Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 25

Persons who truly realise shinjin,
Which is directed to them through Amida's Vow of wisdom,
Receive the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned;
Hence, they attain the stage of equal to perfect enlightenment.


The significance of this verse is majestic in its clarity. Yet, it seems to me that it contains an implicit question, which demands our exploration. Does the phrase, 'truly realise shinjin (shingyo, Sk. possibly prasada)' imply that there is a 'false [attainment of] faith'? It is time to ponder this problem, because it develops as a key theme in the Shozomatsu Wasan.

The word makoto, which is here used to qualify 'shinjin' (shingyo), is a Japanese word. If we look at the way the term has historically been translated into English from twelfth-century Japanese, it contains the sense of sincerity and truth - real, as opposed to false. It does not seem to have quite the same significance as the more common phrase shinjitsu shinjin.

Shinjin, of course, has several stages of development and depth. The most profound is shinjitsu shinjin, or 'true faith', which amounts to the phase of being definitely settled and fixed in one's spritual destiny. However, this does not seem to me, at any rate, to be the focus of this verse. Rather, I think the clue lies in Shinran Shonin's emphasis, throughout the Shozomatsu Wasan, upon the contrast between true faith and 'double mindedness', or 'doubt' (giwaku). It co-incides with his strong plea in the latter part of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho for nembutsu people to be single-minded in their faith, abandoning recourse to gurus and gods - as well as Buddhas and bodhisattvas other than Amida. At the beginning of this section we are confronted by this powerful quotation from the Sutra of the Samadhi of Heroic Advance:

All those maras, all those spirits, and all those evil ones, with their accompanying groups, will each say, 'I have attained the unexcelled enlightenment.' During the last dharma-age, long after my parinirvana, there will be many such maras, many such spirits, and many such evil ones. They will be active in the world, and as teachers, they will lead beings to fall into the trap of attachments and false views and to wander from the way to enlightenment. They will delude and confuse the ignorant and surely cause them to lose their minds. Where such spirits pass, familial houses will collapse and disperse, and their members will become maras of attachments and false views, losing the seed for becoming tathagata.1

This passage attests to a commonly observed phenomenon: the way in which later generations of teachers distort the ideas of the founder of their tradition in order to advance their own agendas. Yet it is also a rather vexed concern because old traditions often evolve new insights or develop in ways that address themselves to contemporary preoccupations. In my view, a vital religious tradition has sufficient flexibility and dynamism to enable it to draw from the pool of tried and true experience - its ancient resources - in order to shape something new; fresh insights that are consistent with tradtion but speak to the hearts and minds of coetaneous people. In any case, I invite you to roam with me through the prickly grasses that are the choices that we, seeking spirits, must make. Let's dig a bit further to find what Shinran means by 'truly realise shinjin'.

This passage from the Sutra of the Samadhi of Heroic Advance reminds us that we have a choice - a stark choice. We can entrust ourselves to charlatans or be 'grasped, never to be abandoned' by the true light of wisdom in the nembutsu - without either mediation or complexity. Charlatans are, in time, easily discerned. They seek to draw us to themselves with a view to the exercise of power and control. True wisdom sets us free by transferring to us the shinjin that brings about birth in the Pure Land and the resulting fulfilment of our destiny as Buddhas - for the welfare of both ourselves and others.

This passage from the Sutra of the Samadhi of Heroic Advance affords a striking and vivid description of the nature of charlatanry: the way it works to shackle us rather than to set us free. The influence of frauds can cause us torment and emotional hurt because their objective is to consume others - or, as we often say, to 'use' them. Their ability to control can result in a breakdown in loving and committed relationships, of which, family life is the most common example. These attractive, self-serving teachers want us to worship and serve them. They will insist on a choice for us, which does not include those who need and care for us, especially if these latter people have resisted the alluring charms of the charlatan.

We have stopped to consider the problem of false teachers before now but, in the context of the Shozomatsu Wasan and the age of mappo, the choice has become severe and more urgent. It seems to me that, for Shinran, Honen (Genku) Shonin was the last true teacher. There is now no one who can claim to lead us to enlightenment except Amida Buddha, who grasps, never to abandon us.

Shinran's strong insistence that we trust only Amida Buddha and forswear all other allegiances seems unduly demanding at first sight. To the modern mind, it also sounds extreme, hyperbolic - or even fanatical. Nevertheless, Shinran's perspective remains steeped in the ethos of the Buddha Dharma. He acknowledges the existence of other religious ways and beliefs but he warns us to consider our choices in view of the special circumstances that pertain to the age in which we live. Indeed, Shinran drew on a small number of Confucian sources for the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. He did not see Confucius as the problem, but those who taught in his name. If we think, from our experience, that Shinran's assessment of the corruption of teaching in the age of mappo is worth considering, then it is worth remembering that Shinran is speaking about the constraints of the age and not offering a critique of other schools.

