotations from Shinran Shonin as a reminder of the way that he assesses the concept of the Pure Land. In the verse above he is drawing on A Collection of Passages Concerning Birth (ojoyoshu), by Genshin. At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, it seems to me that it is sufficient to say that Shinran distinguishes between the true Pure Land and temporary (or expedient) Pure Lands. The true Pure Land is eloquently described in the second quote, above. It is pure light, emptiness (kumon, Sk. shunyata), pure wisdom; and infinite. It is represents the way in which the man or woman who has become a person of true nembutsu develops into an enlightened person at the change that we describe as death. The true nembutsu is Amida Buddha's practice, the substance of his entrusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna-citta).

By contrast, those of us who invest their own hopes, intentions and desires into the practice of nembutsu are born into a realm that is influenced by their own desire. According to Shinran, these provisional lands are also the product of the Primal Vow, but they are a temporary expedient. This concept did not originate with Shinran. He is interpreting a long tradition, from within the Pure Land way. To my mind, Shinran's genius lies in his organisation of this complex tradition; he made sense of it for us. More importantly, Shinran saw desire (Sk. trishna) in a way that reflects the orthodox perspective of the Buddha-dharma. Those who seek to arrive at a spiritual goal by means of their own contrivance, taint the goal with their own desire. We can become 'trapped in Paradise', as it were. The true transcendent purity and formlessness of nirvana (the 'true Pure Land') will elude us.

In this verse, the temporary land is here described as the 'realm of arrogance' because we attain it by asserting our own will and refusing to accept the power of the Primal Vow.

Much of the writing that claims to describe the Buddha-dharma is especially prone to this torpid thinking. How often do we see the Pure Land described as 'the western Paradise of Amida Buddha'? People who describe that which is 'infinite, like space, vast and boundless' in that kind of way are either ignorant, or choosing to deliberately distort the teaching of the Pure Land way for sectarian purposes. At the very least, they are flying in the face of precise and clear teaching within the Pure Land tradition itself.

The true Pure Land is called 'the land of bliss' because, for the Buddha-dharma, nirvana is the only bliss. The word 'bliss' (Sk. sukha) is used for this reason, and not because some kind of paradise of sensual delight is being described. The term 'land of bliss' is literally a synonym for nirvana. The graphic descriptions serve to convey the permanent nature of the Pure Land. We can say 'infinite, like space, vast and boundless' or paint a picture that says the same thing.

The true Pure Land is actually ineffable. It is beyond anything we can know or conceive since it completely transcends samsara and the 'three poisons' that generate our on-going mundane existence.

Suppose there is a person who, without awakening the mind aspiring for supreme enlightenment, simply hears that bliss is enjoyed in that land without interruption and desires to be born there for the sake of the bliss; such a person will not be able to attain birth. Thus it is said, 'They do not seek the sustained bliss for their own sake, but think only of freeing all sentient beings from pain.'4

Yet, 'desire for birth' (yokusho) is one of the three components of the mind of faith, or heart of truth (shinjin, Sk. prasanna citta). Desire for birth in any enduring or meaningful sense can only be produced by the enlightened mind which is its source. Underlying the aspiration for birth that is given by Amida Buddha's Primal Vow and inspires our faith is the yearning for the salvation of both ourselves and others. It is the aspiration for enlightenment; to become a Buddha.

In the Sutra of the Bodhisattvas' Dwelling in the Womb (shotai-kyo) that is referred to in this verse, Master Huai-kan (ekan) suggests that many more people are born in the 'realm of indolence and pride', which Shinran equates with the temporary Pure Land, than the true Pure Land - the land of immeasurable light and all-knowing wisdom. The reason for this seems clear to me. It has to do with our way of seeing things.

We Australians are fortunate, because most of us can see a lot of the sky. For example, even though Adelaide has a range of rugged hills just a few kilometres east of the central business district, most of us can see at least three quarters of the sky at any time. Our streets are wide and our houses are mostly only single-story buildings. That is why I have always found the sky a fascinating arena.

One of the best times to watch the sky from my front verandah (which faces north-east) is around sunset. The sky is still back-lit by the sun in the twilight, and, even though we live in a dry climate - indeed entirely drought-stricken in summer and early autumn - the sky is surpisingly often populated with clouds of various shapes and sizes. They suggest a fascinating array of images.

Ever since I was a boy, I have enjoyed identifying familar things in the shape of clouds. It is a game my mother used to play with us as we lay on the back lawn or at the beach. There is a sphinx, a crane, a person, Amida Buddha! Recently, I have even seen a cloud that looked like the flying saucer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Watching the clouds in company is even more fun. I have been amazed at how each of us will see different things in the same shapes: until we point them out. Then there is serendipity: 'Ah! Yes! I can see that too.'

Thus the clouds afford a useful analogy for the distinction between Shinran's insight into the provisional and true Pure Lands. Both the pure deep blue of the sky and the clouds that fill its arc, are created by the atmosphere that also sustains our life. The dharma body (Sk. dharmakaya) is the spiritual atmosphere that is at the heart of life and from the Primal Vow, its expression, emerge both the provisional and the true Pure Land. It is upon the provisional land that we project our aspirations, our beliefs and our hopes. Using this analogy, it is possible to understand why the contemplation of the Pure Land is suited to the path of sages. Accomplished monks and nuns have attained greater clarity of mind and can see the provisional Pure Lands in a way that is more likely to be consistent with the truth.

For ordinary people like us, however, contemplation of the provisional Pure Lands is more likely to be a projection of our own desires. Thus, what we create in our own hearts can be a trap, a snare and an obstacle on the way. The true Pure Land is 'empty and limitless'. Indeed the clear blue sky is closely related to the Sanskrit word for 'emptiness' (kumon, Sk. shunyata); in fact, I have been taught that it is synonymous. There is nothing we can project onto the clear blue sky, rather it is more likely to overwhelm us with its purity and grandeur.

In the nembutsu, we just depend on the clarity of the true Pure Land and wait to know its depths: when the time is ripe.


1: CWS, p. 203.

2: CWS, p. 203.

3: CWS, p. 555.

4: Tan-luan, CWS, pp. 108-9.

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