Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 21

The mind that seeks to save all sentient beings
Is directed to us through Amida's Vow of wisdom.
Those who realise this true entrusting that is directed to us
Attain great, complete nirvana.

Entrusting

'Amida's Vow of wisdom' is a phrase that is used here to highlight the Primal Vow as a synonym for wisdom, which is the reality of all existence. 'Faith' in this verse is shingyo, generally reckoned to be equivalent to the Sanskrit term prasada. Prasada is the 'faith' that emerges at the first stage of the bodhisattva path (Sk. pramudita bhumi).

In the translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that is included in the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha publication The Collected Works of Shinran (CWS) shingyo is rendered as 'entrusting'. In the Ryukoku Translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the phrase 'serene faith' is used, while the newly published Numata Center translation prefers 'joyful faith'. Shingyo is a very important term in understanding shinjin, because Shinran Shonin points to it as the main characteristic of the one mind of Amida Buddha, which is the catalyst for the 'three minds of faith' - sincere mind (shishin), entrusting (shingyo) and aspiration for birth (yokusho).

We encountered the three minds in the latter part of the Jodo Wasan. The satisfying thing about the use of 'entrusting' for 'shingyo' is that it is a gerund - an active form of verb, which has neither subject nor object. However, the translations 'joyful faith' or 'serene faith' remind us of the radiant Sanskrit term prasada. Obviously the significance of 'shingyo' is difficult to convey. Undoubtedly, that is why Shinran sought to define it by using a string of synonyms:

Entrusting is the mind full of truth, reality, and sincerity; the mind of ultimacy, accomplishment, reliance, and reverence; the mind of discernment, distinctness, clarity, and faithfulness; the mind of aspiration, wish, desire, and exultation; the mind of delight, joy, gladness, and happiness; hence, it is completely untainted by the hindrance of doubt.1

It is this mind that Shinran is discussing in this verse.

From Shinran's description of shingyo we can see how it is the seed of the ultimate attainment of nirvana. Like the Sanskrit prasada, the awakening of faith for a bodhisattva, it is replete with the qualities of wisdom. We see, too - from the verse that we are currently thinking about - that the qualities of wisdom, which comprise the mind of entrusting, are those of Amida Buddha, transferred to nembutsu people.

Needless to say, an aberrant reading of the last line of this verse would occur if we were to equate shingyo, entrusting, with nirvana. This equation is expressly denied by Shinran and throughout the Jodo Shinshu tradition, and yet it is an idea that returns as a matter of controversy from time to time. As Rennyo Shonin frequently points out, people of nembutsu attain shinjin in this life and enlightenment (nirvana) in the life to come. In shingyo there are qualities of exultation that resemble nirvana but even though we accept the entrusting that is 'transferred by Amida's Vow of wisdom', the 'afflicting passions' and suffering of samsara continue to be the reality of our inner life.

In the Buddhist context, the idea that entrusting is synonymous with nirvana no doubt comes from the fact that there are, indeed, Buddhist traditions, which clearly espouse the notion of 'becoming Buddha in this body'. Even so, it is wildly hubristic to suggest that we, ordinary people, could even approach accomplishments like those that pertain to advanced disciples upon the Path of Sages. Anyone who is inclined to such a view should look closely at the representative practices and reflect on the reality of such a claim.

In my experience, it is in the writings of people who are raised in the English-speaking world that one most often encounters the belief that entrusting - serene faith, shingyo - and nirvana are the same thing. In my view this tendency comes from the subliminal influence of our cultural milieu, which is strongly imbued with the concrete ideas and sentiments that originate in some of the Abrahamic 'holiness' traditions.

Although, in traditional continental European thought the Platonic doctrines of Augustine of Hippo continue to ameliorate such views, nevertheless, the 'holiness' ethos is especially strong in English-speaking societies, where it is associated with a line of theology that is broadly puritannical in emphasis. This is the idea that there should be a manifestly concrete, tangible or measurable 'outcome' - a certain view of perfection - from religious experience. Thus 'sin', which is 'disobedience to divine authority', is not merely absolved, so to speak, but is entirely expunged from the person who is sanctified. The idea is that such a person then becomes incapable of further sin, or disobedience. Hence, these traditions emphasise 'positive' practical outcomes, like healing, personal prosperity and so forth.

I think that the competitive nature of this ethos impacts on the thinking of some people who seek to follow the Buddha Dharma. Yet it is quite clear from Shinran's writing and example, as we shall see later on in our reflections upon the Shozomatsu Wasan, that nembutsu people of shinjin remain just as they are: suffering and conflicted beings incapable of attaining enlightenment. Amida Buddha's shinjin is added to the suffering of existence and the afflicting passions of an unenlightened person: imbuing an ordinary life with radiance, personal openness, self-awareness and joi de vivre.

Whereas 'holiness' creates a person who is 'in the world but not of it' - people, who are themselves elevated by their sanctification and are driven to elevate their social environment -, the nembutsu person of shinjin is entirely worldly. Yet, having the perspective of Amida's Vow of wisdom, the person of shinjin sees people and relationships in a radically new way. To use a popular metaphor: holiness drives out demons; shinjin is at peace with them. This is why it is often said that the person of nembutsu-shinjin 'becomes his foolish self', or 'becomes truly human'. Instead of looking on those of the world, so to speak, with love, the man or woman of shinjin literally becomes a person of the world - practicing the 'great compassion'.

The fact that nembutsu shinjin is not nirvana and does not makes us necessarily 'better' people, should not blind us to its joyous and profoundly transformative nature. As we see in this verse, it is because of the shinjin that is transferred by Amida Buddha that we ultimately realise 'great nirvana'. In this life, it enables us to live honestly as we are, to find deep contentment and to have a profound understanding of the common humanity that we share with all others - with all its frailties. It is a true and gentle way that tends in the direction of freedom from the delusions that arise from an inflamed sense of self-importance.

In the life of nembutsu, the peace of mind (anjin) that is associated with this growing spiritual depth is remarkable; it is both felicitous and unique. To discover it is a privilege that defies expression.

Namu-amida-butsu


1. CWS, p. 94

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