Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 94

For all people - men and women of high station or low-
Saying the Name of Amida is such
That whether one is walking, standing, sitting, or reclining is
      of no concern
And time, place, and condition are not restricted.

An Invitation

Shinran Shonin is taking Genshin's teaching about the virtues of saying the nembutsu (shomyo) and highlighting the distinctive way that it is practiced in Jodo Shinshu. Whereas earlier traditions set aside special times and created hallowed conditions for saying the Name, as an accompaniment to meditative disciplines, Shinran's nembutsu was spontaneous and free of formal constraints.

In Jodo Shinshu the term 'nembutsu' means 'saying the Name of Amida Buddha'. In the book on Practice in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran defines the Name of Amida Buddha as Namu-amida-butsu. However, he also implicitly includes other cognates - in fact, any that interpret 'Amida' as Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light` - in others of his writing. From Shinran's point of view saying the Name 'embodies all good and contains all virtues'.

Sometimes it is said that the Name, as an object, 'embodies all good and contains all virtues' but, for Shinran himself, it is shomyo - saying the Name - which has these profound and transcendent qualities. The emphasis for Shinran (or so it seems to me, at any rate) is the practice itself - engagement. Contingent upon practice is faith, which is nothing less than acceptance of the saying of the Name as the path to becoming a Buddha.

At first the shinjin that underlies the saying of the Name may be fragile. However, Shinran describes a moment at which it becomes settled. Then Amida's (inconceivable) light becomes known; and saying the Name, faith and the light of Amida Buddha coalesce perfectly. Becoming a Buddha is assured. As we have already seen, the nembutsu way is an 'Other Power' gate. The light of Amida is, as Shinran says, an external condition. This is also true of the Name (which is a synonym for 'saying the Name') because, as Shinran says - quoting the seventeenth Vow of Amida Buddha - 'all Buddhas say the Name'.

Shinran tells us that the origin of the practice (saying the Name) resides at the heart of life, with the absolute, tathata, and is given its initial expression in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in the seventeenth Vow. Shomyo is passed down from person to person and from generaton to generation. For Shinran, the year of 1201, when he met Honen, was the time that he 'entered the gate of true thusness', the nembutsu of Other Power: the eighteenth Vow. He received the Name by means of Honen's agency. Since it is an 'external condition'1 and comes from outside, from another, the Name is not our good. It is received from others and we do not generate it ourselves. It is like the growth of a plant. Although we may provide nutrients and till the soil, the plant grows all by itself, depending entirely on the light of the sun.

Wherever we may find ourselves along the way, it is the nembutsu that is the unmistakeable focus. It is a constant, enduring and priceless gift. Upon 'entering the gate of true thusness', everything else is left behind. Shakyamuni's entrance into the great renunciation is a metaphor for this. He shaved his head and took off his kingly robes. Shaking off all 'sundry' practices of any kind, the person of nembutsu receives - with fullness of heart - the only practice (for enlightenment) that is saying the Name. This is to discover the mystery of (saying) the Name as the 'great' practice, and it means entering the concourse of the 'great vehicle', the Mahayana: 'all Buddhas say the Name'.

This verse celebrates the great practice, the great good, when it tells us that there are no people who are specially qualified to say the Name. There are no sacred places or special times. The Name, indeed, is for those who have no special time or place for practice. It is true that many people in the Shinshu tradition set aside some time once or twice each day to 'celebrate' the Nembutsu in a formal way by chanting their favourite Pure Land sutras along with the nembutsu but, apart from this, it is with them all the time, whether aloud, sotto voce or or just in their thoughts, whatever they may be doing or engaged in. It rises and falls in and out of consciousness, spontaneously, and is a most felicitous thing since it is as effortless as breathing. The Name is as necessary to the spirit as breathing is to the body.

Saying the Name is a life-long investment. Rennyo Shonin said that even those for whom faith has become settled should not forget to continue to say the Name. While we are alive there is no time that Namu-amida-butsu will fall below our spiritual horizon.

The central feature of the Pure Land way is saying the Name. Those who follow Honen and Shinran know it to be effortless and free from any personal expectation, attachment or desire. Initially, it may be otherwise but, in a remarkable way, the nembutsu becomes a teacher to those who say it. Like all teaching in the Buddha-dharma, the ideas expressed may seem far fetched if they are taken to be dogmas handed down by authority. When it comes to religion, people who have inherited the European tradition are used to being told what to think and are, for the most part, disassociated from the experiential aspect of the teaching. In that context, faith is, very often, a matter of pure rationality and the reassurance of philosphy.

In the Buddha-dharma the philosophy is born of æons of experience and practice. Practice comes first: philosophy, later. Zuiken Inagaki has said that if we limit ourselves to speculation we will end with speculation. Like all dharma teachings the nembutsu way demands practical engagement. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho of Shinran will be unintelligible if we are not, first and foremost, people who are engaged with Namu-amida-butsu. By 'engaged' I mean, living with it and rejoicing in it.

Nembutsu-shinjin is an organic part of those who practice it. It emerges from the very core of their being and cannot be denied; it arises from their deepest and most enduring aspiration - the need for liberation and transcendence. If we deny it, we will die inside. A source of wonder it may be; incomprehensible, it may be; difficult to explain and teach it may be; a source of jealousy and envy, it may be. We are reminded of these features of the nembutsu constantly in the vast repository of literature that expresses its wonder. Those who say the Name are not experiencing anything new: the experience has been recorded, analysed and explained for æons - for endless generations.

Shomyo, saying nembutsu, is a way of life and lasts a lifetime. It is to this that Koso Wasan 94 calls us. We can either take up its challenge - or find some other way. In any case, I would like to issue an invitation to anyone who has not entered up the way of nembutsu. For anyone who is acutely aware of life's dilemmas and understands that there is more to it than there seems to be; for anyone who is committed to the life of work, business, family and friends; anyone who is embroiled in the confusing internal attachments that make up the psyche of a normal human being - there are no qualifications or qualities required of those who take up the nembutsu. If we stumble in the way - or find ourselves perplexed - there is a vast textual respository available to guide us; there are living teachers writing wise words from a plethora of facets; and there is a living community of fellow followers.

How wonderful to reach the end of life and know, with absolute certainty, that not only did you make the right choice but that it was the only choice that you could have made, in any case.


1: CWS, p. 54.

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