Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 113

All the followers of the Buddha's teaching in this age,
Based upon Moriya's words,
And on the strength of his usage of 'hotoke',
Hold 'monks' and 'Dharma-teachers' in contempt.

Nothing to Prove

As we draw near to the end of the Sanjo Wasan, we are presented with these verses, which reflect on the nature of things: what it is like to be a human being, living in human society. If we dig deeply enough into the verses on Zenkoji, and the final two verses of the Sanjo Wasan, we discover something quite remarkable.

Someone has said that the true sign of success in life is to have become completely at ease with oneself. I agree with that sentiment because I have known such people.

Success is often characterised as acquisition, or popularity, or beauty, or achievement, or fame. But an unattractive, poor, and unpopular person can still be living in a way that is free of querulousness, inwardly at peace with himself. Is Shinran Shonin manifesting querulousness in these remaining verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan? I don't think he is. I think that the perspective that he reveals demonstrates an inner quiet and self-acceptance. He has confronted his maras and learned to live with them as he draws near to the end of his life in edo, the realm of desire.

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Throughout his writing, Shinran reveals, in corners of his works, the capacity to recognise, and even lament, his shortcomings, but he has nothing to lose by owning them and speaking of them as facts with which he has come to terms. The concept of Jodo Shinshu as a religion that enjoins a life of rigorous self-disciple and practice after the awakening to Amida Buddha's faith seems ill conceived to me, even though it is commonly proposed.

Please note that, when he says, for example 'Sad it is that I, Gutoku Shinran, do not rejoice...', and takes himself to task so often in his writings, he never goes on to say that he intends to change himself into something else. Shinran invariably turns his gaze to Amida Buddha and adores the One who accepts Shinran just as he is.

It is true that, in his letters, Shinran exhorts us to behave ethically. However, given the countervailing reality that the most important thing is that, irrespective of the qualities of our moral virtue or talent, we are embraced in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, it cannot be claimed that the need to be ethical is integral to the experience of shinjin. Rather, all Shinran is doing here is asking us to respect the norms of common decency. He also says it would be expected that our demeanour and disposition would disclose a person who has rejected the world.

Ethical behaviour is, again, an essential part of being human and genuinely amoral people are a psychopathic exception to the rule. We are ethical, perforce, because we need other people and we need to live with other people. Even when human life is characterised as bestial - as, for example, in the Æsop's Fables - ethical principles of a kind still hold sway. In that case they are based on self-preservation, rather than, for example, altruism. Ethical standards work from different bases.

In Australia there is a renewed interest in ethics and it is interesting that each system that is currently discussed works from different basic principles. There is renewed interest in Stoicism, Confucianism and an increasingly informed discourse about Utilitarian ethics, especially the system that is proposed by Professor Peter Singer.

Shinjin then does not necessarily, of itself, engender ethical behaviour. A person who, rejects the world, may be regarded by many as unethical - a person who does not take daily concerns seriously enough. However, Amida Buddha's faith, shinjin, is unquestionably related to shraddha, the Sanskrit word, which means 'confidence'. The person of Nembutsu-Faith is comfortable and free of doubt, embraced in the Light of Amida Buddha, with nothing to prove.

In the verses on Zenkoji, Shinran clearly laments the way that non-Buddhists hold the Dharma in contempt. We have seen that, in earlier verses, he draws our attention to the abuses and corruption that seems so common in the monastic communities. Shinran equates contempt for the Dharma with the subliminal influence of the word hotoke, the commonly-used Japanese word for 'Buddha', which he holds has its roots in the Japanese word for fever.

Whether this is etymologically correct, of course, is not really of great significance. The case in point really revolves around Shinran's sense of general decline in the very substance of existence, which has infected the Dharma itself. We can see, from his use of passages in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, which were taken from works like the Candle of the Latter Dharma, that Shinran takes this decline for granted. He never questions its reality. He laments it, but he never seeks to reform, improve or change it.

The corruption of the monastic orders is, of course, a cause for lament but nowhere does Shinran suggest ways of calling them to account or of reforming them. Instead, this situation is something that he expects because of the nature of the times.

Indeed, I feel as he does, since virtue in our society is increasingly associated with the three roots of evil, greed, anger and folly: consumption, competition and vicarious living (entertainment). One might lament these realities, but who can reform them? Like Shinran, we ourselves are entirely enmeshed in them - and, like Shinran, we cannot claim to stand above them.

All of these circumstances form the stuff of Shinran's profound and entrusting heart. His shinjin is the disposition that generates his complete acceptance, not only of himself but the world around him. Lamentable as these things may be, Shinran is disinclined to complain. Unable to change anything, his eyes turn towards the boundless compassion of the Buddha. In the embrace of the Buddha he is secure. Whatever befalls him, he is free from hypocrisy because he has nothing to prove.

- July 14, 2006.

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