Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 16

The aspiration for enlightenment through self-power taught in
        the Path of Sages
Is beyond our minds and words;
We foolish beings ever sinking in transmigration -
How could we awaken it?

Chains

Although the theme of this verse is identical to the previous one - Shozomatsu Wasan 15 - it carries a sense of excruciating pathos. It is at once the saddest and most joyful of short statements that one is ever likely to find; apart, of course, from Namu-amida-butsu. Indeed, verses of the Sanjo Wasan are frequently nothing less than paraphrases for the 'two aspects of deep mind' that we encountered in the last verse. In this verse, as before, the first three lines express our acute human dilemma and the last line is a rhetorical question that alludes to Amida Buddha - the solution. The answer to the question is obvious to one who recognises the dilemma.

Let's think some more around this theme.

The 'two aspects of deep mind' give expression to the Mahayana experience of the ultimate identity of samsara and nirvana. They also give firsthand and practical articulation to the Fourfold Noble Truth. The Fourfold Truth says precisely the same thing as Shinran Shonin does in this verse. So also the 'two aspects of deep mind' in the Pure Land tradition that we have inherited from Shan-tao. The first two parts of the Fourfold Truth describe the unsatisfactory nature of life - its suffering and pain - and identifies the cause. In the Mahayana the cause is most often attributed to avidya: the organic spiritual darkness that binds us in samsara. The first three lines of this verse describe precisely the same thing; except for the fact that suffering, in this case, is severely oppressed by the karmic affliction and strain of mappo, the dharma ending age.

The third and fourth parts of the Fourfold Noble Truth speak of the 'way out of samsara', giving rise in the final section to the three disciplines of shila, prajna and samadhi, which is further expanded into the Eighfold Noble Path. The third segment of the Fourfold Truth is nirodha - a momentary and kindred form of nirvana, which leaves a lasting impression. This second half the the Fourfold Truth represents the last line of this Wasan. It is Amida Buddha and is integral to shinjin, which encompasses the Fourfold Noble Truth in its entirety. Even so, what does it take for us to see this as a reality?

You will remember that the allegory of the 'Two Rivers and a White Path' acquaints us in pictorial form with the 'two aspects of deep mind'. In the explanation of the allegory, Shan-tao points out that the path is narrow because of the fragility of faith, which Shinran Shonin takes to mean the ineffable and incomprehensible nature of shinjin. This verse suggests that we are frozen at the first step upon the way, unable to move because we are bound by self-defeating habits and beliefs. One of these - obviously, from the context - is the belief, indeed, that we must awaken bodhi-mind ('awaken the aspiration for enlightenment') in order to progress along the (bodhisattva) path. As Shinran points out in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, there is, however the 'mind aspiring to become Buddha' that is the Buddha's Mind. By accepting his call and his power, there is a bodhi-citta for those who are 'ignorant beings, ever spun in the rush of waves'.

Shinran is not exaggerating when he recounts the difficulties that beset us. He has a powerful sense of our utter incapacity. This is because Shinran emerges as someone who took the dharma at face value, committed himself whole heartedly to the rigors of the path of disciplinary practice and eventually confronted abject failure. This process spanned no fewer than twenty long and arduous years.

As readers will know, Buddhist practice on the 'path of sages' demands the gradual neutralising of the bonno (Sk. kleshas) - the 'functions of defilement' - that serve as obstacles on the way. The 'purification of the mind' usually involves a process of 'insight' (Sk. vipasyana) in one form or another - especially by way of the study of the Abhidharma. Yogacara schools, like Ch'an (zen) focus exclusively on meditation (zazen, Sk. dhyana).

It seems very likely that Shinran's practice was focused on nembutsu as a meditative practice, but as a 'self-power' practice it amounts to the same thing as meditative practice. Whatever the practice that he followed may have involved, there could be no progress for him - or for anyone else on the way - unless he awakened the 'mind of enlightenment' by means of which a follower of the dharma takes his or her first steps on the bodhisattva path. This event was absolutely crucial.

In offering people an alternative to the demands of the disciplines of the dharma of 'self-power', Honen is famous, as we have already seen, for his proclamation of senju nembutsu - only nembutsu. This suggested to those who became his detractors that he was abrogating the ancient and venerable requirement for the awakening of the enlightenment mind (bodaishin, Sk bodhi-citta). Although it was commonly believed that Honen had broken with tradition in this radical way, there is scant evidence from his writings that this accusation can be justified.

In any case, Shinran set out in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho to demonstrate (especially from the writings of his predecessor T'an-luan) that faith, shinjin, was the bodhi mind imparted by the Buddha who transfers his shinjin to all living beings. In this way Shinran re-affirmed the orthodoxy and legitimacy of the Pure Land way.

The important feature of Shinran's wonderful realisation, however, was that he only discovered it once he had utterly exhausted all possible efforts to awaken it himself. He discovered the harrowing truth of the human reality: that we are bound by organic predispositions which, for most of us, are intractable. The stubborn nature of those habits of thought and expectations that so oppress our hearts and minds and keep us repeating the same errors over and over again is the profound tragedy of the human condition.

We experience this tragedy, not only in the exalted arena of the pursuit of righteousness and enlightenment but in everyday events. A simple and common example that we all experience is the way that we feel embarrassment or shame for some action only to find ourselves making the same old mistakes again, no matter how firm our initial resolution to do otherwise. How often do we feel that we have reached a higher level of, for example, calmness and inner peace, only to find ourselves flying into a mountainous rage as soon as something challenges it? Therapies of one kind or another only bring symptomatic relief. Although that has its own value, but does not alter the fact that we are karma-bound.

It is the genuine realisation and acceptance of the fact that we are in chains and bound by our kleshas ('afflicting passions') that forces us away from our self.

So it was that, in this way, Shinran discovered a transformation from the very heart of life itself. He experienced the remarkable way that the cause of existential ill can be removed - pulled out like a rotten tooth -, bringing total relief from the oppression of his evil karma. Although the old habits played on like a 'cracked record', the pillars of the intractable power of his bonno had been kicked away. The chains that bound him into irresistible and immovable thought-patterns may have still been present but, with just one link broken, they could no longer bind his heart.

And what link is that? It is the belief in a self, and that it can do anything for us; like trying to climb a mountain by walking on top of rapids. It is our inability to turn away from self and - in Namu-amida-butsu< - to accept the trusting heart (shinjin) of Amida Buddha.

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