Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 15

We may think that these times belong to the right dharma-age,
But in us - the lowest of foolish beings -
There is no mind that is pure, true, or real;
How could we awaken the aspiration for enlightenment?

Acuity

In the third volume of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran Shonin seems to demonstrate the identity of shinjin and buddha nature (Sk. buddha ta). Yet, it should be remembered that he also subscribes to the Mahayana view that, for an unenlightened person, the buddha nature is inconceivable. Shinjin, of course, is likewise itself 'fukashigi, fukasetsu, fukasho' - 'inconceivable, indescribable and ineffable'.

To get a proper perspective of the significance of this idea, we need only call to mind a common theme of the Buddha-dharma, which is the deeply personal nature of realisation and the inner life. It is often described as a matter of 'bones and marrow'. For each one of us, the Buddha-dharma is not a matter of other people: it is a matter for ourselves alone. The bodhisattva's principal duty is to awaken himself before awakening others. Likewise, in the Pure Land way, we 'awaken faith ourselves, and then teach others to awaken it' (ji shin kyo nin shin) . From the perspective of the dharma these steps are necessary along the road, lest we lead others astray through our unawareness.

Many followers of the Pure Land way were keenly aware of the uniqueness of their quest, Shinran and Rennyo among them. Both suggest that our apprehension of the Primal Vow is singular: 'for me alone'. In other words, it is especially the Pure Land way that expressly abandons the judging of others:

'To abandon the mind of self-power' admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people - masters of the Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil - to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one's evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.1

The phrase 'to stop reflecting knowingly on one's evil heart' is a repudiation of a sense of guilt in favour of a genuine and frank assessment - without self-judgement and contumely - about the the reality and truth of one's existence. On the other hand, it also discourages 'over-reliance' on the Primal Vow, in which one excuses one's limitations, or attempts to justify oneself. Any sentimental colouring of the significance of one's self-awareness is utterly eschewed. While there is a certain ferocity in this approach, it is certainly the one that Shinran took. In its out-working within the context of one's own inner life it is paradoxically joyous. Why is this?

It is because the shinjin of Amida Buddha consists of nishu jinshin, the 'two aspects of deep mind'. They are the awareness of ourselves as mired in evil karma and without hope, while at the same time rejoicing in the power of the Primal Vow ultimately to awaken us in enlightenment. This is the Pure Land perspective on the idea that nirvana and samsara are one; the 'two minds' are always concurrent. Unless we keep this constantly before us, we will not read the Shozomatsu Wasan well; it will be an unhappy experience. The Shozomatsu Wasan - especially, of all the Sanjo Wasan collection - are written by and for people of faith; for whom the life of nishu jinshin is a heartfelt reality.

This verse, in its entirety is an account of nishu jinshin. Shinran is making universal statements, he is thinking of himself - and of you and me, his 'fellow travellers on the way'. He is speaking to those who are 'true disciples of the Buddha' - to use Shinran's phrase, people of shinjin. He is not talking to the enlightened Zen Master or to my local Sadhu, Rabbi, Bishop or Imam. He is certainly not talking to our member of parliament or the local thief, unless, of course, they have also joined the nembutsu way. In short, Shinran clearly rejected the judging of people as good and bad, since such assessments pertain to us alone.

We shall find this acuity with regard to oneself throughout the Shozomatsu Wasan and discover that it is always accompanied by the warm embrace of the light of Amida Buddha. It is, however, a definite matter of acuity, of penetrating insight and personal frankness, and that is why Shinran gives pre-eminence to the light, the wisdom, of Amida Buddha. Like T'an-luan before him, it is light, of all Amida Buddha's characteristics, that is at the heart of nembutsu understanding. The nembutsu way emphasises prajna above all things.

But in us - the lowest of foolish beings -
There is no mind that is pure, true, or real.

'The lowest of foolish beings' in this passage is not a mere reference to the 'ordinary' or 'foolish-being' (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) in the traditional Buddhist sense - for example, as it is understood in the Abhidharma or the scholastic Pure Land tradition. The suffix gu adds an allusion to the primal ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya) - the true foolishness - that lies at the heart of human existence. The ignorance is so profound and intrinsic to our nature that it makes it even difficult for us, without the light of the Buddha, to see ourselves as we really are. Because of the Buddha's prajna - wisdom - Shinran was enabled to see himself as he really was; because of Amida's concommitant karuna he knew that he was embraced in the warm balm of Amida's compassion. In Shinran's eyes compassion is the light, the wisdom, of Amida.

Apropos this, Rennyo sounds a similar warning:

Nobody - even one person - thinks he is wrong. This, however, is what Shinran Shonin admonished us about. Unless each one of us reflect and convert our way of thinking, we shall be sinking deep in hell for a long time. The reason why I say this is that we are truly ignorant of the depth of the Buddha-dharma.2

We see here two relevant aspects of self-awareness. The first is its focus: it always devolves to the contents of our own hearts and minds; it is not directed at others. The second is that it is not the wrong-doing as such that is the problem in the first instance but it is our ignorance of it that generates any future 'hellishness' for us.

For people of European extraction, the 'two aspects of deep mind' sometimes presents an additional problem; one that is not so much a part of the consciousness of people from Confucian cultures. This is the confusion of the 'mind that sees that we are bound in karmic evil' - or, in the phrase that Shinran uses in this verse 'the lowest of foolish beings' - with guilt. Shinran repudiates 'looking knowingly on our evil hearts'. This suggests that guilt could have been a problem for his own contemporaries as well. Guilt is not the point of the Buddha-dharma and is a serious obstacle for those for whom it is a problem.

In 1967 an English language classic entitled Awareness of Self was published by Takudo Haguri. This brilliant little book gives a succinct account of the way we can understand the experience of ourselves as 'the lowest of foolish beings'. The book has a Preface and an Afterword by the well-known American Shin Buddhist academic Taitetsu Unno, which lend balance to the theme of Haguri's writing. In his concluding remarks Unno says,

It must be remembered also that faith is not a psychological state of mind. Whether man is happy or unhappy, grateful or ungrateful, depends upon his unique karma, and it has nothing to do with his awakening to faith.

Shinran's own insight into himself, cannot be artificially developed by us in some kind of psychotherapeutic way. True insight and a frank, if stern, self awareness comes only as we turn and face the light of Amida Buddha; growing ever deeper in our love and knowledge of the dharma. It is in the radiance of the Buddha's wisdom alone that we can share with Shinran the awakening to ourselves as 'fools bottom-deep in afflicting passions'.


1: CWS, p. 459.

2: Goichidaikikikgaki, tr. Hisao Inagaki.

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