Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 30

Persons who truly realise shinjin
As they utter Amida's Name,
Being mindful of the Buddha always,
Wish to respond in gratitude to the great benevolence.

Gratitude

In this verse, there are some interesting features in the original Japanese of the first two lines. One of them is the way that the Name is described as the 'revered Name' (songo). The second interesting feature is that - unlike the English - there is no conjunction between the phrases that begin 'pronouncing the Name' and 'truly attaining faith'. In association with the 'revered' status of the Name, this suggests that the Name and 'joyful faith' (shingyo, Sk. prasada) are the same thing.

When I first encountered this verse, I assumed that shomyo, saying the Name, somehow generated faith but now I think that there is no 'faith apart from the Name'. The two are an inseparable, congruent, an organic whole. Furthermore, it seems to me that Shinran Shonin intends us to understand that shomyo-shinjin, Nembutsu-faith, is spontaneous (jinen).

Some people suggest that shomyo Nembutsu, is a mere 'symbol' of faith. However, Shinran does not seem to have thought of it in that way. As one might expect, symbolic gestures would naturally be part of the formal traditions of Jodo Shinshu - the liturgy and the iconography. In my view, these aspects of the religious life are vitally important because they involve the public expression of shared experience. However, the Name itself (myogo), is the essence of Amida Buddha's shinjin.

It seems to me, too, that the 'sacramental' model, which is used in European theology does not seem to be appropriate in this context: the Name is not simply the 'outward' form of an 'inward grace'. It is, itself, the benevolence (grace) of the Buddha. Neither, in Jodo Shinshu, are icons anything more than pictures. They are mere representations - they do not hold any sacral significance. The Nembutsu is not an icon.

To move on to the next two lines of this verse: Shin Buddhism is often described as being a religion of 'gratitude'. Gratitude, in this context, refers to a sense of thankfulness at being liberated by the power of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. Obviously, a sense of gratitude is not unique to followers of Jodo Shinshu.

It goes without saying that thankfulness and a sense of indebtedness is a quite common religious and inter-personal experience. People often feel grateful for the exhilarating experiences of life or when some impending disaster has been averted. It goes deeper than that, too. There are many subtle, quiet and personal events that bring us a profound sense of joy and thankfulness.

For many, if not most people, gratitude is directed towards a specific deity or individual but because it is a Buddhist tradition, the sense of gratitude in Jodo Shinshu is more amorphous and general than that. Our existence and the events of our lives are, from the perspective of the dharma, the result of complex and often inscrutable causes. Although the principal focus of our thankfulness is the person of Amida Buddha, on a more superficial level there are countless streams of events and decisions. From the timeless past they have brought people of Nembutsu to the threshold of that genuine trust, which is Amida Buddha's pure shinjin.

Everything hints at the way that it is imbued with the compassion of the Buddha: all that brought us into existence, formed our character and sustains us - the countless gods and Buddhas of the universe, our parents, our teachers (of all kinds), our inheritance, the community and the soil that nourished us. Furthermore, those things that others may count as negatives - misfortune and even maladjustment and alienation - can also serve to nudge us into the gate of nembutsu and on to the ultimate fulfilment of human destiny.

Gratitude extends to the great mass of people, places and events that have played a part in bringing us to the opportunity to hear the dharma. So a notable feature of nembutsu followers is not so much a sanctimonious and unconvincingly demonstrative show of gratitude. It is more a constant and underlyling lack of querelousness that manifests itself in spontaneous times of joy. At least, this is the way - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - that Shinran, himself, lived.

Since, as Shinran says, the Name is the substance of shinjin, it is expressed as the nembutsu, Namu-amida-butsu, that we say at such moments as we allow it to have free reign. This is an aspect of jinen honi, the spontaneity or 'naturalness' of the dharma. The source itself is given voice in Namu-amida-butsu.

To speak of gratitude is to suggest that the nembutsu life is burdened with externally imposed obligations but there can be little doubt that Shinran did not intend such an interpretation. His own perspective was clarified inadvertently in a letter from his wife Eshinni. In this letter, she describes an occasion, during which Shinran was suffering from a fever and found himself grappling with the problems of obligation and form, contrasted with the life of sponteneity that he had found in the nembutsu way of Honen Shonin.

In his fever Shinran had begun to recite the Larger Sutra repeatedly. This event caused him to reflect on a time, earlier in his life, when he set out to recite the Three Pure Land Sutras 'for the benefit of sentient beings'. At some point in this excercise he 'suddenly' realised his mistake. Along with this insight came the understanding that 'the way to repay the benevolence of the Buddha' is 'to believe the teaching oneself and to make others believe (ji-shin-kyo-nin-shin)'. Furthermore, the central fact of this was the nembutsu, which, Shinran concludes, ought to 'be sufficient by itself.'

The key feature of the 'desire to repay' in gratitude the benevolence of the Buddha is clearly the desire itself. It is organic, spontaneous and free from all fabrication. In this way the nembutsu can be seen as 'living'. So it is that, throughout the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran bursts into shouts of joy, or honest reflection on his own profound inadequacy. The very substance of these disclosures, these cries, is Namu-amida-butsu.

At the very moment when we are moved to utter the Nembutsu by a firm Faith that our rebirth in the Pure Land is attained solely by the unfathomable working of Amida's Original Vow, we are enabled to share in its benefits that embrace all and forsake none.1


1. Tannisho, Passages Deploring Deviations of Faith, tr. Bando and Stewart, Numata Center, 1996..

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