Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 29

Even the wise who lived during the semblance dharma-age
Put aside the various teachings of self-power
And entered the gate of the nembutsu,
For it is the teaching in accord with the times and with beings.

Coming Home to Rest

Among the wise 'who lived during the semblance dharma-age was Vasubandhu Bodhisattva.

I am sure that I do not need to remind readers of the process involved for Vasubandhu as he developed his nembutsu practice. We can get a very clear idea of what contemplation of the Buddha meant for him because he wrote about it in fine detail in his Treatise on the Pure Land. Above all, he settled his mind so that it was 'single' and his focus was upon Amida Buddha and his land as light. In Buddhist practice singleness of mind relates to focus. It is also usually the beginning of meditation and serves to calm the mind (Sk. samatha) as preparation for insight (Sk. vipasyana). A popular form of singlemindedness is to focus on the in-and-out breath at the tip of the nose. In Vasubandhu's case, it was

I take refuge with my whole heart
in the Tathagata of Infinite Light
boundless in the ten quarters
and wish to be born in sukhavati

When Vasubandhu had found inner calm by focusing his heart and 'taking refuge in the Tathagata of Inifinte Light boundless in ten quarters', he was then able go on to develop insight into the Infinite itself and to partcipate in its saving work. Whenever I read his Treatise on the Pure Land, I often try to think of how a Yogacara master would experience it. It seems certain to me that the things, which Vasubandhu describes in his Treatise, were the literal content of his lived experience. For him the contemplative activity, samadhi, was surely not just theory but his very life itself.

In this living light-filled world, Vasubandhu passed through five 'gates' (mon) or 'ways', as I would say:

  1. The gate of worship;
  2. the gate of praise;
  3. the gate of vow;
  4. the gate of meditation; and
  5. the gate of turning merit.

There is something very telling about the use of the term 'gate'. A gate signifies an entrance; it is to take a step out of one sphere and into a another realm. Because Vasubandhu's insight meditation was life for him, we are reminded - by his use of the word 'gate' - of the process of leaving something behind and coming to something fresh and new. As we move through life, we are confronted with many moments of leaving one sphere of existence and moving on to something unknown. Many of these moments are marked by some kind of ceremonial occasion; although less in these times than was historically so. Nevertheless, we leave behind childhood and enter adult life; leave behind schooling and enter the world of work. Some of us leave behind singleness and enter a relationship; leave behind childlessness and enter parenthood; leave behind good health and enter sickness - and so on.

Whatever new gate we enter in this context, we are leaving the known and entering the unknown. For Vasubandhu, however, his gates were not the pathway into something new. If they were, he would not have been able to document them in his treatise. As a Yogacarin, Vasubandhu's journey through five gates was a journey from one well-trodden field to another familiar place. Even though the seasons may have changed or the furniture moved (for all things are changing - sarva dharma anitya), Vasubandhu would have inspected each item in every realm and been supported by Tathagata at the heart of things.

My life is the kind of life that we all experience. I have to travel on business a lot. During my time away from home, the first night out is always to find myself in a barren and strange environment - and missing those I love. The time away is always busy and stressful and, very often, it is necessary to work all my waking hours - going from one meeting to another and then tapping away on this laptop computer in the evenings. In all this there is no more wonderful moment than the time that I return home and reach the gate of the front garden. From the turmoil of stress and business, the weight of the world falls away and the scent of flowers and the serenity of home embraces me. I can often hear myself sighing as my heart begins, once more, to come to rest.

Although Vasubandhu, as an accomplished Yogacarin is infinitely more exalted than ordinary punters like us, we can share something of his ethos as Pure Land Buddhists, though in a different modality. In a sense though, our experience is very close.

Our samadhi, the very thing that entrances and engages us fully, consists of the shamanic controlling 'spirits' that comprise the vicissitudes of life - tossing us from one threat, one crisis, to another, endlessly. That's how steeped we are in samsara! Yet, whenever, in the midst of this, our heart hears 'Namu-amida-butsu' we return to our natural home and enter the gate of the Pure Land.

We find, Ah!, yes, again! Once more, the compassionate embrace of Amida Buddha.

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