Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 28

Having immediately entered the stage of the truly settled
On realising true and real shinjin, a person will,
Being the same as Maitreya of the rank of succession,
To Buddhahood, attain supreme enlightenment.

More About Joy

In this verse, Shinran Shonin sets out the effect of the attainment of 'true faith' (shinjitsu shinjin, Sk. satya prasanna citta - true believing mind.)

This is not really 'belief' or 'faith' in the way that we commonly understand it. Shinran, of course, makes it clear that this moment is a form of bodhicitta (bodaishin). He draws this idea from the writings of T'an-luan. As we have already seen, in the Path of Sages, bodhicitta is the moment at which one begins one's way on the bodhisattva path. It is a moment that gives us the first glimmer of enlightenment; it is a moment in which the illusory 'self' is transcended and a person understands the dharma for the first time. The realisation of shinjin is the same.

Followers of the nembutsu look to their masters and teachers - people like Shinran and Rennyo - and find, in the writings of these people, the affirmation of what they have found themselves. If we, as individuals, experience joy, it means little if it cannot be shown that it is a universal experience with common causes.

The awakening of faith, true shinjin, is qualified by the character of the individual who is experiencing it, but for many it is indeed an experience of insuppressible joy and relief. For such people, it is enduring reality and deepens as life continues.

The precise nature of this is described by Rennyo in this way:

An old poem reads:

Long ago,
I had happiness wrapped in my sleeves,
now;
it is more than my being can contain.

The meaning of 'Long ago, I had happiness wrapped in my sleeves,' is that formerly, a person not distinguishing between self-power and Other-Power, thought that rebirth was gained by recitation of the Nembutsu. "Now, it is more than my being can contain," means that after one gains a thorough understanding of the difference between self-power and Other-Power and obtains Faith through a singleness of heart, there will be an exceptional difference in the heart that recites the Nembutsu for the purpose of expressing gratitude for the Grace of Amida Buddha. Hence, this happiness (so powerful that it could even cause one to dance with complete abandon) means the joy that is more than one can contain within himself.1

Rennyo is here describing a sudden deepening and settling of shinjin. Initially, shinjin is self-generated: one thinks that one is doing the Buddha's work oneself in reciting the nembutsu. Then, suddenly this is seen as the Buddha doing his own work and life is turned on its head. Faith ceases to be a chore and a burden: it becomes a delight and a source of happiness so profound that it has a perfectly tangible effect. Rennyo speaks of the desire to dance with joy! It is a palpable realisation. There is now a lightness and a happiness in nembutsu - it 'says itself' in celebration.

In spite of Shinran's unambiguous instructions to the contrary, the happiness and elation that true faith brings has always suggested to some who experience it that they have, in fact, attained enlightenment. Yet, Shinran himself reminds us that the bodhicitta of the Path of Sages and that of the Pure Land Way are different in quality and significance. In the Pure Land way it is the Buddha's mind itself that fills the heart and mind of the person of nembutsu. At the same time a person's own innate reality is seen in stark contrast. The outcome of this awakening is that enlightenment will occur in the very next birth - when one is finally released from the bondage of samsara.

The mind of the Buddha throws light upon the inner reality of people of nembutsu and they begin to grow in awareness of their own intractable turbitity. Shinran is an especially acute example of these developments. He constanly spoke of the 'desire to leave this world of samsara'. He distinguished between the mundane and the true. He is said to have spoken of 'being in samsara' while rejoicing that his heart was in the Pure Land.

Some of Shinran's own followers seem to have claimed that the serene and inexpressible joy of the first moment of true shinjin was tantamount to satori. Such a concept was quickly rejected by the early Shinshu community, which sought to re-assert Shinran's perspective. In one of the earliest third-party reports of Shinran's teaching, the Tanni Sho, it is made crystal clear that true shinjin and enlightenment are not the same thing.

Nevertheless, the claim that shinjin and satori are the same has continued to re-emerge throughout Shin history. There have, indeed, been prominent teachers in the twentieth century who have maintained that faith, as it is traditionally understood in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, is an immature and incomplete interpretation of shinjin. They have sought to reify Shinran's 'true shinjin' not simply as the moment that faith becomes firm and settled - thus sealing our future destiny for enlightenment - but as enlightenment itself.

The light of Amida Buddha shows 'things are they really are'. People of nembutsu-faith grow ever more deeply aware of their nature as 'ordinary beings' (bombu, Sk. prthagjana), who are beset with kleshas (bonno). In the Pure Land way all virtue and power is invested solely in the Name - Namu-amida-butsu. It is only in this respect that we can speak of such things; shinjin is never distinct from the Name.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho Shinran provides a list of the ten benefits of shinjin in this world. Enlightenment is not one of them. In any case, it is the nembutsu that is the 'substance of faith'. In the list the second benefit is 'the benefit of being possessed of supreme virtues'. The 'virtue' here is solely invested in the Name. It is not 'our' virtue at all.

The stage of joy is the moment at which one is settled on the path to enlightenment. It is a vital moment and a neccessary event upon the way. By the Power of the Vow of Amida Buddha it is the 'crosswise transcendence', leading to enlightenment after one more birth.


1. Gobunsho, I.1, tr. Elson B. Snow.

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