Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 11

Without entrusting ourselves to the Tathagata's compassionate Vow,
No sentient beings of these times - the last dharma-age, and
The fifth five-hundred year period since Shakyamuni's passing -
Will have a chance of parting from birth-and-death.

Mappo's Anvil

The first fifty-nine verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan are entitled Hymns on the Right, Semblance and Last Dharma Ages of the Pure Land way (shozomatsu no jodo wasan). As we have already seen, the time-frame for dharma degeneration is calibrated differently in various traditions. There are usually three eras: the right, semblance and last. In this verse, Shinran Shonin speaks of five spans of five-hundred years. The most popular arrangement for the three ages in this case seems to be that the right dharma-age comprises the first five-hundred years after Shakyamuni. The semblance dharma-age spans the next thousand years. The last dharma-age follows; thus completing the cycle. Shinran thought that he had been born into the fifth five-hundred year period because, in east Asian Buddhist tradition, the life of Shakyamuni was considered to have been about a thousand years before the common era.

In writing these essays, I have always been keen to assert that the Buddha-dharma is not a static doctrine but a dynamic journey of discovery and development. When Shinran says there is no chance at all for those who do not entrust themselves to 'the Tathagata's compassionate Vow', he is not inherently making a baseless, dogmatic claim.

It is clear from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that Shinran did not particularly see his position as representing a rigid sectarian delineation between, 'true and false' religion within the context of the Buddha-dharma. Rather, he is affirming his realisation of the dharma in terms of his own experience - as ratifying and confirming the insights of those who had gone before him. He saw that the other traditions within the Buddha-dharma played a role in the development of the understanding and trust that leads to our final entry into the 'gate of the inconceivable Vow' - the Tathagata's compassionate Vow.

It is true that Shinran did dismiss other, non-Buddhist religions. This is no doubt because the only other religions he knew about were severely compromised. His main targets were Taoism, divination, taboo, religions that involved the worship of gods and demons, and petitionary prayer. In the case of the latter, the dharma sees this practice as inconsistent with the law of karma, apart from the fact that the use of 'control' strategies like, divination, prayer and fortune-telling are profoundly deluded behaviours. The worship of gods, too, frequently involved blood sacrifice, which is utterly abhorrent to the dharma.

Taoism receives a particular focus from Shinran because of the fact that it had become so degenerate and was associated with beliefs that he thought were superstitious. In the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, however, no traditions of the Buddha-dharma are criticised as being unacceptable.

This is a striking feature of Shinran's thought. Other reformers, especially Nichiren, did not hesitate to castigate the Pure Land way in the strongest of terms. The implication that I take from this is that Shinran was comfortable with the idea that any participant in the Buddha-dharma would gain liberation (transcendence, Sk. moksha) by faith in the Tathagata's compassionate Vow. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran quotes from Vinaya masters with approval. This is pertinent because these masters remained within their own religious traditions but advocated the n embutsu as the most effective way to nirvana.

In his teaching, Shinran takes his own spiritual pilgrimage as a template; he invites us to be aware that the process that he experienced is of relevance to all of us. Even though our experience may not be identical to his, it will be similar. His spiritual journey was a progression from one dharma gate to another. It was a gradual unfolding of truth until - having stripped away all illusions of self - he entered, at last, the inconceivable gate of the Other Power. The illusion concerning self (Sk. atman) is the notion that we can transcend self (Sk. anatman) by the power of self. Shinran's journey of 'conversion through three Vows (sangan tennyu)' carries with it a very significant insight into the concept of the Mappo Age.

Sometimes it is suggested that the 'turning through three Vows' is an incremental process. However, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran seems to be speaking of series of conversions. Each stage was entirely abandoned and never taken up again. This seems to be a common experience for those who enter Shin Buddhism. Although the conversion process is not necessarily through the 'three Vows' of which Shinran speaks, the process is similar.

Shinran started out as a priest of the Tendai, and, within that tradition, he entered the Essential Gate, which he associated with Amida Buddha's nineteenth Vow and the Contemplation Sutra. This gate invloves active meditation practice and close attention to the precepts. During this phase, Shinran is living within the practical and conceptual world of the Age of Right Dharma. If he had not held the view that the Essential Gate of self-power practice could be efficacious in his quest, he would not have taken it up.

