Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 12

The ninety-five nonbuddhist teachings defile the world;
The Buddha's path alone is pure.
Only by going forth and reaching enlightenment can we benefit
        others
In this burning house; this is the natural working of the Vow.

The Burning House

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho includes many allusions to the motivation for seeking to become Buddhas. The Mahayana sets this objective as its only goal. Whereas other forms of the Buddha-dharma are content to encourage aspirants to seek final quiescence, the Mahayana recognises an inescapable mutuality in existence, whereby what we are and the things we do have an inevitable impact that is universal in its significance. Things are not merely interdependant; they are all part of the same fabric.

Inevitably, then, our motivation for seeking to become a Buddha is for the sake of leading others to liberation. It is not necessarily the case that a Buddha benefits himself and others by teaching or acting in particular ways; his very existence radiates throughout the fabric of life. Until we become Buddhas, our words and actions are of only tentative value. We are too imbued with the five defilements and ignorance to be able to truly benefit others. Whatever good we may do, it is impossible for us to separate our actions from our own inner rage and the restrictions that are imposed by the isolation, which is contingent upon our inherent ignorance.

The isolation and limitation that results from our unenlightened state is compounded by the all-pervasive degeneration that we have seen to be the primary quality of the mappo era. For this reason, Shinran Shonin was quite convinced that it was well-nigh impossible for us to act compassionately in the knowledge that our actions could truly benefit others, until such time as we become Buddhas.

Only by going forth and reaching enlightenment can we benefit
        others
In this burning house; this is the natural working of the Vow.

As he waited for his birth as a Buddha, Shinran 'practiced great compassion', which he took to be one of the ten benefits in the present life. This practice is not our directing of compassion to others but Amida Buddha's compassionate Vow expressing itself in us as Namu-amida-butsu; the central mystery of the Pure Land way; the working of the inconceivable Light. To some people this concept may sound rather bleak. It seems passive and unhelpful. We are surrounded by suffering and misery and we feel that we should 'do something about it'.

Of course, no one would suggest that we should not try, but for those who live, through Namu-amida-butsu, in the Light that is Amida Buddha's wisdom, this kind of active helping feels ultimately inadequate and is always imbued with organic self-referencing motives, fear and cloying sentimentality. It has nothing to do with the prajna-wisdom of a Buddha. It does not satisfy their true longing to be free of self and absolutely at one with the other. Indeed, they feel quite certain that they completely lack both shame any vestige of compassion. We know, by the Light of the Buddha that we are burning.

The description of the world through the metaphor of a burning house is apt. Those who dwell in the house are all on fire. Someone who is burning cannot put out a fire that is consuming another; the amount of fire is only increased. Greed, anger and delusion are natural components in my makeup and they inform all that I think and do; when they have burned away and only wisdom and compassion hold sway, it will then be time to act in the free and truly beneficial way of a Buddha.

In any case, the image of burning in the context of the Buddha-dharma points not just to greed, anger and delusion but to rapid combustion - to transience. In the Lotus Sutra we find the world of burning house described in this way:

[The house is] spacious, yet it only has a single entrance... The buildings are decayed, the fences and walls are crumbling, the pillar bases rotten, the beams and framework are dangerously tilted.1

The world of the senses always escapes our grasp. We think that we have built the house - the mental images and constructs that make sense of our experience - and, just then, a single element will slip away or fall into a different relationship with everything else - and we are all at sea again. All around us things do not go as we planned or hoped. Nothing will conform to our will, no one will take notice of us; a quiet inner rage, an inner burning, born of the eternal frustration of the law of karma, may possess us. Nothing we do by way of redress will bring us the peace or meaning that we crave. As time passes and nothing changes, nothing happens, we feel that we are pressing an accelerator on the road to obliteration.

How impressive is our floating world (uki-yo)! How wonderful the gift of humour!

As conscious beings, it is natural for us to try to cancel out the reality of our wonky burning house, our world, but the Buddha-dharma tells us that we thus only deepen our engagement with samsara. The dharma sees the world as a place of endurance (shaba Sk., saha) because it is always evaporating, changing, burning away - sinking like a ship that is riddled with holes. We have an inveterate need to steady it, to control it and so we invent 'views' (Sk. drsthi) that we use as ways of trying to make sense of what is confusing - or make permanent what is evanescent. From this come the 'ninety-five teachings' that defile the world.

The ninety-five teachings represent the lies that we tell ourselves in an effort to prove that the four 'signata' of existence are not true. These signs of existence are impermanence, not-self, suffering (Sk. anitya, anatman, dhukha) - and that there is no bliss but nirvana. We invent beings who are in control of things, or we hope that everything will stay as they are now. There are permutations and combinations of these notions that are said to add up to ninety-five. In fact, the Brahma-jala Sutra of the Hinayana ennumerates them in careful detail.

It is easy to spell out these features of the dharma's teaching about the realities of life in a condescending and sanctimonious way - as if we know better than others what life is really like. In fact, we are only repeating like parrots what we have learned by rote. As soon as real threats and shocks come our way, our choices and behaviour prove to us that our understanding of the dharma is less than paper-thin. At least this is how it is for me. So it is that the main student and pupil in the dharma is essentially ourselves alone - and we never learn.

I see in all this, evidence of the truly insidious nature of mappo. I learn once more that my 'Buddhist' commitment and convictions are superficial and devoid of any real substance.

It is at such moments of insight that Namu-amida-butsu, the thought of the Buddha, rises to our consciousness.

Ah! Great Compassion is calling us again!


1: Numata, 1992, p. 62.

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