Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 36

It is a great torch in the long night of ignorance;
Do not sorrow that your eyes of wisdom are dark.
It is a ship on the vast ocean of birth-and-death;
Do not grieve that your obstructions of karmic evil are heavy.

The Long Night

This verse is one of several passages from the Wasan of Shinran Shonin that I know by heart. It is full of pathos and it has profound significance. It is a constant reminder of the reality of existence (at least as most of us find it) and the sorrow that it portends. At the same time it is radiant with truth and light.

We are talking, now, about a state of affairs that is very different from the environment that is evoked by Shakyamuni's last words: 'Let the dharma be your guide'. The story of the dharma's unfolding has long gone; we have entered the age of mappo. The flower that unfolded during the five hundred years that followed Shakyamuni's appearance in India has wilted in the heat that is generated by the confusion and turbidity, which rages in our hearts and minds. Gradually the petals have withered and fallen away. The dharma has gone to seed. Buried from sight, it now awaits the right conditions, so that it can re-emerge. The sun of the dharma has set. Darkness has fallen. Its brooding reign seems interminable.

From the very first verse of the Shozomatsu Wasan, we become conscious that light has gone from the world. Indeed, it seems to me that, with the passing of Honen Shonin, Shinran felt certain that all hope, all wisdom and all truth had vanished. There are now no reliable teachers; the sutras recede beyond our capacity to comprehend their meaning, abandoned by many and misunderstood by most. There are now no precepts or even meditation, once the very vehicle of enlightenment has, as Honen discovered, become an exercise in futility and mental confusion. Within the Buddhist world, indeed, the dharma has been ossified into letters and words, its fossil remains. Certainly we can glean some idea of it from these precious remains - a task that is ineffably important and significant -, but, as Nagarjuna pointed out,

Words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words.1

This verse of the Wasan, in fact, is closely associated with Honen. In his eulogy of the Master, Honen's disciple Seikaku wrote of the impact that Honen's life had in the world, like this:

Truly it is known that [the nembutsu] is a great torch in the long night of ignorance; why should we sorrow that our eye is blinded to wisdom by the darkness? It is a great ship and raft on the vast sea of samsara; why should we worry about the burden of karmic hindrance?2

There is, then, just the nembutsu. No wonder Shinran cried:

... with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world - the burning house - all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.3

For those who have allowed themselves to accept Amida Buddha's shinjin, that he transfers to all beings, these ideas are incontrovertible and meld with the reality of their everyday experience, which is reinforced with every event and every new insight into their own characters. For those, however, who have decided to pass on the offer, a long and arduous path awaits them as they cycle through the karmic recompense that lies ahead until the time, in the vastly distant future, when Maitreya Buddha will appear.

The long and arduous journey can only be traversed with Amida Buddha's light in the nembutsu. This idea is entirely implausible to those who do not know the stark reality of ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya). Indeed, these terms literally mean 'darkness'. They describe the way that we are blind, utterly unable to see, thrashing about and reacting wildly to external stimulii, which we cannot see in full relief and do not understand.

For those people who do not accept this proposition, well and good - and good luck to you, I say! - but there are some people who have come to a conclusion that is consistent with the Buddha Dharma and the truth of avidya. Yet, when these people turn to seek a light and a guide they often find themselves confronted by burning egos that are radiant with the coalfire of their own darkness, as it consumes the fuel that was deposited by endless æons of karmic evil. Or, perhaps they just keep discovering the grey banality of people who are living in prisons of delusion, behaving in ways that are radically at variance with their claims and their beliefs.

Honen's own description of his mortal condition and his quest for light has been repeated countless times by all who turn at last to the Pure Land way, allowing an intolerable burden to fall from their weary shoulders, and letting another light begin to beam into their hearts. It is then that they find, within, those very things that terrified them on the outside. Here too is the burning ego, the deluded prison. But in the light also, that is not their own light, can be seen the nimbus of enlightenment and a hand raised to signal trust and another lowered to lift them up. And... to be encompassed at last in the sleeves of inexpressible compassion.

The Nembutsu Way, then, is this:

Next those who seek to know in full what the settled mind means in our tradition need no wisdom or learning at all; they do not need to be male or female, noble or humble. For when we simply realise that we are wretched beings of deep evil karma and know that the only Buddha who saves even such persons as this is Amida Tathagata, and when, without any contriving, but with the thought of holding fast to the sleeve of this Buddha Amida, we entrust ourselves [to him] to save us, [bringing us to Buddhahood] in the afterlife, then Amida Tathagata deeply rejoices and sending forth himself eighty-four thousand great rays of light, receives us within that light.4

In all this, what we see, what we know, what we touch and taste, what we hear and do... is namu-amida-butsu.

...in the long night
it is the torch...
the wisdom eye
is in darkness...
yet do not grieve...
do not grieve


1. CWS, p. 241.

2. Ryukoku Translation Series VII, p. 36.

3. CWS, p. 679.

4. Rennyo Shonin Ofumi, II, 13; tr. Ann T. Rogers and Minor L. Rogers, Numata Center, 1996.

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