However, it seems that the Essential Gate, with all its discipline, only served to heighten Shinran's awareness of the utterly intractable nature of his self and of the blind passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas) that fuelled its seeming reality. He discovered that meditation and self-discipline were inefficacious in curtailing the deepening of his illusions. He tells us that he abandoned these sundry practices and took up saying the nembutsu (shomyo). This is the 'True Gate' - the phase that he considered to be supported by the twentieth of Amida Buddha's Vows and the Amida (Smaller) Sutra.

The discovery that the gate of discipline and meditation seemed so counter-productive must have heightened Shinran's consciousness of the way that the dharma was declining. When the approach that he had undertaken proved to be so bitter and futile, the only reasonable way that this can be interpreted is in the acknowledgement that there was some kind of systemic and endogenous problem.

More importantly, Shinran was discovering the age of declining dharma as a first-hand and intimate reality - clearly evident within his own mind. It also seems likely, from what he has written about it, that Shinran looked around him at the sangha at large and realised that most people did not even take its injunctions seriously. He was one who genuinely sought liberation by following the way that had been laid out but most others that he knew lived in ways that were entirely out of kilter with their profession of allegiance to the dharma.

The True Gate was the practice of saying the nembutsu by one's own conscious effort. This way, too, involves a sense of pleading for liberation from samsara, even if by means of some kind of notion of the Buddha's power. The nembutsu is practiced with an objective in mind - seeking to reach a goal and achieve an outcome. There is the expectation that quantity, the expenditure of energy, will build a stock of merit that will carry one to the goal. In a way, this is parallel to the age of semblance dharma. One's practice involves a desperate, mighty effort and one is beset by uncertainty and unfulfilled longing. The practice is joyless and burdensome.

The final phase for Shinran in the 'sangan tennyu', 'turning through three Vows', was the eighteenth Vow, the inconceivable Vow of absolute Other Power. Here, the winds of the age of mappo howl in full force. For Shinran discovered - once again, upon the anvil of his own experience - that even the 'asking of another' for liberation in the way of the True Gate, nembutsu of self-effort, quantitative nembutsu, had to be abandoned. There was nothing, not even the asking nembutsu, that could gain any leverage on the way because even that was self-concerned: it was an asking that was moved by the desire for the preservation of the self. In abanding the 'True Gate' of self-power nembutsu, Shinran saw the Other Power's prompting; in some mysterious way, the nembutsu itself had been at work.

Then, suddenly, at his meeting with Honen Shonin, there was literally nothing but the nembutsu. No more Shinran, no more pleading, no more longing, no more quantifying of merit. Honen taught 'only nembutsu'. Nothing that could be known, seen or grasped was untainted by the dharma-ending age. Even our thought processes (Sk. mano-vijnana) and our sub-conscious (Sk. manas) were intractable. Namu-amida-butsu, itself, with nothing added or desired, the substance of true entrusting (shingyo, Sk. prasada), had become its own reward; itself the affirmation of final liberation. The dilemma of mappo is broken through and its thrall vanquished.

In this way, Shinran's realisation was that only the true entrusting that is Amida's compassionate Vow, has the subtlety and the power to touch the hearts and minds of those who are steeped in the bondage of the mappo age. As a truly guileless man, Shinran could only speak for himself. For him, it was not possible to contemplate any other way.

If we thought, however, that this final phase of sangan tennyu was the goal that Shinran was seeking, we would be mistaken. It was just a beginning. The problem for us, as followers of the Buddha-dharma, is not nirvana, it is the very first step: entering the stream. From that point on, when our destiny is settled and our discipleship is unshakeable - whatever dreadful things may befall us - there is no turning back. The experience of Shinran - and the life that he found after his entry into the 'inconceivable Vow' - attests to the wondrous reality that is the power of the Vow of Amida Buddha.

In an age of darkness, Shinran discovered a world of light, the resource of the wisdom of the dharma body, that constantly kept him in its compassionate embrace, while keeping his eyes wide open to the truth of life. It showed him that only the Buddha is truly wise. For him, the arising of the entrusting heart was the beginning of a new dynamism, whereby he was free to live as a true disciple of the Buddha, discovering every day, that in the Buddha's light he was only a shadow - a foolish being. As long as the Buddha's light embraced him, the shadow of his evil karma remained starkly evident but it was no longer an obstacle; no longer a threat.

By accepting the entrusting heart of the compassionate Vow of Tathagata in Namu-amida-butsu, Shinran began a genuinely human life as a true disciple of the Buddha.

So can we.

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