Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 32

The Buddha of Unhindered Light declared:
'To benefit the sentient beings of the future,
I entrust the nembutsu of wisdom
To Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta.'

The Student

Once there was a boy named Sudhana who also wished for Enlightenment and earnestly sought the way. From a fisherman he learned the lore of the sea. From a doctor he learned compassion toward sick people in their suffering. From a wealthy man he learned that saving pennies was the secret of his fortune and thought how necessary it was to conserve every trifling [thing] gained on the path to Englightenment.

From a meditating monk he learned that the pure and peaceful mind had a miraculous power to purify and tranquilize other minds. Once he met a woman of exceptional personality and was impressed by her benevolent spirit, and from her he learned a lesson that charity was the fruit of wisdom. Once he met an aged wanderer who told him that to reach a certain place he had to scale a mountain of swords and pass through a valley of fire. Thus Sudhana learned from his experiences that there was true teaching to be gained from everything he saw or heard.1

This elegant distillation of the final books of the Avatamsaka Sutra reminds us of the famous Mahayana axiom 'just the path is Enlightenment; just Enlightement is the the path'. The boy Sudhana represents a childlike mind; a mind that is open and curious, willing to learn; a mind that is filled with light. Paradoxically, an open, questing and curious mind is also a mark of maturity. One is often struck by the demeanour of people of wide and profound learning. It seems very often that these people have the most open minds; or is it that they have become wise and profound because they are always willing to learn more?

The Gandhavyuha goes on to tell us more about Sudhana's travels. From a disabled and impoverished woman he learned patience. He learned of simple happiness by watching children playing in the street. From a gentle and kind man he learned how to be free from envy and how to be at peace with the world. He learned about harmony by watching the blending of incense. On seeing a struggling sapling under a tree he was reminded of the fragility of life.

The Nembutsu Way is very like the way that Sudhana followed. Professor Hisao Inagaki points out that the culmination of spritual development in the path of the Nembutsu presages further growth. The awakening of Nembutsu-Faith, he suggests, is not the end, but the beginning of knowledge:

Life of Meaning and Growth: Gratitude is the basis for a life of meaning and growth. It generates power to gear life towards spiritual growth. The Great Compassion which one has received now radiates through life's activities to benefit others. This is the life of the Nembutsu Faith. A man of the Nembutsu Faith is compared to a lotus blossom and is called myokonin, an excellent, wondrous man.2

Dr Inagaki is speaking here of the word myokonin in its conventional sense, and is referring to everyone who is dedicated to the nembutsu way.

The point at which the nembutsu way intersects with the life of Sudhana occurs when one realises the nature and significance of the nembutsu; as Dr Inagaki says, it is the 'Life of Meaning and Growth'. The nembutsu comes to be seen as the form of Amida Buddha; it is his life active in the life of the follower. In this way life itself becomes the teacher. With minds and hearts imbued with the dharma, it becomes possible to learn from the events that befall us and to grow rich in the wealth of understanding that they bring.

One thing that becomes clear is that true religion does not shy away from addressing both the dark and the bright aspects of existence. Not only do we discover many insights from things like flowers, incense and happy children, but conflict and fear throw our own insecurities and evil passions into high relief. Thanks to the nembutsu and the awareness of the compassion that surrounds us, we can endure these often difficult discoveries. In this way one is enriched and grows in understanding of life, ourselves and others.

The dark side of life ought always to be seen and embraced. Suffering and pain are genuine and unavoidable parts of human existence. A religious path that tries to overlook such things is immature at the least; wicked and manipulative at the worst. There is a strong tendency in the modern world, and in all of the major world religions, for popular movements to emerge, which focus only on the emotional 'highs' of religious experience, as well as other devidends. There is usually a price, of course: unquestioning loyalty, high monetary contributions, and so on. Nonetheless, the religious traditions, which have sustained countless millions of people through æons of time, are currently experiencing widespread decline as people desert them for less challenging fields.

A willingness to learn and to be open to life requires a strong sense of spiritual security, the ultimate outcome of the nembutsu way in this life. Sometimes the things that will confront us will be profoundly unsettling and they may even shake the very foundations of all our assumptions.

The Sutra of the Samadhi of Heroic Advance tells the story that inspires this verse of the Shozomatsu Wasan. In it we learn that the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (who is usually associated with the 'wisdom' aspect of Amida Buddha) is taught the 'nembutsu-samadhi' by 'Infinite Light'.

As I have so often pointed out in these essays, Shinran Shonin seems to have been most enamoured of the aspect of Light, which defines Amida Buddha, and with its secondary manifestation, Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. In this way Shinran himself reminds me of Sudhana - a person with an open, questing mind that is always ready to learn and to confront new realities no matter how challenging they may be. I also think that Shinran was reporting his own experience. Although he always maintains that the 'Immeasurable Light' is inconceivable, he nevertheless intimates the effect it had upon him: revealing both the ugly and the beautiful, the stormy and the harmonious - all in stark relief, yet embraced in the compassion that true wisdom brings.

'Light' and 'learning' are ideas that are very closely associated with each other. Wisdom (Sk. prajna) is the key and fundamental reality of Amida Buddha: Namu-amida-butsu. Painful at times but ultimately enriching is the process of meaning and growth, the process of learning from life, in the True Pure Land Way. To join with Mahasthamaprapta and become a student of Amida Buddha is not always comfortable or easy but it is the way to be true to ourselves and to the life that we have received. It is inevitable that such deep understanding will ultimately enrich others.


1. The Teaching of Buddha, BDK, pp. 161f.

2. The Six Aspects of the Shin Educational Process

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