Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 39

The saying of the Name arising from true and real shinjin
Is Amida's directing of virtue to beings;
Therefore, it is called 'not directing merit,'
And saying the nembutsu in self-power is rejected.

Self-power Nembutsu

I have always found that the question of the role of nembutsu in relation to awakening is easier to understand if I use a process of elimination. We can then begin with this verse and discard any use of the nembutsu that seems to be entirely self-serving. Such uses may be perfectly legitimate in certain contexts but they are not what Shinran means, when he speaks of 'saying the nembutsu' (shomyo Nembutsu).

Apropos this, however, I think that the question of motive in saying the nembutsu is necessarily rather vexed. Human motivation changes and develops over time. This is evident, for example, in life-long friendships and relations with others. Initially a relationship may be self-serving; we may want to appropriate something that we need from someone else. Yet, as respect and appreciation of the other grows and develops, the relationship may turn into love and affection.

So we ought to take seriously the fact that the practice of saying the nembutsu that was ultimately rejected by Shinran is, frankly, any use of it as a means to self-enhancement. The 'self-power nembutsu' that Shinran is discussing in this verse is the nembutsu of the twentieth Vow of Amida Buddha. Here, Shinran is encouraging us not to use the nembutsu as a way of gaining spiritual merit for ourselves: something we can accrue towards birth in the Pure Land.

Shinran's urgency and strong language in this verse is a reflection of his caution in the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho:

Sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana and all good people make the auspicious Name of the Primal Vow their own root of good; hence, they cannot give rise to shinjin and do not apprehend the Buddha's wisdom. Because they cannot comprehend [the Buddha's intent in] establishing the cause [of birth], they do not enter the fulfilled land.1

In the beginning, when we first hear about the way of nembutsu, many of us take it up as a seemingly self-powered endeavour. We have not reached the eventual understanding that the Name (Namu-amida-butsu) is the call of the Vow. We have not yet responded to the call and accepted the shinjin of Amida Buddha. It is not this 'seeking' kind of nembutsu that Shinran is deprecating here but the nembutsu, which is used as a way of enhancing ourselves, of gaining merit, of 'making the auspicious Name' our own 'root of good'.

In the way of shinjin the Name is the call of the Vow. According to Shinran to 'hear' means, 'having heard how the Buddha's Vow arose - its origin and fulfilment -'and being 'altogether free of doubt.'2

The strength of Shinran's rejection of self-power nembutsu comes from the misuse of the Name that is the call of the Vow in order to accrue merit for ourselves, instead of hearing the Name. This is to say the Name in the hope that the effort we put into it will make us worthy of the Pure Land. There is nothing more to Shonin's meaning in this verse than this.


1: CWS, p. 240

2: CWS, p. 112.

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