Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 24

All those who deeply entrust themselves
To the two aspects of Amida's directing of virtue
Attain the stage of equal to perfect enlightenment;
Hence their mindfulness continues unceasingly.


'The two aspects of Amida's directing of virtue' (nyorai nishu no eko) refers to the condition of 'going' (oso) to the Pure Land and of 'return' (genso) from it. The way that Shinran Shonin carefully attends to the inextricable relationship of these two movements is, to my mind, a matter of great significance. It is a very forceful reminder, once again, of the precise nature of the Pure Land way, which is one of several approaches to the overall bodhisattva vehicle, whereby the two essential aspects of the Mahayana are fulfilled. These are: that our endevour on the Way is for self-benefit (jiri); and for the benefit of others (rita). These two principal features of the bodhisattva way are never discussed independently of each other.

Because of the nature and structure of Buddhist metaphysics, it is generally felt that we cannot benefit ourselves without benefitting others. And the converse is also true: we cannot benefit others without benefitting ourselves. As one might expect, the opposing idea also applies: we cannot harm others without harming ourselves... and so on. A simple illustration of the former truth is to take the inherent and root problem of existence - ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya) - as an example. As long as we remain organically bound into this core existential fact, everything we say, everything we think and everything we do is fraught with uncertainty and difficulty.

Even though the reciprocity of self-and-others' benefit is a kind of cardinal rule, it depends on our nearness to enlightenment and the purity of our intentions as to how strongly it applies. This problem is discussed in some of the 'wisdom' (Sk. prajnaparamita) literature. While we remain in the state of ignorance (as it is understood in the Buddha Dharma) our existence is inherently dangerous both to ourselves and to others because it is not informed and directed by the compassion and wisdom of enlightenment. Indeed, it seems to me to be self-evident that this is always a profound problem for anyone who aspires to live in a way that is truly beneficial and spontaneously benevolent. This very dilemma lies at the heart of our motivation, surely, for seeking the Buddha Dharma. It is certainly the motive the drives bodhisattvas to seek to become Buddhas.

The Ten Oxherding Pictures of the Ch'an (zen) tradition illustrate the significance of this with great force. Indeed, this wonderful resource for contemplation is a legacy that is available to all followers of the Buddha Dharma. They illustrate the way, in which the disciple starts out with only one intention - to seek his own enlightenment. Although he repeats the four vows of a bodhisattva and awakens bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment), the fact remains that there is little that can be done, which is truly beneficial, until he, or she, attains the way. In the tenth picture we see the disciple, having realised - and been transformed by - the wisdom that fills all things, returning 'to the market place', bringing life, happiness and joy.

This stage corresponds exactly with the stage of 'return', the second part of the 'the two aspects of Amida's directing of virtue' that is mentioned in the verse above.

A few years ago a Korean movie was released, entitled Why Did Bodhidharma Come to the East? This tells the story of The Ten Oxherding Pictures. It is a wonderful film that is replete with the sensibilities of the Buddha Dharma: the admixture of samsara and nirvana, the complex, yet well-founded, motivations of followers, the liberation of transcendence and the 'return to the marketplace'. It is strongly recommended to anyone who has a keen interest in the dharma. As one might expect, the Korean writer and his cast are heirs to the dharma over countless generations; they clearly have a keen understanding of the dharma and express it brilliantly in a contemporary setting.

Professor Emeritus of Ryukoku University, Hisao Inagaki, has suggested that the awakening of 'nembutsu-faith' or shinjin corresponds to picture six of The Ten Oxherding Pictures. If that is the case, then the seventh, eighth and ninth pictures represent the transformation, which the nembutsu tradition associates with birth in the True Pure Land.

Before we reach Awakening, however, the difficulty surrounding any action that is not grounded in enlightenment - whether the enlightened one is the Buddha or ourselves - is that such actions are generated by the three 'roots of evil', greed, anger and delusion. Our lives and our actions are always at risk of being a liability; even the 'good' we do may be of dubious or even negative value. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho we read - in a quotation from T'an-luan - of ways, in which an action that we believe to be beneficial to others is, in fact, based on mere self-interest and is actually broadly detrimental. One example that is given in this passage is that of doing acts of kindness with a view to winning others over to our point of view. It is an action that is based purely on self-interest and, although it appears to benefit others, it actually harms them by demeaning their integrity; making them unwitting prey to our deceit and artifice.

None of this is to suggest that we should not act from a natural sense of common humanity and altruism. The impulse to strive for justice in the world - and to right those things, which seem to us to be cruel and unfair - should not be gainsaid. I always think of the example of the Confucian scholar Mencius, when he said, 'Who, seeing a child fall into a well, would not run to pull her out?' Such human fellow-feeling surely deserves to be nurtured and cherished. At the same time, though, we cannot act to help without a deep realisation that we too are foolish, limited, stumbling and prevaricating. In any case, it is only from this point, in which we acknowledge fellow-feeling and the impulses of humanity and justice - together with a sense of our own foolishness and weakness - that we can ever move on to higher truths.

Moreover, in an everyday and practical sense an action that is of genuine self-benefit - that is to say, does not bring harm (i.e., hurt, injury or pain, Sk. himsa) to ourselves, but, rather, tends to ameliorate injury - will naturally benefit others. Such actions are conditional upon having a certain necessity about them, and a purity of intention. It is this perspective that informs the great and enduring traditions of Buddhist self-cultivation. Among those best developed in Japan are Haiku, the Way of Tea and Flower Arrangement. Throughout the Buddhist world, however, there are Calligraphy, Drawing and Iconography. Artisans have no particular objective except the task in hand. They nevertheless benefit, at once, themselves (in finding a quiet heart) and others (by bringing them delight).

Most of us intuitively recognise the reality of this idea, albeit in a vague and ill-defined way. There are countless examples of the way that self-benefit flows on to others, even without the intention to do so. To begin with a problem of lack of knowledge: learning necessary life-skills benefits both ourselves and others. An example is learning to drive. Although we usually learn to drive for our own purposes, it goes without saying that a person who drives a car, without having learnt how to do so, endangers everyone on the road. So learning to drive skilfully saves not only our own lives but potentially the lives of many others.

In a similar example, if we learn about the management of our health - and put this knowledge into practice - we increase exponentially the likelihood, not only that we will enjoy robust health ourselves, but that we will lessen the likelihood that we will become a burden to others. In maintaining our health, we increase the possiblity (though, of course, not with any absolute certainty) of being able to remain independent to a ripe old age and continuing to contribute the our community. Here is something, which is clearly of primary benefit to ourselves but, which also has a 'spin-off effect' to the benefit of others.

Bodhicitta, is the enlightenment aspiration that begins the bodhisattva journey. As we have seen before, Shinran was able to show that this development is identical to the shinjin awakening that is the 'twofold merit transference' - the 'going' and 'returning', which, in turn, brings about the result of 'self-benefit and the benefit of others'. However, there is a difference between the Path of Sages and the Pure Land Way.

Although the Pure Land Way is clearly one of several interpretations of the fundamental bodhisattva vehicle or Great Vehicle (Sk. bodhisattvayana, or Mahayana), the aspirant's actual motivation is not pure in its transcendence. We do not seek to benefit anyone other than ourselves and the spontaneous deepening of understanding that results in birth in the Pure Land contains within it 'desire for birth' (yokusho); there is no inkling of any desire to benefit others. The motivation is raw and associated with despair at our own capacity.

Yet the purity and simplicy of this raw sentiment is simultaneously a turning to the Light; at which point the 'twofold merit transference' occurs. Just this apparently self-benefiting condition is enough. The benefit of others naturally follows.

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