Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 31

When sentient beings of this evil world of the five defilements
Entrust themselves to the selected Primal Vow,
Virtues indescribable, inexplicable, and inconceivable
Fill those practicers.

Virtue

The Buddha said to Maitreya, 'If there are people who hear the Name of that Buddha, rejoice so greatly as to dance, and remember him even once, then you should know that they have gained great benefit by receiving the unsurpassed virtue.1

This passage from the Larger Sutra conveys something of the spontaneity that we considered when we were thinking about the verse before this one. 'Remember him even once' is a phrase that can be understood to refer to the nembutsu.

In his commentary on a tract by the Pure Land thinker Ryukan, Shinran elucidates the concepts in both this verse and the passage from the Larger Sutra, which inspired it. Like Shinran, Ryukan was also a disciple of Honen.

Of 'remember him even once', Shinran says that 'one thought-moment' is 'time at its ultimate limit'. Again, 'say the name even once' is defined as:-

... virtue at its fullness. The countless virtues are all included and the various merits all held in a single utterance'.2

Shinran clarifies his meaning further by pointing out that those being discussed are

... people realising shinjin.2

In other words, the Name that is said as an expression of shinjin is the Name by which the virtue is endowed. The nembutsu is a living reality when it is said in association with shinjin, from which it cannot be divided; it is not just a lifeless, static formula but a dynamic and living encounter. It is the basis and core of life, continually reminding us of the brilliant and warm compassion that always surrounds us. It is the constant call to repentance and it is redolent with the elixir of joy; effortless, unexpected, obviating the need for massive structures of dogma and organisation: ever offering the gift of freedom.

We also need to ask ourselves just what it means to say that a person of faith who practices the nembutsu is filled with ineffable virtue. What is virtue?

Students of religion as a social phenomenon have already noticed that western European philosophy originally saw the highest accomplishment of human beings as the attainment of virtue and of living a 'good' life that was grounded in a sense of the beautiful and the true. Virtue was an inner dynamism and was closely associated with character and demeanour. The later absorbtion of Semitic religions by this cultural base resulted in the infusion of prescriptive moral precepts, proclaimed by divine authority. This led to the development of a hybrid ethical ethos. Virtue came to be seen more in relation to behaviour, rather than in a person's inner strength or character.

In recent times there has been growing evidence of a return to the original sense of virtue. This is fortunate for people of European background who follow the Buddha Dharma because the original idea of virtue prevails within that context. It is 'who we are' that matters. It matters more than our specific actons, since they are often determined by factors and events which are outside our control. Our response to events is determined by our inner qualities, rather than by rules.

The virtue that fills nembutsu followers who have awakened to the shinjin of the Primal Vow is an inner light which is beyond expression. It cannot be controlled and there is no rational way that it can be defined. Indeed, just as it happens, just then, time has already moved on. It is a virtue that breaks the thrall of samsara; such is the mark of its intrinsic power. Yet, it does not imply any discernable change in one's pattern of behaviour. A butcher for whom shinjin has awakened does not suddenly abandon his occupation. As Rennyo says, if he goes on living, the nembutsu he says is motivated by a deep appreciation of the virtue that has marked his destiny.

Saying the nembutsu is a natural outcome because it identifies the source and evolution of the virtue that fills the person of shinjin.


1.The Larger Sutra, tr. Inagaki & Stewart, 2000, p. 312.

2. CWS, p. 481

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