Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 40

When the waters--the minds, good and evil, of foolish beings--
Have entered the vast ocean
Of Amida's Vow of wisdom, there are immediately
Transformed into the mind of great compassion.

Yuishinsho Mon'i

It was mainly Master T'an-luan who inspired Shinran Shonin's recurring theme of the 'waters of good and evil' entering the ocean of the Compasionate Vow of Amida Buddha. Perhaps Shinran's most eloquent exposition of the significance of this idea can be found in the Yuishinsho Mon'i (Notes on the Essentials of Faith Alone), although the metaphor of water entering the ocean of the Vow does not appear there. Nevertheless, this little pamphlet exlpores some of the most enduring and powerful realisations to emerge from the Pure Land tradition.

The Essentials on Faith Alone was composed by Seikaku, who was, with Shinran, a disciple of Honen Shonin. In fact, Shinran's Notes are not a commentary on the entire text. He selects three liturgical verses, the first of which was written by the Chinese Pure Land Master Fa-chao (766 - 822). Fa-chao was a very successful advocate of Pure Land Buddhism in his time and was a second generation disciple of the author of the second verse that Shinran discusses in this booklet. This was Tz'u-Min (680 - 748) who is famous for 'carrying coals to Newcastle' by serving as a Pure Land missionary in India. The quotation of the verse that Tz'u-Min composed in the Essentials of Faith Alone ends with the line:

Solely making beings turn about and abundantly say the nembutsu
I can make bits of rubble change into gold.1

The phrase 'bits of rubble' refers to two groups of people, with whom Shinran identifies himself: hunters and pedlars. These days, this would include most people in the food trade, including farmers, and, of course, stock-brokers, bankers, business men and the like. They were considered 'evil' - reviled and shunned by society. Indeed, in non-Pure Land Buddhist circles they very often continue to be suspect. Obviously hunters were hated because they killed for a living and, pedlars (merchants) were seen as theives because they sustained a living without recourse to inheritance or patronage.

As a result of this special focus on despised classes, Jodo Shinshu became the most successful Buddhist movement of the last millennium (of the Common Era). As the great modern scholar Edward Conze has pointed out in his survey entitled, Buddhism, Its Essence and development, Shin Buddhism has been the only school of the Buddha Dharma to manage the transition from agrarian to industrial society with ease (2001, p. 207).

As a businessman myself, I have found the stories of the merchants of Omi to be particularly inspiring. These hard working traders were deeply committed to the Buddha Dharma, yet worked for long hours, supporting themselves and their families by their own, individual efforts - eventually carrying the whole of their communities on their backs. Indeed, it can be argued that Japan was the leader in east Asian industrialisation, largely due to the Jodo Shinshu tradition, whereby ordinary people, living arduous lives, were able to find a measure of spiritual transcendence and inner peace while fully engaged in daily life.

It seems, too, that the field of religious endevour in Jodo Shinshu is truly the mundane world. It is possible for those who live thus to speak from experience in testifying to this reality. It is a living truth and a living path, in which those who are busy and fully committed to various kinds of everyday human relationships, indeed find a home. As Rennyo Shonin said, so wisely, it is a life that involves respect for custom wherever one finds oneself, and a rich and deep inner life that is certainly informed by a Buddha's Light, in spite of the fact that we are 'confused morning and evening by evil karma.'

The 'turning into gold' that Shinran discusses in Yuishinsho mon'i signifies how precious these despised people - hunters and merchants - are in the eyes of Amida Buddha. They

are grasped and never abandoned by the Tathagata's light. 3

In an autographed manuscript of this booklet, Shinran explains the metaphor by saying that 'gold' indicates the attainment of Nirvana upon birth in the Pure Land.

One of the interesting things that happens, when despised people are awarded a new status, is the rising anger on the part of some of those who consider themselves to be righteous. It seems that, for many people, good behaviour confers some kind of status, which is threatened when evil people receive grace that the good people thought was rightfully theirs. I often wonder if Shinran's declaration that hunters and salesmen, who awaken to Amida's shinjin, are soon to attain Enlightenment, was the source of similar fury. It certainly seems that it was. We shall explore this in more detail when we get to Shozomatsu Wasan 42.

Although Shinran's proclamation - that 'the waters of the good and evil hearts of foolish beings' would together enter the Ocean of Amida's Wisdom Vow - seems to be a departure from the usual expectations of religious traditions of all kinds, it is certainly a strong and enduring feature of the Pure Land tradition, and was typically emphasised by T'an-luan. What is more, awakening to Amida Buddha's shinjin does not necessarily serve any practical, social purpose. Shinran makes it clear that a reformation in a person's character may not occur - even after awakening to shinjin:

... while burdened as they are with blind passion, they attain supreme nirvana.2

As the record shows, it was unfortunate that Shinran needed to remind some of his followers how outrageous and disingenuous it was to deliberately behave in an anti-social way just because one had been embraced in the Light of the Buddha and was destined to become a Buddha in the next life. It is hard to imagine a priceless privilege like that being abused in such a way. In any case, Shinran's experience resulted in the development of okite: guildelines that represent a kind of reciprocal compact on the part of those who live the Nembutsu Way and encourages them to strive to serve the public good.

Despite such setbacks, we can see from this Wasan, that even as Shinran approached the end of his life, he always remained utterly faithful to his acute understanding of T'an-luan's insight: that there is no discrimination whatever between classes of people, when it comes to the heart of truth (shinjin, Sk. prasanna citta).

Just as evil people are taken in by the Primal Vow, so good people do not gain anything by their goodness.

Know that it is impossible to be born in the true, fulfilled Pure Land by simply observing precepts, or by self-willed conviction, or by self-cultivated good. 4

Although some people may find this statement somewhat challenging, there is actually nothing very unusual about it. For example, keeping precepts has never been seen within the Buddha Dharma as the way to attain ultimate deliverance. Indeed, the five precepts that serve as a benchmark for personal conduct, are usually taken to be the karma that results in human birth, therefore affording an opportunity to study and develop further upon the way. Again, 'self-willed conviction' has never been accepted as a legitimate basis for attainment within the scheme of the Buddha Dharma. Indeed, the Hindu tradition rightly deemed the Buddha Dharma to be nastika - non-dogmatic. The Dharma does not provide a credal formula that we must accept on authority. It is a path of awakening, whatever tradition one follows.

Yet, observance of precepts, self-willed conviction and self-cultivated good must surely be stumbling blocks upon the way if they are seen as personal achievements. If they are the focus of practice and become attachments, there can be no realisation of anatman, not-self, by which one abandons the things to which one clings and comes to rely on the supporting power of Amida Buddha's Compassionate embrace.

In the Yuishinsho Mon'i, Shinran actually castigates any kind of judgementalism. In any case, in a secular sense, there are many ways in which concepts of 'good' and 'evil' are mere social constructs. They serve to distinguish people who belong to the group from outsiders. The classifications also change from generation to generation. There are many examples, but one of the most obvious is the way that merchants, once despised in most cultures, both east and west, are now heroes of the business world.

As unpalatable as all this might seem, I think that Shinran is an ambassador of profound truth. If he can convince us to abandon those self-concepts that sustain our sense of importance and self-righteousness, then there is nothing that can hinder us from flowing into the great heart of Compassion that his message portends.

A close study of the Notes on the Essentials of Faith Alone is an invaluable aid in coming to terms with these ideas.


1.CWS, p. 456.

2.op. cit., p. 460.

3.op. cit. p. 459.

4.op. cit. p. 458.

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