Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 14

Those who, it appears, will never attain enlightenment
All attack the practice of solely saying the Name.
The mark of destroying the teaching of sudden attainment
Is that for them, the vast sea of birth-and-death will have no end.

On Gifts

For Shinran Shonin the 'teaching of sudden attainment' has a significance that is different from the traditional Mahayana understanding. While, generally speaking, 'sudden attainment' refers to a number of schools and lineages, for Shinran it applies exclusively to Jodo Shinshu. We find his detailed analysis of the schematic location of the various Buddhist traditions in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho,1 where it is an on-going concern; detailed in the third and sixth volumes. The idea of sudden attainment conveys a sense of immanence. Shinran describes it as crosswise or horizontal transcendence (Sk. moksha). This sense of movement reminds us of the immanance of attainment coupled with the need for us to 'realise' or awaken to it. It is like an unopened gift.

Those interpretations of the dharma that are not sudden are described by Shinran as vertical-gradual or crosswise-gradual. This describes paths that require the complete undoing of our present reality and, in addition, training and effort that can last for ├Žons. The classic example of this is the way that Buddhists have traditionally seen Shakyamuni. While modern humanists see him as a man who matured to Enlightenment in a single life-time, those who take refuge in the Buddha-dharma have never done so. The reason for this is that Shakyamuni himself was unequivocal in his belief that the road to Enlightenment began in a time before time, during the life of a Buddha from long ago named Dipankara. Under his influence, his disciple became a bodhisattva - a career that culminated when, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha Gautama moved from the human condition to enlightenment and became Shakyamuni Buddha; neither a god nor a man.

The Mahayana considers, from long experience and deep analysis, that all things are endowed with buddha nature (Sk. buddha ta). However, according to the Madhyamika tradition, bodhisattvas do not see even a little of buddha nature until they reach the last stages of their long career. At such a stage they have already gained a measure of enlightenment and are already transcendent beings. The practical and mundane parts of the bodhisattva career only spans the first and second stages - out of a total of ten. It was also a matter of contention between the various schools as to whether or not some people were devoid of buddha nature. The upshot of the controversy was that 'all beings have buddha nature'. This means that enlightenment is an ever-present, immanent and organic reality - 'sudden' - for us all.

Strictly speaking most schools of the Mahayana belong to the way that is 'crosswise-gradual'. Although the followers of these schools have buddha nature, they do not see it until much effort has been expended. There is a struggle to realise it. Since Shinran deduced that the related purport of the Pure Land way was that ...

The Tathagata gives [his] sincere mind to all living things, an ocean of beings possessed of blind passions, karmic evil, and false wisdom.2

... his primary intention in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is to clarify how this is so. In spite of the fact that Jodo Shinshu is a path of 'sudden attainment', however, it still needs to be realised. This is the 'crosswise' part of the 'crosswise-transcendent' classification of Jodo Shinshu; a 'movement' of some sort is occurs.

Traditional Indian philosophy classifies the Buddha-dharma as nastika, non-dogmatic. The dharma accepts this description, because it is a path that is based on 'insight' (Sk. vipasyana). The doctrine needs to be ratified in the experience of the disciple. The Buddha-dharma is 'non-dogmatic' because it is not something we subscribe to as a creed handed down from on high; it is something that is lived and found within our hearts and minds. It has a rational exegisis but it reaches beyond reason to the intuitive and the indescribable.

Shinran constantly reminds us that the true Pure Land way is inconceivable; there is a point at which anything that we can say about it does not describe it fully. The nembutsu way also moves beyond the world of doctrine and reason into the world of the heart. It is not a matter of mere knowledge but of 'hearing', that is to say, of 'insight'. Saying that 'the Tathagata gives [his] sincere mind to all living things' does not, of itself, attest to its truth. Although someone gives us something, it is not acquired until it is accepted. We can reject the Tathatata's gift by trying to create a similar outcome for ourseves without it. In the dharma-ending age (mappo) this means that such people become 'those who may never attain enlightenment'.

There are many reasons that lie behind a choice to reject gifts. Perhaps we have been conditioned to believe that there is 'no gain without pain': we do not 'deserve' to be the beneficiaries of the generosity of others; nothing can be acheived without cost. But this is fallacious. It is like being born to become a beautiful man or woman and deliberately scarring ourselves in order to become beautiful in our own way - not the way of our natural endowment. Like all great gifts, those who accept them graciously are often the objects of envy. In the nembutsu way, this is no less the case.

The way to receive the Tathagata's gift is just as it is for all gifts. We accept it when we understand why it is being offered and appreciate our need of it. The acceptance of it is the trusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna citta), accompanied by 'thank you', Namu-amida-butsu. Of course, this is an over-simplification, but it is still the crux of the Pure Land dharma. No wonder it is described as the 'most difficult of all difficult things to accept'. In identifying shinjin with buddha nature, Shinran frees us to see that the Tathagata's mind of enlightenment is immanent. To receive it is only to strip away the illusion of self that crowds it out of our experience.

In the moment that we see the futility of ourselves in the pursuit of the dharma, the eternally offered shinjin - the immanent buddha nature - shouts its name: Namu-amida-butsu.

Such nembutsu arises when the gift has been received.


1: CWS, pp. 114 & 222-3.

2: CWS p. 95.

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