Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 116

I do not know right from wrong
Nor am I able to distinguish from falsity;
Though I lack even a morsel of mercy and compassion,
For name and fortune, I desire to be a teacher of others.

This is the final wasan

A Man of Truth

No matter how noble the enterprise, the needs of our ego will always be met. If they are not met, we will end in bitterness and dejection. Such is the intractable nature of our afflicting passions, (bonno, Sk. kleshas). Knowing this, Shinran Shonin, a man who had become free by way of the Pure Land Path, chose to be honest.

Shinran is quite exceptional as a religious leader and thinker. He is entirely free of any kind of narcissism and self-importance. His adoration of the Light of Amida Buddha is such that he became imbued with the compassion of the Primal Vow, reflecting its profound benevolence in his kindness to others and to himself. His self-awareness was always, and ever, qualified by the radiant compassion of the Buddha, in whose light he lived.

Have you ever noticed that, whenever Shinran praises the Buddha, he never alludes to his own disposition? He always describes the Buddha and his wisdom, which was his principal focus, in pure terms, adoring the Buddha. He also calls on others to entrust themselves to the Vow in namu-amida-butsu, but rarely does he refer to his own entrusting, except when he wants to exhort us, too, to abandon all practices and take refuge in the Primal Vow.

Whenever Shinran refers to his own inner life, it is invariably to point to the depth of his own human frailty and to his shortcomings. He clearly intends to deflect our gaze away from Shinran and to the Buddha. Even in his own writings, he clearly represents himself as the custodian of the Dharma, which he has received from the Buddha and from the Dharma Masters. He does not see himself as presenting anything new; he is only imparting the knowledge that he has learned and ratified in his own heart.

These unusual features of Shinran mean that, in all of human history, he is the only spiritual guide and teacher, apart from Shakyamuni, upon whom I can rely. Here is a startling paradox: precisely because Shinran made no claims for himself, his writing and guidance seems all the more credible. For here is a man who speaks as we know that we should speak. Here is a man who says what we know to be true of ourselves.

This verse is extremely significant because Shinran disposes of all false piety, all demonstrative behaviour, all claims to nobility of purpose, or purity of intention. This statement seems to me to be a deliberate declaration that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is our only refuge. It seems to be a calculated attempt to remind us that we should not trust Shinran. It stands in stark contrast to the usual declaration that we tradtionally hear from Buddhist writers, who frequently begin in ways like this:

The author has composed this book based on the book of Dharmasri, not through pride or in order to acquire a reputation. (Pravicayavarga by Dharmatrata.)

Many authors throughout Buddhist history have felt constrained to make that kind of claim. Yet, here we have Shinran telling us that his motives were directly opposed to such noble and pious purposes. As he moved towards then end of his life, Shinran's heart has become completely naked, open and exposed.

In death, we are all levelled and we can no longer compete in beauty, virtue, success, or power. Moving towards the end of his life, Shinran seems to have already died to all of the conceits that we use as masks, as ways of hiding from the glare of others. We always, naturally seek to present ourselves in ways that people will admire, but Shinran was so imbued with the Light of the Buddha, the Wisdom that shows all things exactly as they are, that he is entirely devoid of all sham and vanity.

Shinran Shonin, our dear Dharma Master, was already moving to the Pure Land in the last few years of his life. His only truth was namu-amida-butsu and the Wisdom of all the Buddhas. These verses are his final word, his lasting legacy that tells us, by implication, that there is only one thing for us: namu-amida-butsu. There is nothing that we can claim of value for ourselves - we are happiest when we simply give ourselves up and relinquish all our power to the wisdom of the Buddhas.

Shonin became ill in the latter ten days of the eleventh month (lunar calendar) in the second yeay of Kocho. Since then he did not talk of worldly events, but spoke only of his deep indebtedness to the Buddha. His utterance of the Nembutsu continued without interruption and no other words were ever expressed in his voice. On the twenty-eighth day of the same month, he breathed his last breath of the Nembutsu, while lying on his right side, with his head directed to the north and his face to the west. He was ninety years of age. (Godensho)

Shinran knew the depth of reality and the things that are most important. He cared only for the Buddha Dharma:

When I close my eyes, throw me into the Kamo River to feed the fish. (Gaija Sho by Kakunyo Shonin)

Who, then, was Shinran? What had he become? Perhaps there is a clue in the concluding verse of the Taisho edition of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

Obscuring the light and mixing with the dust is
the beginning of establishing contact with beings;
Attaining Buddhahood and manifesting the eight
major events shows the end of the Buddha's mission.

How fortuitous it is that this remarkable person, lives on in the Nembutsu, in his writings, and in the hearts of his Dharma friends. It is recorded in the Hanazono Bunko, that Shinran left these final words for us as he lay on his deathbed, waiting to return, at last, to his home in the Pure Land:

As my life comes to an 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 with you.
I, Shinran, am that 'other' person.

- July 28, 2006.

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