Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 23

When the waters of the mind entrusting to Other Power enter
The ocean of Amida's Vow of wisdom,
Then in accord with the nature of the true and real fulfilled land,
Blind passions and enlightenment come to be of one taste.


This verse contains many important themes, which we have already encountered. The idea of 'blind passions and enlightenment' becoming of 'one taste' was discussed in Koso Wasan 39.

When we were thinking about the verses in praise of Genshin, we considered the significance of the transformed lands. The 'fulfilled land' is the 'true Pure Land', the land of light (wisdom) or nirvana. Those who awaken to the true entrusting heart (shinjitsu shinjin) of Amida Buddha are born there. The 'transformed lands' (kedo) are essentially created by the aspirants themselves; they arise from their own aspirations. They are temporary expedients based on the nineteenth and twentieth Vows.

The 'nature' of the Pure Land is described by T'an-luan in the Ojo Ronchu (Commentary on [Vasubandhu's] Discourse on the Pure Land).

Further 'essential nature' has the meaning of 'being so of necessity' and 'unalterable'. [The essential nature of the Pure Land is] like the nature of the ocean, which has one taste; upon flowing into it, all river water 'necessarily' acquires that one taste, and the taste of the ocean is 'not altered' by that of the river water. It is also like the nature of the body which is impure: when things beautiful to look at, sweet-smelling, and of wholesome taste are taken into it, they all become defiled. Those born into the Pure Land of Peace and Bliss are free of the impurity of body and mind; they will ultimately attain the Pure Unconditioned Dharmakaya of Equality. This is because the Land of peace and Bliss is perfected with the nature of purity.1

This sublime passage is an explanation of Vasubandhu's outline of the 'accomplishment of the glorious merit and essential nature' of the Pure Land. T'an-luan explains how and why the Pure Land was developed and is as it is. Both Vasubandhu and T'an-luan used their respective philosophical backgrounds to support the theory and practice of the Pure Land way. They clearly demonstrated the validity and consistency of the teaching; giving the lie to those who claim that it is a path that is tangential in its relationship with other schools of the Buddha Dharma.

T'an-luan's exquisite and luminous description of the Pure Land that I have quoted here is an example of the remarkable depth and quality of T'an-luan's commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land. It is not surprising that Shinran was keen to demonstrate - throughout the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - the immense debt that the Pure Land school owed to T'an-luan. In this passage, T'an-luan leaves us in no doubt that the Pure Land is redolent with the true underlying principles of emptiness (Sk. shunyata) - the transcendence that cancels all concepts. Those who are 'reborn' in the Pure Land realise their essential nature, whereby all illusory constructs are subsumed in the Light that is the essential emptiness of all dharmas or constituent elements of existence.

Shinran was very attached to the word 'ocean' and he uses it in many ways. For example, there is the 'ocean of birth and death', the 'ocean of suffering beings', 'the ocean of beings in this evil age of five defilements', the 'immense ocean of desires and attachments' and 'the ocean of painful existence, which is difficult to cross'. Such usage is quite common in Shinran's writing. His use of the word reminds us of the inexhaustible reality that is samsara and suffering; of the beings and lives that are generated by these vast processes. The extent of the task of salvation, of setting beings free from suffering - and the ignorance that forever perpetuates it - is entirely beyond calculation.

On the other hand, the response to the immense ocean of suffering is itself of equal or greater scale. Shinran loves to use 'ocean' to qualify such concepts as the virtue of Amida's Vow: the 'ocean of Light'. Faith itself is an 'ocean', since it is the same ocean as Amida Buddha's Vow. The Vow is the 'ocean of virtue', the 'ocean of the one-vehicle', the 'wisdom' that is a 'vast ocean', the 'great treasure ocean of virtues'. In keeping with this, Shinran, for example, quotes a passage from the Tien-t'ai master Shan-yin, which tells us that the Name arises from the 'ocean of great compassion'.

Shinran's use of ocean to define and qualify the workings of both suchness (Sk. Tathata) and samsara is testimony to his sense of the Pure Land way, especially, as addressing itself to the whole mass of suffering beings, in contrast to the small schools of especially gifted dharma students. The Pure Land way is a religion of the masses. 'Ocean' is the word that perfectly describes the Mahayana and the massive task that it strives to address.

The only really effective analogy that suits the 'necessary' realities of the Pure Land is that of an ocean. The Buddha Dharma sees the timeless experience of life as being like a river, flowing from some distant and elusive source, through countless vicissitudes and an ever rising and falling stock of karmic accretions. Eventually each river, with its distinguishing features, flows into the fathomless deep of the vast ocean of compassion. 'Compassion' (Sk. karuna) is a concommitant quality of the wisdom (Sk. prajña), which Shinran Shonin - following T'an-luan - always prefers to use.

All of the distinctive accretions, which have accrued along the way - throughout the timeless flow of actions (Sk. karma) and events - lose their significance and fall into the abyss of fathomless irrelevance. This course is unavoidable because of the 'necessary' nature of the Pure Land - emptiness. A striking feature of this is that 'absorbtion' in the ocean of Amida's wisdom-Vow is unavoidable for those who are born there. It is not only the evil karma that is cancelled out in the vastness of the ocean of the Pure Land but the good that we produce as well. Compared to the ineffable immensity of this vast ocean of wisdom, our karma, however ineluctable it may seem for limited beings like us, is as nothing. It cannot taint the Pure Land in any way.

It is in this way that we may describe the relationship bewteen the 'blind passions and enlightenment' that 'have one taste'. The taste of blind passions is absorbed into the vast ocean of enlightenment - and neutralised. It loses its taste because it is overwhelmed by the vastness of the Vow of light. It is as nothing, having no ultimacy; no enduring substance.

What a sublime vision this is! However we may judge or qualify people and things, these distinctions pale into meaninglessness in the vast ocean of light; the wisdom that fills all things. Shinran's love of the term 'ocean' has immense power because it serves to underline his view of the world. He saw that the things that weighed him down, the burden of existence and its endless, utterly demoralising and grinding despair and hopelessness, actually has no power; no genuine reality. For him the one enduring truth is enlightenment - the light of Amida's Vow.

In our age it is hard to resist the un-nerving sense that we are patently moving into some kind of end-game. Whether or not we choose to describe it in Buddhist terms as the age of mappo, or the dharma-ending age, matters little. How long it will take, we cannot tell; perhaps a year, perhaps ten millennia.

We always look for glimmers of hope, and rightly so. Needless to say, it seems to me, that whenever we make a little progress in the direction of kindness and compassion, anger and greed ultimately win; an endless quadrille - but of one step forward two steps back. Technology is advancing towards the distant horizon, while wisdom retreats below the horizon that we have left behind. We can only be grateful for the gift of humour.

It is hard to ignore the clear evidence that our astonishing human technological aptitude is quite unmatched by any real wisdom. Only greed, anger and delusion informs our choices. As time passes it seems that even those things, which we might once have thought of as being sources of light, are in fact vehicles that bear the hungry tigers of greed and anger; chariots of ignorance that themselves bear only grief and pain. The human race is properly Homo faber - the maker of intruments. Only Buddhas are wise (Ln. sapiens).

The ocean of light that is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land, is not just a flickering beacon in the distance. Compared to it, our ignorance is nothing. Even though the time may come that the human race will pass away, consumed in a conflagration of technical aptitude and purblind ignorance - even when there is nothing - there will still be light.

1. tr. Inagaki, 1998, p. 143

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