Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 95

My eyes being hindered by blind passions,
I cannot perceive the light that grasps me;
Yet the great compassion without tiring,
Illumines me always.

Openness

This verse signifies a phenomenon that I think is almost unique in religious discourse. It is the remarkable quality that is an especially strong feature of the Pure Land way: personal honesty. One repeatedly encounters the most disarming vulnerability and openness in writers and practicers of the nembutsu.

It is particularly notable within the Jodo Shinshu tradition. It is not the kind of 'false humility' that begs for contradiction and a surge of ameliorating, if reluctant, praise - like that of the famous character named Uriah Heap in Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield. It emerges especially from the Chinese and Japanese dharma masters, and Shinran Shonin, in a quite guileless and unselfconscious way. Such personal honesty is, surely, the mark of a person who is absolutely secure in his faith and knowledge of his destiny.

Shinran was clearly very fond of this sentence from Genshin's Collection of Essential Passages Concerning Birth:

Although I too am within Amida's grasp, blind passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see [the light]; nevertheless, great compassion untiringly and constantly illumines me.1

This quotation from Genshin is found in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It was clearly very significant for Shinran and he obviously identified with it. Hence, his arresting preference for the phrase 'inconceivable light' for the primary epithet for Amida Buddha. The use of such a phrase makes it clear that even a person of shinjin is not yet enlightened and is therefore unable to behold the 'light that outshines the sun and the moon'. The fact that we are 'blinded by our passions' (bonno, Sk. klesha) suggests that we are suborned by the seeming reality of the mundane world, samsara, with which we are inextricably bound. We are unable to see, let alone comprehend, such supramundane and overwhelming light.

Shinran refers to Genshin's admission that he could not see Amida's light in the Shoshinge, which is the central gatha of the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho (used for taking refuge every day in our Jodo Shinshu liturgy). Shinran was no mystic and made no claims to special attainments of his own.

How, then, is Genshin able to be so confident that 'great compassion untiringly and constantly illumines me'? If he cannot see the light, how does he know that it is there?

It was Shan-tao, who did see Amida Buddha in samadhi, who also provided us with the empirical evidence that the 'great compassion constantly illumines' us. It is the way in which people of Other Power faith spontaneously grow aware of the severe curtailment of spiritual progress that is due to their 'afflicting passions' (bonno, Sk. klesha) and that Amida's Vow - expressed in the Name - simultaneously addresses this problem. This is 'the two-fold deep mind' (nishu jinshin) that is faith (shin, Sk. prasada).

It is the internal insight that frees people of nembutsu to be open, and to feel no need to claim special qualities, that discourages us from any affectation of superiority.


1: CWS, p. 93.

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