Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 104

Lamentable it is that these days
All in Japan, whether of the Way of of the world,
While performing the rites and rituals of Buddhism,
Worship supernatural beings of heaven and earth.

Rite and Ritual

For centuries, the Pure Land tradition was nurtured within the Tendai School, which sought to embrace all means of salvation that the Dharma provides. Tendai lives out the universalist priciples of the Lotus Sutra.

The great Japanese Dharma Master Genshin (942-1017) was a priest of the Tendai school and he played a powerful role in the dissemination of the Pure Land Way in east Asia. Adopting Shan-tao's teaching on auxiliary practices, which include the gate of worship, Genshin outlined an elaborate ritual for those who seek to gain merit by means of the Pure Land path.

In this context, ritual is not a mere form of order for devotional service but a programme that is devised to effect a result. Until the time of Shinran Shonin, indeed, rite and ritual was a key aspect of Nembutsu practice. Meetings for walking Nembutsu involved a strong outward expression of devotion, including repeated prostrations. Shomyo Nembutsu was itself a ritual, since it was thought that effort in the recitation of Nembutsu would serve as the means to gain the merit that was required for birth in the Pure Land.

In making it clear that shinjin alone was the cause of birth and the attainment of Nirvana, Shinran completely removed mandatory ritual from Pure Land practice. As a result, Jodo Shinshu is the school of Buddhism, which is the least inclined to ritual. Shinshu liturgy does include offerings of food, incense and flowers, which are placed in front of the principal image (honzon; preferably, the myogo, Namu Amida Butsu), but these are not rituals in the sense of devotional activities that are designed to be effective as vehicles of liberation. They are mere symbols, and the expression of an appreciation of the Dharma.

So it is that, for those who understand and accept Shinran's insights, Nembutsu as a ritual practice, which is accompanied by prostrations and similar exercises, has been completely removed from the Pure Land Way. Shomyo (voiced) Nembutsu has become an essentially spontaneous expression of faith. Indeed, it is best when it takes this pure form, since it is free of all self-power. Any formal rite that includes the Nembutsu is also, in a sense, relatively spontaneous. Strictly speaking, it is not mandatory and it is not an activity that delivers any particular outcome.

It is my understanding, in fact, that, in Jodo Shinshu, rites can actually hinder a seeker from awakening to the Buddha's faith, if it becomes an end in itself. In the Goichidaiki-kikigaki, the analects of Rennyo Shonin, we read that participation in the liturgy may serve to assist in the hearing of the Dharma, but that is not its primary significance. It is, almost exclusively, an expression of gratitude. It does not include ritual actions, except the most minimal expressions of respect, and it does not include prayer of any kind. It is free from all supplication and obsequiousness.

I always think of the Shinshu liturgy as an experience and expression of love. I mean, by this, that it is a way of hearing the cherished voice of the Buddha. That is why I like it best when it is chanted in the traditional language (sutra Chinese in the Japanese form) of east Asian Mahayana. For me, participation in the Shinshu liturgy is like hearing the actual voice of my 'good and virtuous friend' (zenjishiki). Perhaps, in that context, it is just the voice itself that matters, and not so much what is said. In bringing understanding to the reading of sutras, it seems to me that this is best done in a quiet place, and at a quiet time when one can be free to read at one's own pace - pausing, as often as necessary, for reflection.

So the chant at Shinshu meetings consists of little more than a reading of the esteemed words of the Buddha and the Masters, especially Shinran and Rennyo. The Three Pure Land Sutras, the commentaries of the Dharma Masters and the writings of Shinran and Rennyo form a deep reservoir of esteemed passages that may be used in the daily liturgy. And, when we think of someone whom we love and appreciate, we tend to want to commit their words to memory. It seems to me that this, in fact, is the source of the Tripitaka itself, since it was transmitted for centuries, from generation to generation, entirely by memory and by word of mouth.

We live in a technocratic generation and we tend to cling to the astonishing prejudice that spoken words are, only and ever, of pragmatic intent, and that sacred books are user manuals. But the use of sacred books as manuals is dangerously superficial. It serves to turn them into weapons.

Just so, the Buddhist scriptures are words of endearment more than anything. They tell us about our frailty, and our inner darkness, and our suffering; they tell us in such a way that just the act of listening is to find true joy and relief, since the hearing is at levels that are deeper than our rational consciousness. The Tripitaka is the public manifestation of Dharmakaya. Not only does it reveal things that are deeper than mere appearances but it is also the precious body of the Buddha. The same can be said of the writings of Shinran. They are more than mere words; they are the heart of the man.

The Shinshu liturgy is remarkable for the way that it reflects the experience that it celebrates. It is redolent with the principle of abandoning ritual (as we understand it, in this context) and is a pure act of love, devotion and joy. Nembutsu fills the hiatus between the dear words of the Master but it is no 'service'. It is time spent singing with one's dear friend (zenjishiki). This is so, even when we are alone. The liturgy has the same nuances and the same significance, whatever our circumstances:

As my life comes to its end, I return to the Pure Land of Serene Sustenance. But it is like the dashing and receding waves in Wakanoura Bay. When You alone rejoice in Faith , know that you are with another. When you two rejoice in Faith, know that there is still another accompanying you. I, Shinran, am that 'other' person. (Ryukoku Tranlation Series, IV, p. 8.)

Because it has no recourse to rite and ritual as a way to generate the conditions for liberation, Jodo Shinshu celebrates the timeless sensibility of Shakyamuni. As a Shaivite boy at the time of his initiation, Shakyamuni realised the futility of rite and ritual and, from them on, advised against it. Indeed, the Shinshu liturgy is so pure that it is impossible see how it can be associated with the 'worship of supernatural beings of heaven and earth'. It is its own redress for these aberrations.

- May 19, 2006.

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