Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 17

Under the guidance of Buddhas who appeared in this world,
Three times the sands of the Ganges in number,
We awakened the aspiration for supreme enlightenment,
But our self-power failed, and we continued to transmigrate.

Floating

We have already seen that the Buddha-dharma has a vast perspective on both time and space. Indeed, Shakyamuni is famous for his declaration that the origins of the universe arem imponderable. He said that concentration on these questions, apart from being irrelevant in the matter of our ultimate release from pain and suffering, will lead to madness and distress. In this insight, Shakyamuni commends himself as truly wise and sound. He is not, however, dismissing scientific and technological research and development. Science works entirely within the realm of samsara and does not address those eternal and deep concerns which we usually describe as 'spiritual' or 'philosophical'.

Science knows nothing of nirvana; it can tell us about the 'alleviation' of suffering, but not ultimate 'release from suffering'. It knows no absolutes; it is always re-arranging its theory to suit emerging facts; it is relevant to our day-to-day material needs but not to questions of meaning and joy. There is no evidence at all that technology in itself has endowed humankind with any real happiness. In point of fact, statistics show that the most technologically advanced scieties tend to have the highest levels of unhappiness, vacuity, banality, querelousness, depression, drug abuse and suicide. Perhaps technological advance simply engenders unreasonably high expectations, which inevitably disappoint us.

Along with questions that deal with origins, Shakyamuni also suggested that attempts to concentrate on the minutæ of karma would also cause madness and distress. Of karma, we can only speak in general terms. The exception to this rule comes once one becomes a Buddha or an Arhat. Sacred Buddhist texts like the storehouse of Sundry Valuables and the History of King Ashoka do, indeed, recount stories of such accomplished people, who had the capacity to explain the actions (Sk. karma) from a person's - or an animal's past - that have led to current circumstances.

The Abhidharma was a bold attempt to flesh out - from the content of the Sutras - detailed inferences about the specific causes of things as they appear to us now. But even so, a cursory study of this segment of the Tripitaka is enough to demonstrate that the Buddha-dharma does not see 'karmic unfolding' as pertaining to a single on-going entity. Strictly speaking, the Buddha-dharma does not think in such terms. The Abhidharma gives us intimate knowledge, the more deeply we peruse it, of the fact that the current 'me' is not a single flowing stream, beginning in a specific time and place, following a specific path and arriving at a specific place. Past and future are uncertain ideas and there is always a brooding unease as to their reality. 'Many lives' may refer as much to a sense that we have passed through linear time in many incarnations as to the a commonality with all existence - that 'all are one and one is all'; of interconnectedness; of my life being a cellular illusion which is yet a part of all life.

The entity that we are now - as this or that person, living in such and such a way - is a product of a vast web of causes and conditions and continues to exist as such. That we have 'awakened the great aspiration for enlightenment' under the ægis of Buddhas 'numbering three times the sands of the Ganges' speaks of incalculable lives whose karmic outcomes we have inherited, yet, at the same time, the Buddha-dharma does not see these 'lives' as 'the same' as our present sense of identity. What are we to make of this?

The clue lies in the phrase 'our self-power failed'. This remarkable and profund perception on the part of Shinran Shonin cuts through to the very core of Shakyamuni's teaching. One illustration of this is the Simile of the Log. In this Sutra, Shakyamuni describes life as a stream, in which we are carried from some real yet obscure source, like a floating log. He says that as long as we, 'the log', do not get snared by the attachments and illusions along the banks of the stream, or diverted by the rapids of uncontrolled afflicting passions (Sk. kleshas), then we will eventually arrive at the ocean, 'slipping, at last, into the silent sea'.

We can understand the warnings about snares but the unspoken and underlying question is the stream itself. This Great Mystery pops up throughout the sacred texts of the dharma. Take this passage in the Diamond Sutra, here trtanslated by Edward Conze.

The Lord asked: What do you think Subhuti, is there any dharma (i.e., element of existence, consciousness, etc.) which the Tathagata has fully known as the 'utmost, right and perfect enlightenment,' or is there any dharma which the Tathagata has demonstrated? - Subhuti relied: No, not as I understand what the Lord has said. Any why? This dharma which the Tathagata has fully known or demonstrated - it cannot be grasped, it cannot be talked about, it is neither a dharma nor a no-dharma. And why? Because an Absolute exalts the Holy Persons.1

'The Absolute' (Sk. asamskrta, i.e., unconditioned) 'exalts' (Sk. prabhavita). The meaning of exalt includes 'draw strength from'. In other words there is a buoyant reality that supports and uplifts, exalts and informs. While the snares of the stream can be avoided, nevertheless the stream inexorably carries life to its goal.

The mistake is to refuse to float, so to speak, to resist the support of the dharma body, that manifests itself, in our case, in the form of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The snares are our grasping at things to steady the flow - to try to swim instead of floating, to sustain a sense of achievement and purpose by creating it ourselves; by compiling and structuring our own reality.

Our self-power is failed, or so it seems to me, at any rate, because it only serves to resist the flow and the buoyancy of the stream in Shakyamuni's metaphor. From the stream has come the 'great aspiration for enlightenment' - its current. From us comes only grasping at stability, at stopping any movement, at resisting the uplift of the dharma.

To live the nembutsu is to let go and to be carried joyfully onwards by the stream of infinite life.


1: Buddhist Wisdom Books, tr. Edward Conze, Harper Torchbooks, 1972, p. 36-38.

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