Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 107

Defiled karma is from the beginning unformed;
It is formed through delusions and perversions.
Though the nature of mind is pure from the beginning,
There are no people of truth in this world.

Conditioned & Unconditioned

Conditioned dharmas, with the exception of the Path, are impure.

- Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam


In this way, the World-Honoured One attained enlightenment at the base of the Bodhi Tree on the banks of the river Nairajana, which flowed through the forest of Uruvilva.

For seven days, he sat motionless and savoured the bliss of Enlightenment.

During the first watch of the seventh day, he meditated, forwards and backwards, on the principle of dependent origination (Sk. pratitya samutpada) from which all sufferings arise. He perceived that from ignorance, arose karmic activity; from karmic activity arose consciousness; from consciousness arose name and form; from name and form arose the six sensory organs; from the six sensory organs arose contact; from contact arose feelings; from feelings arose desire; from desire arose grasping; from grasping arose becoming; from becoming arose birth; and that from birth arose old age and death, anxiety, sorrow, pain, suffering and anguish. He saw that the whole accumulation of suffering arose in this manner.

Therefore if ignorance were extinguished without any residue, karmic activity would cease...

- Buddha Dharma, Numata, p. 20


Darkness refers to the mundane,
brightness to the supramundane.
Darkness refers to ignorance,
brightness to wisdom.

- Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, III, 27; CWS. p. 97.

Do not think that the compassion of the Buddha is only for the present life; it is a manifestation of the timeless compassion of the eternal Buddha that has been operative since unknown time, when mankind went astray due to ignorance.

- Lotus Sutra


Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.

Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of the dharma-body as compassionate means, this shinjin is none other than Buddha-nature.

- Notes on 'The Essentials of Faith Alone'; CWS. p. 461.


Above, I have placed a set of key quotations alongside each other. They reveal the dynamic relationships that comprise the full exposition of the Buddha Dharma. On the left-hand side are selections of passages that one could describe as 'positive' dharmas (factors of existence), although that kind of description is somewhat dubious in the Buddhist context.

The column on the right contains passages, which describe the 'negative' factors.

We should not interpret these two contrasting features of the Dharma as conflicting in any way. There is no duality because, ultimately, the 'negative' aspect of existence is unreal and evanescent. If we were to use Pure Land concepts, we would say that it is not this world as we experience it that is the reality - the truly real existence is the fulfilled Buddha Land.

In any case, it seems to be necessary, at this point, to demonstrate that Shinran Shonin is not claiming that existence is entirely a matter of the blindness of ignorance. Some commentators have used this verse to claim, for example, that Shinran did not accept the traditional Buddhist concept of Buddha Nature. This is clearly not so. The Dharma has always contained apparently opposing realities. On the one hand, there is the Dependent Origination. It begins with ignorance and is compounded by a mass of desires and impulses, which are based on ignorance. Dependent Origination is a fundamental principal of the Dharma. Those who deny its reality can not claim to be followers of the Buddha Dharma.

The Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam tells us that the aspect of existence that depends on ignorance (avidya) is 'conditioned' (samskrta) and ultimately false. I find it impossible to think that any other ontology is possible. But there are also 'unconditoned' dharmas (irreducible facts) that are eternal. According the the Vijnaptimatrata School, one of these is tathata, 'suchness'. When tathata is considered from different perspectives it is described in different ways - for example 'Amida Buddha', 'Light', 'Wisdom', and so on. These unconditioned dharmas can be known, simply because, whatever the overlay, they are still integral to existence in some way. Thus, from nothing (shunya) the ultimate reality can manifest a form that will be recognised and understood by those who are woven into the the process of Dependent Origination.

In saying that there are 'no people of truth in the world', Shinran reminds us that the working of the Vow power, which we experience as the entrusting heart, free of doubt, is inconceivable. Buddha-nature has been hidden and overwhelmed in the Dharma-ending Age: ignorance has become stronger than ever, Dependent Origination has clamped us in its iron grasp. There is no one upon whom we can rely.

There may be 'no people of truth in the world', but the world is resplendent with the glorious light that fills the ten directions, unhindered by anything at all. Therefore rely on the Light, which, as the call of the Primal Vow, becomes Namu Amida Butsu.

- June 9, 2006.

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