Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 96

We who aspire for Amida's fulfilled land,
Though we differ in outward condition and conduct,
Should truly receive the Name of the Primal Vow
And never forget it, whether waking or sleeping.

Gegi

This verse is very well-known to many Shinshu followers because Rennyo Shonin quotes it in one of his letters. These are not only regularly read at temple meetings, they are popular guides for people in their every day lives. The letter that quotes this verse is the second in the first volume. After quoting the verse, Rennyo goes on to explain it. [Translation by Elson B Snow]

'... outward forms of life ...' means that there is not the slightest differentiation as to whether one is a layman, monk, male, or female. 'Believe in the Sacred Name of the Primal Vow and forget Him not, not even for one moment' means that no matter what one's external form may be (be he with the corruptions of the Ten Major Evils and the Five Cardinal Sins, be he an abuser of the Dharma, or be he 'unsavable') should this person change his heart and repent after believing with deep conviction that it is the Primal Vow of Amida Tathagata that delivers all hopeless beings of weak capacity, and places his reliance on Tathagata without doubt (awake or asleep) and ever mindfully, then this person is called a true follower who has attained the shinjin that relies completely on the Primal Vow.1

There are three further points that I think readers may find useful.

Firstly, Elson uses the term 'unsavable' for sendai, which is the Japanese word derived from the Sanskrit icchantika. An icchantika, as we have already seen in these essays, is someone who is completely devoid of any capacity to become a Buddha - some would say, devoid of Buddha nature, although this is not a universally respectable view.

'Change [his] heart' is eshin. Eshin is defined in both Shinran Shonin's work Notes on the Essentials of Faith Alone and the Tanni Sho as abandoning self power and turning to Other Power. One repents of one's old self-power habits. In the former work, Shinran suggests that this 'turning of the mind' is evident in the fact that a person 'abundantly says the Name' (shomyo), since they realise the diamond-like faith.

Finally, although Rennyo uses shinjin here for faith he also used the term anjin ('settled heart or mind') in much of his writing as a synonym for it. Although Rennyo was unquestionably influenced by the Anjin Ketsujo Sho (On the Attainment of True Faith), a treatise that is probably not the work of a disciple of Shinran, it seems to me that no great significance is intended thereby. Shinran uses anjin only three times in the entire corpus of his writing, but I rather like Rennyo's use of the term anjin because it is redolent with the significance of having become finally settled and at peace with oneself in the matter of one's entry upon the way, and one's final destiny.

Rennyo incorporates this verse into a letter that seeks to make a key point about the Pure Land way as it was inherited from Shinran. This is that there is no need to become a monk or to 'renounce the world and overcome craving desires to seek enlightenment.' Indeed, Rennyo reminds us that the phrase translated as 'outward conditions' (gegi) refers not only to social status - or one's role within the Buddhist community - but also to conduct (gegi no sugata). A person whose behaviour is determined by his or her nature - or occupation and heritage - is called upon to abandon and to deplore (repent of) self-power and to 'accept the Name of the Original Vow'. In other words people's birth, origins, intellect, vocation, heritage, culture, gender and morality are in no way obstacles to their becoming followers of the way to become a Buddha through the nembutsu.

This assertion serves to remind us of the main function and objective of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Amida's concern is not with the accomplished and the sages; it is with the inept, the inadequate and those ordinary men and women who have no other option but to turn to the nembutsu. We do well to remind ourselves that, in spite of the recent re-invention of the dharma to suit modern egalitarian beliefs, this came as a powerful relief, and a source of great joy, to all who were excluded by many of the monastic traditions. Among proscribed groups that are listed in authoritative texts, like the Abhidharma, we find all women, soldiers, butchers, wine merchants, hunters, fishers, eunuchs and undertakers. These people are all embraced by the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

I firmly believe that strictures upon participation outside the Pure Land traditions are such that it is, in fact, the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha itself that has ensured the survival of the dharma in our time. In many of the Buddhist cultures that span the equator - places like Sri Lanka and Thailand - many proscribed occupations are now filled by Muslims or outcaste Hindus. Indeed, to a significant extent, the growing success of Islam and Christianity in central Asia and South East Asia is due to the exclusiveness of the Buddhist schools that prevail in those regions.

By contrast, in Mahayana countries, especially in Japan, 'lowly' occupations are - more often than not - filled by Pure Land Buddhists. These are now the people that generate society's wealth and pass the teachings on to later generations. Thus it is that, in a very real, legitimate and empirical sense, the dharma's survival in history can be said to be literally due, in large part, to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Sometimes, however, instead of being a source of joy and relief for those who have found themselves on the outer in their relationship with the dharma because of 'who they are' - their personal qualities, social status or occupations - the all-embracing compassion of the Primal Vow has been used for a kind of egoistic self-assertion and lawlessness. This abuse of the dharma is to exploit Amida's compassion in a shameless and selfish way. Both Shinran and Rennyo pointed out that the fact that we are pariahs does not exclude us from ethical standards. This is extremely important. Let me explain.

One of the most abominable occupations for many Buddhists is that of a butcher. In a Buddhist society, then, a butcher may feel that he might as well be 'hanged for a sheep as a lamb'. In other words, since there is no hope for him, he might as well lie and cheat - and be as anti-social as he likes. However, the realisation that he is not excluded from the embrace of the dharma because of the cards that life has dealt him, usually brings a sense of gratitude that is associated with gregariousness - warmth and kindness towards his fellow human beings. This represents a natural flow of the spirit, so to speak, and is a common experience within the Pure Land gate. So much so, that Rennyo actually wrote down okite, or common features of behaviour that one would expect to find in a person who had realised the faith of the Other Power. In the case of Rennyo's okite, these are relevant to the historical circumstances in which they were delineated.

Sometimes okite are spoken of, in English, as 'rules'. It seems to me, however, that okite are simply the constituents (better described as 'a list' or 'mandate') of a general attitude that one would expect to flow spontaneously from someone who has realised the depth of his or her own incapacity in relation to the dharma and at the same time known the embrace of the Primal Vow - faith. It is inevitable that, over time, such a person would come to understand human foibles and, as a result, naturally develop an inclination towards kindness. Kindness, after all, means 'recognition of one's kinship' with other animals and people.

The Pure Land way does not enjoin 'rules' or 'precepts'; there are no absolute commandments that are supposed to govern our behaviour. The sheer variety in human personalities and circumstances that are embraced by the Primal Vow utterly precludes such a possibility. But, due to the spiritual and psychological impact of their religious experience, those who have accepted the nembutsu - whatever their outward conditions may be - spontaneously tend towards kindness in their relations with others.

The final thought that this verse engenders relates to the way that Rennyo uses it as an authoritative source for the point that he wants to make. In ordinary discourse within Jodo Shinshu we can see this as Rennyo's endorsement of the wasan as an important resource in establishing the teaching of Shakyamuni, the dharma masters and Shinran. The wasan are not just decorations, or light-hearted songs. They carry the weight of authority. Thus it is that, to this day, they still make up the core of the Shinshu canon.2 They are the basis for dharma talks (howa) in many, if not most, Shin communities. The wasan succinctly summarise the vast Pure Land tradition and, as far as I am concerned, they are the Pure Land equivalent of the Dharmapada in other traditions.


1: Translated by Elson B. Snow, Shinshu Seiten, BCA p. 274.

2: The Jodo Shinshu canon of scripture is comprised of The Three Pure Land Sutras, the Shoshin nembutsu ge and Wasan of Shinran and the collection of Rennyo's letters (Gobunsho).

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