As I have already pointed out, this quotation comes from the final section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and it is included in a section, in which Shinran demonstrates, by amassing textual evidence, that the gods and Buddhas of the universe will protect and support the followers of the nembutsu. It is not as though they do not exist or have no value. On the other hand, these gods and Buddhas do not absolutely require our allegiance, commitement or service. We can rest assured in the 'working of being embraced and never forsaken' that derives from the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Although it is unusual in Buddhist history, Shinran's request that we abandon all other allegiances arises only out of concern for our own safety and well-being in a perilous age. Neither is it something unique to Shinran. From the time of T'an-luan, followers of the Pure Land way have beeen repeatedly reminded that the age of mappo is a time of confusion and mental fogginess:

The Commentary on Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Pure Land states:

Reverently contemplating the Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, I find it stated that there are two paths by which bodhisattvas seek the stage of non-retrogression - the path of difficult practice and the path of easy practice.

With the path of difficult practice, it is seeking non-retrogression in this world of five defilements at a time when there is no Buddha that is difficult. This difficulty appears in many ways; I will indicate what is meant by roughly listing several of them.

  1. The apparent good practiced in non-buddhist ways is confused with the dharma of the bodhisattva.
  2. The sravaka's concentration on self-benefit diverts a bodhisattva's practice of great compassion.
  3. Evildoers lacking self-reflection subvert the excellent merits of others.
  4. The results of good acts undertaken with inverted thinking nullify the bodhisattva's pure practice for enlightenment.
  5. The path of difficult practice is based solely on self-power and lacks the support of Other Power.

Such problems as these, which may be seen everywhere, are examples of the difficulty. Thus the path of difficult practice may be compared in its hardship to journeying overland on foot. 2

Shinran's use of the first passage that I quoted seems to me to be designed to re-inforce the message in this second passage, which comes from T'an-luan. Time has moved on - deeper into mappo. T'an-luan's emphasis is less stark than Shinran's and points to the problems of confusion. False teachers are not characterised as 'evil sprits', that is to say, deceitful fraudsters.

In the religious life our immediate contact is with those who claim to represent a spiritual path. They are the representatives of doctrines and supernatural beings. The age of mappo throws their authenticity and origins into doubt - especially when it emerges that their principal objective is to gain allegiance to themselves. Arising from this idea, Shinran affirmed a renewed sense of equality within the Buddha Dharma. He calls upon us to abandon all teachers and turn only to Amida Buddha. In other words, Shinran completely demolished any concept of hierarchy or mediation. He even felt that it was appropriate to identify attempts at mediation as demonic. To steal a metaphor from the British writer Simon Schama: Shinran saw that truth could be found, 'not in the pulpit, but in the streets'.

During the time of Rennyo Shonin, in the fifteenth century, the question of teachers continued to perplex followers of the nembutsu, in spite of Shinran's warning. Some people even said that their personal dharma teacher was the source of shinjin. In response to this, Rennyo did not say that all teachers were dangerous. However, in keeping with the sentiments that seem to have held sway for Shinran - that teachers claiming Enlightenment and special powers were dangerous and to be avoided - Rennyo made it clear that teachers could not impart faith to others as a personal gift. Instead, Rennyo said that good teachers have one simple and exclusive function: to advise us to take single-minded refuge in Amida Buddha. Indeed, he, too, pointed out that we are all seekers and 'fellow followers of the way' (ondobo, dogyo).

The choice, then, is between those who seek to attract us to themselves and those who point the way to Amida Buddha. Shinran always followed that latter way. He constantly reminded his friends that he was beset by human frailty; that he was unreliable and unwise. To my mind this, paradoxically, situates Shinran as the most honest and trustworthy religious thinker that I have encountered. His intention is clearly to encourage us to turn our gaze to Amida Buddha and not to be deflected by the claims of others. His hope, like his successor Rennyo some two centuries later, was that people would turn their eyes away from him and turn to face only the light that 'grasps, never to abandon' us.

This, then, is the main feature of 'truly realising shinjin': that it should be single-minded and unmediated. As we enter this way, we will discover its truth. This is the route to 'attaining the stage equal to perfect enlightenment'; and it is ultimately all we need.

1. CWS, p. 273

2. CWS p. 25

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