Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 38

When we reflect of the establishment of the Vow,
We find that the Tathagata, without abandoning sentient beings in pain
        and affliction,
Has taken the direction of virtue to them as foremost,
Thus fulfilling the mind of great compassion.


Here is a verse, in which Shinran Shonin's understanding of a passage in traditional commentarial literature represents an incremental development in the usual interpretation; one that naturally flows from insights that he gained from within this same body of work. This Wasan is based on a quote, from the Treatise on the Pure Land by Vasubandhu, which describes the way that a follower of the Buddha Dharma transfers to others the merit that he has accrued by his diligent practice. Shinran, however, does not hesitate to interpret it as signifying the transfer of merit by Amida Buddha. At first sight, this seems to invert the original meaning. In fact, it seems to me that Shinran was assuming a lack of consistency with statements in T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Treatise.

The way that Shinran often reads passsages from key Pure Land texts is a fascinating study in itself. One of the striking features of The Collected Works of Shinran (CWS: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997) is that it is a literal translation that is not burdened to any great extent by traditional commentary - making it an extremely accurate and reliable resource. In keeping with this standard, the translation is necessarily accompanied by a second volume that compensates for the lack of commentarial influence in the translation itself. These are in a form, which is largely restricted to reading aids. These are not intended to direct the reader's thinking in particular ways but to provide material that will enable readers to come to their own understanding of what Shinran has written.

This second volume of the two-volume set of The Collected Works of Shinran, includes twenty-one pages of passages from Shinran's writings (mainly found in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho), which differ from the original. The list is not exhaustive but the examples of key passages do throw light on Shinran's remarkable insights. An interesting feature of the ways that Shinran re-interprets certain passages from traditional texts is that there is sufficient topical variety to make it clear - at least as far as I am concerned - that he was not consciously manipulating the texts to suit some kind of a priori programme. When it comes to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, since the vast bulk of this writing consists of quotes from older resources, Shinran was acting as a scribe, transferring texts from a printed copy to his own manuscript. In doing so, he did what scribes often do: he sought to resolve seeming inconsistencies. Perhaps he assumed, as often happens in the manual transmission of texts, that these apparently aberrant renderings were caused by a previous mistake.

In any case, a second feature of Shinran's view of the received tradition - as he makes plain in the sixth book of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - is his confidence that the Sutras and Commentaries carried a deeper meaning than was immediately obvious. The deeper meaning does not represent any kind of radical departure but was, as far as he could see, plainly implicit in the texts. It was as though he saw that readers had previously missed themes and ideas, which seemed obvious to him. It seems to me that his inspiration for this hermeneutical technique was derived from the example of his dharma master Honen Shonin. You will remember that Honen read the canon of the Mahayana Tripitaka exhaustively and saw the entire canon through the lense of just a few lines from the writings of Shan-tao.

Lenses have a way of magnifying their object so that everything else is imbued with it. Just as Honen had read those passages from Shan-tao in that way, so Shinran - or, at least, so it seems to me, personally - was overwhelmed by two brief references in T'an-luan's Commentary. The passage in Vasubandhu was the opening of his verse in the Treatise on the Pure Land:

O World-Honoured One, with singleness of mind, I Take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions...1

Shinran gives immense importance to this phrase, and built an entire book of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho around it. It seems to me that the reason for this is his awareness that the significance of the phrase 'singleness of mind' did not lie with the mere thought processes of the author. For example, in his commentary, T'an-luan goes on to say that Vasubandhu is continually aware of the 'Tathagata of Unhindered Light' and that his use of 'I', in this phrase, is merely a linguistic convention, since there is no self that can take refuge. So the active principle here seems to reside in the consciousness of Amida Buddha, rather than Vasubandhu.

Again, at the end of T'an-luan's commentary, the author proclaims that

students of the future, having heard that the Other Power is to be entrusted in, should accept it in faith.2

These two ideas from Vasubandhu and T'an-luan seem to have been so compelling for Shinran that everything he read only served to affirm and strengthen their import. In other words, when he came to a passage in the traditional commentaries that did not quite conform with these melded ideas - of 'singleness of mind', no self to take refuge and that Other Power would be the focus of future understanding - Shinran simply adjusted the phrases to bring them into line with these over-riding principles. These core truths were to be found in the writings of Vasubandhu (Jp. tenjin) and T'an-luan (Jp. donran). Perhaps, this is the reason that Shinran's name borrowed characters from the names of these two great sages.

When everything is considered, I doubt that Shinran was a mystic who saw the dharma in a solipsistic way. Neither can I accept that he was calculating and devious in his use of traditional material. Other aspects of his life, and his brutal personal honesty, suggest that such attitudes were utterly out of character and clearly impossible.

Rather, I think his interpretations are more rational and literary. He saw the sacred texts as 'the word of the Buddha' - something he had in common with all Mahayana Buddhists. He approached the texts seeking light; trusting, especially, T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land. However, the power of his rational understanding of the key themes from this resource lay in the fact that, inspired by them, he discovered, at first hand, the transcendence that demonstrated their truth. The reality of selfless refuge-taking, or Other Power, as the modality for all future Pure Land engagement became, for Shinran, the essential truth of the dharma.

In this way, Shinran, followed the time-honoured Buddhist method, in which the teaching is not accepted on trust, without examination, but only when the disciple 'knows it to be true'. You will remember from the Sutra Delivered to the Kalamas, that Shakyamuni instructs his disciples not to accept an idea just because it is tradition, or what a teacher says, but only after they, themselves, have tried it and are satisfied that adherence will bring an authentic outcome.

Even more importantly than these considerations is the fact that Shinran's extraordinary and penetrating understanding of the Buddha Dharma became a living reality that has been ratified endlessly down to our time in the lives of countless followers. His teaching has consistently had immense power to uplift and to regenerate the understanding of many who encounter it. There is ample historical evidence of that. This is in spite of the especially unpretentious nature of the Pure Land way. For the vehicle, whereby the 'transfer of merit' occurs - the consummation of the mind of great compassion - consists of just six syllables: Namu-amida-butsu.

The difficulty is - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - that this unpretentiousness remains a problem just so long as it is understood as a mere phrase that we say. Unless the Pure Land dharma can be interpreted in terms of those key ideas from T'an-luan that so inspired and informed Shinran, it remains of uncertain significance in the life and experience of the follower. It becomes a burden, even though it is a task that often marks the beginning of the journey that is the Pure Land way for most of us.

Still, when the time comes that nembutsu is seen for what it is: the activity of Amida Buddha's true mind (shinjin, Sk. prasanna citta); when it is known that truly taking refuge means abandoning the self; when one surrenders to the utter ubiquity in all things of Other Power, including faith itself and saying the nembutsu; then, one's sense of liberation and relief may know no bounds.

This theme is continued in the next verse, and developed throughout the remaining verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan.

1 .Ojoronchu, T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land, tr. Hisao Inagaki, p. 128.

2.op. cit., p. 291 [italics, mine].

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