Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 1

In 1257, on the ninth day of the second month,
during the hour of the tiger, I was told in a dream:

Entrust yourself to Amida's Primal Vow.
Through the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned,
All who entrust themselve to the Primal Vow
Attain the supreme enlightenment.

The Hour of the Tiger

This verse is a preface to the collection entitled Hymns of the Dharma Ages (shozomatsu wasan). Now located at the beginning of the Shozomatsu Wasan, it originally appeared in an early manuscript in the body of the work. Accompanying it was a note, in which Shinran said,

I was given this wasan in a dream, and I write it down out of joy.

Eventually, Shinran moved this verse and situated it as the preface to his Shozomatsu Wasan. Its joyous expression is obvious; and it clearly arrived in his consciousness as an affirmation of the resolution to the mortal dilemma that confronts us in the last dharma-age. As Shinran says, the verse is inspired and was given to him in a dream. He received the verse in the 'hour of the tiger', which is the last period of the day. In Shinran's time, the day was reckoned to begin at dawn and the hour of the tiger comprises the last two hours of the day, between four and six o'clock in the morning. In term of his own life-cycle Shinran was in the 'hour of the tiger' when he received this verse. But the true significance of the timing of the dream and the joy it gave him was that the dharma ages were also coming to an end.

How apt it is that the last period of the day should be the hour of the tiger. For there is, indeed, a tiger that stalks us throughout our lives. When we are young we are unlikely to be aware that he is hiding, camouflaged, in the bushes or the undergrowth of the intriguing forests and the endless business of our lives. But he watches us, growing lean and hungry, as we occupy ourselves with the demands that life brings to us. He watches as we play, and work, and strive to find solutions to the difficulties that life is always casting before us. He waits.

He waits as we turn to the dharma. Each of us turns to the dharma for our own reasons; most of us probably because we feel the pain of the world and do not know what to do about it. We strive to grow, to understand. The tiger watches, and from time to time, we see his eyes glimmering in the darkness of our souls. We begin to sense that he is there, this destroyer of everything. Gradually it begins to become clear to us that he will soon begin to tear us to pieces, and we can hear a low growl. The growl is heard as we delve more deeply into ourselves, only to discover the depth of our inner pain and confusion.

When we have grown older - and as we continue on our way through life and our striving in the dharma - a day comes, on which we turn a corner ... and find him, standing before us in the road. For all our walking, our accrued knowledge, our effort to reach the goal, we find the way blocked ... by the tiger of time. Time has gone, our life is passing, the dharma is disappearing into the mists of the past, soiled by a million hands of selfishness. We open a book, and the pages are blank. We call out for help but no one can hear. We ask for advice but no one understands our questions.

Now, faced at last by the tiger of time, who consumes everything, we listlessly seek to relive those moments of old that we so enjoyed, that meant so much to us. We turn to retrace our steps looking for all that he have lost upon the way. Turning back, we discover that the tiger is following us. With soft footfall, he is always there.

This verse came to Shinran Shonin during the last hour of the dharma, languishing in the claws of the tiger of time. This verse came to Shinran - and to us - as a gift from the wisdom that transcends time. It comes as a reminder that we have no choice. The tiger of time blocks our way and follows after us if we try to turn back, but the infinite light calls to us. And we see that it is the only way.

Remorselessly, the tiger pounces. We feel the weight and warmth of his body. Eventually, opening our questing eyes, we discover that we are being held, not in blood-red claws, but in the arms of Mercy.

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