Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 43

Receiving the true cause of birth in the true fulfilled land
Through the words of the two honoured ones,
We dwell in the stage of the truly settled;
Thus, we unfailingly attain nirvana.

The Word of the Buddha

When foolish beings possessed of blind passions, the multitudes caught in birth-and-death and defiled by evil karma, realise the mind and practice that Amida directs to them for their going forth, they immediately join the truly settled of the Mahayana. Because they dwell among the truly settled, they necessarily attain nirvana.1

The quotation above is part of the opening section of the Chapter on Attainment in Shinran Shonin's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. The verse (Shozomatsu Wasan 43) was composed when Shinran was about 88 years of age, whereas the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho was completed about eleven years earlier. Although Shinran is said to have continued to revise and modify the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, it seems to me that, in his later writings, one often finds elaborations of earlier ideas. It seems to me that this is one such instance.

For my part, the passage that I have quoted above leaves us wondering just how we receive 'the mind and practice' that is of such crucial importance for our ultimate destiny. 'Receiving the mind and practice' is a phrase that is redolent with the traditional concept of the 'transmission of mind' that occurs between teacher and student, and from generation to generation. This is a particularly important concept in the lineages that focus on meditation (Sk. dhyana) or, which belong to the esoteric traditions.

The fact that Honen Shonin considered himself to be the heir to the teaching of the Chinese Master Shan-tao, who lived about five hundred years earlier, is significant because it indicates a rather different tradition of transmission within the Pure Land way. This is a tradition, which has a lineage that is often seemingly broken by centuries at a time, as for example in the transmission of the dharma between Vasubandhu and T'an-luan. It is well known, too - as we have already seen -, that Tao-ch'o became a disciple of T'an-luan after reading an inscription on his tomb.

Even though it seems that the transmission of mind and practice, in the Pure Land Way, is sometimes across centuries, Shinran clearly does not hold even to this view. In many Buddhist traditions the dharma mind is transmitted from teacher to student, but in the Pure Land way there is no mediation at all. The mind and practice is directed by Amida Buddha himself.

I have no doubt that Shinran is here talking precisely about transmission of the dharma in exactly the way that it is usually understood. For example, I am certain that he saw Amida Buddha as the teacher - excluding all others. A clear example of this appears in the explanation of the allegory of the Two Rivers and a White Path. In this story (first promulgated by Shan-tao) the teacher (zenjishiki, Sk. kalyana-mitra), which usually refers to a contemporary and accomplished Dharma Master (a 'living' Master, as he or she is often described), is none other than Amida Buddha himself. This theme is reiterated also by Rennyo Shonin, who says that a living teacher only points to Amida Buddha.

All of this only serves to give us a few clues as to the question of just how the 'mind and practice' is received. What, precisely is the mechanism by which it is transferred, if there is no tangible individual who can serve as our teacher? This verse tells us exactly what we need to know. It is by means of the 'words of the two honoured ones' - Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha. It is the word of the Buddha.

People often ask just what is the practice that leads to the awkening of shinjin in Jodo Shinshu. There have been many attempts to address this question, most of them revolving around some kind of practice that belongs to the Path of Sages - meditation, morality, recitation of the nembutsu, and so forth. These ideas are essentially nonsensical because they do not actually convey anything at all - except perhaps that one is 'chasing chimeras'. In Jodo Shinshu there is only one way to open ourselves to the realisation the 'mind and practice for our going forth to Nirvana', and that is by listening to the Word of the Buddha: by 'hearing the Dharma'.

As Rennyo Shonin often pointed out, this hearing is not mere attention to specific words - or even attachment to them. It is a deep understanding, which - as Shinran says - is inexpressible, we cannot actually speak accurately about it. The words that point us to this awakening are just the vehicle for hearing, not quite the hearing itself. Nevertheless, it is not possible to hear the Dharma without them.

In practical terms, therefore, our task is only this: to listen to the words of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha. The teachings of Amida Buddha are expressed in language by those who have awoken to his truth. Hence, in the Pure Land Way, we repeatedly read and listen to the Three Pure Land Sutras and the writings of the Seven Dharma Masters through the ages.

No one would suggest, of course, that busy people need to spend hours a day laboriously ploughing through Pure Land texts. In fact, few people really relish such endevours. Furthermore, in the Pure Land way, the dharma is accessible even to the unlearned, illiterate and children. To accommodate these realities, Jodo Shinshu, throughout its seven-hundred year history has made a point of structuring religious life around the institution so as to give full access to the dharma for everyone.

Members of the Hongwanji are urged to attend their temple at least once a month in order to hear the dharma discussed, and to ask questions. In addition, many sublime digests of the entire tradition are available to be read aloud or in private. Foremost amongst these is the Gobunsho, the Letters of Rennyo Shonin. Just by reading and listening to these letters, a person can clearly hear the dharma of Amida Buddha and awaken faith.

It is easy to be sceptical about this kind of methodology. Clearly a significant number of people think it is somehow inadequate. Yet, there is set up, by this practice, an internal dialogue between the lofty heights of those who have heard and realised the dharma and those of us whose lives are much more mundane. It is a dialogue that does, indeed, gradually reach to the very depths of our being.

Eventually, those who listen with care - and are willing to be personally honest with themselves - will discover, to their joy, 'the embrace that does not forsake'. They will know that they are supported by an ineffable wisdom and compassion that surrounds and supports them at all times. When that happens, having absorbed the dharma - become steeped in it - nembutsu becomes their own personal self-expression and they feel confident that an eternal quest is, at last, nearing its end.


1. Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, V, 1: CWS, p. 153.

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