Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 97

For sentient beings of extreme evil, profound and immense,
There is no other way;
Wholeheartedly saying the Name of Amida,
We will be born in the Pure Land.

Anchored in the Depths

However, all the oceanlike multitudinous beings, since the beginningless past, have been transmigrating in the sea of ignorance, drowning in the cycle of birth and death, bound to samsara, and lacking pure joyful faith.1

This verse from the Koso Wasan is a direct reference to a sentence that conveys precisely the same sentiment as a passage in Genshin's Collection of Essential Passages Concerning Birth; it also completes the cycle of verses that are concerned with Genshin. It describes the morose reality for most of us that we seem to be tied to an inveterate and stubbornly endless repetition of actions (Sk. karma) that cause us to become bogged down in samsara. Even those who initially feel themselves to have progressed, continue to encounter events, which cause them to fall back to their starting point.

There is a story that is told of the Arhat Shariputra. It was he to whom Shakyamuni addressed the Amida Sutra (Smaller Sutra). It is said that Shariputra was famous for his detachment and peace of mind. One day he met a beggar who asked Shariputra for his eye. Without hesitation, Shariputra tore it out and gave it to the beggar, who threw it on the ground and stamped on it. This caused Shariputra to fly into a rage, instantly falling back to the status of an ordinary person (bombu, Sk. prthagjana). So, even when we think that we are accomplished and have made ground in pursuit of the goal, we are often dismayed to find that, in the blink of an eye, with very little provocation, we become hissing and biting serpents.

Stories like this are told frequently within the tradition of the dharma. Their purpose is to remind us of the fact that our nescience is ingrained and organic. Our self-bound perceptions constantly delude us into ideas about ourselves that are manifestly false; at least, to everyone except ourselves. It also reminds us that we are 'beings anchored in depths of defiled karma'. We are bogged down in delusion and even vigorous effort just results in powerful activity but no traction.

These are not mere superficialities, reminiscent of the old adage 'pride comes before a fall', but something better known within the introspective tradition of the dharma. The practice of 'calming' and 'insight' (Sk. samatha & vipasyana) brought people to an awareness of the evanescence and transience of life and of the mental constituents; and is having a revival in our time. However, a true inner awareness that is consistent with this tradition is central to the Pure Land way. In our case, however, we acknowledge that we need a greater light and a deeper wisdom and compassion than anything that can be mustered by limited and isolated individuals. Introspection in our case would be tantamount to darkness illuminating darkness. It would be a monstrous self-deception.

According to Shinran Shonin, in the preface to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the nembutsu way has been specifically forged by 'the wisdom that fills all things', Tathagata, precisely for us. That is to say,

those who are dark in mind and lacking in wisdom, and those who are burdened with heavy evil karma and many hindrances...2

For those who see themselves as 'beings anchored in depths of defiled karma' these words come to us as a source of inexpressible relief and joy; for we have discovered that our sense of profound failure has been anticipated and met in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

It seems to me, however, that Shinran - and, for that matter, his predecessors, like Shan-tao and Genshin - did not see those, who recognise their personal achievements or their progress in the dharma as satisfactory, to be people who are truly in touch with the truth of their own human reality: their own human limitations. In the same passage as the the one I quoted in opening this essay he continues, a little further on,

Even if they act and practice as busily as though they were sweeping fire of their heads, their practices are called 'poisoned and mixed good' and 'deluded and deceitful practices,' and are not called 'good acts'.

Rennyo Shonin, in his letters, told a story of some ladies who were visiting the Hongwanji and met a strange man on the way. In answer to a question from one of the ladies, who was distressed that she had become aware of her heavy evil karma, he acknowledged, and did not deny, the truth of her distressing realisation.

Without doing anything in particular, but simply realising that you are a wretched being burdened with the ten transgressions, the five grave offences, the five obstacles, and the three submissions, you must deeply understand that Amida Tathagata is the form for saving such persons. For when there arises the one thought-moment in which we entrust ourselves to Amida without double-mindedness and realise that he saves us, the Tathagata sends forth eighty-four-thousand rays of light in which he graciously embraces us. This is what is meant by saying that 'Amida Tathagata embraces practicers of the nembutsu.' 'Embraces and never abandons' means 'receives and does not discard.' We say that this is a person who has received faith. Then, beyond this, we must bear in mind that the nembutsu, Namu-amida-butsu, which we say sleeping or waking, standing or sitting down, is that nembutsu, Namu-amida-butsu, said by those saved by Amida as an expression of gratitude for Amida's gracious benevolence.

When he had carefully related this, the women and others replied, 'There is indeed no way to express our shame over not having entrusted ourselves until now to Amida Tathagata's Primal Vow, which is so suited to our innate capacities. From now on, we shall steadfastly entrust ourselves to Amida, and, believing single-heartedly that our birth has been accomplished by the saving work of the Tathagata, we shall bear in mind that from now on the nembutsu is a saying of the name in gratitude for the Buddha's benevolence. There is no way at all to express our thankfulness and awe at having been given this opportunity through the inconceivable condidtions from the past, at having heard the incomparable Dharma. Now it is time to say farewell.'

And with this, their eyes brimming with tears, they took their leave.3


1: KGSS, p. 105.

2: KGSS, p. 3.

3: Rennyo Shonin Ofumi, Numata, tr. Ann Rogers, p. 18f.

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