Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 44

Through the words of the witness and protection
Of the countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
We should realise that the mind of self-power aspiring for
    supreme enlightenment
Is incapable of reaching fulfilment.

Voices of Compassion

The 'mind of self-power aspiring for supreme enlightenment' here is daibodaishin (Sk. mahabodhicitta). In the course of our exploration of Shinran Shonin's verses, we have often encountered his reiteration of the assertion, first suggested by T'an-luan, that there are two ways that the mind of self-power aspiring for supreme enlightenment are realised. One is by generating the aspiration oneself and the other is by 'the power of another'. In the passage that alludes to these ideas, T'an-luan is drawing on an already existing tradition that was established by Nagarjuna, who, in turn, was already upholding a well-established concept that comes from the very earliest times.

Again, as we have often seen, the entire structure of thought that supports this notion is parinama (eko) whereby merit and virtue can be transferred from one person to another. This concept is common and, indeed, fundamental in both the Theravada (Sk. sthaviravada) and Mahayana schools of the dharma for it lies at the heart of such essential notions as not-self (Sk. anatman) and generosity (Sk. dana). Ultimately, whether or not we are prepared to value the Pure Land stream as a genuine source of liberation comes down to the doctrine and practice of eko; yet, I would contend that it is the most normative and natural concept within the entire range of the Buddha Dharma.

The corollary of the central thesis of the Dharma - that there is no abiding, isolated, ongoing, individual 'self' - is that all things are interconnected and interdependent; a contention that seems self-evident to me. However, the illusion of a self is insurmountable because of the structure of our individual consciousness, even though it is ultimately false. It is the intractable nature of the illusion of self that makes it imperative that we come to terms with Shinran's contention, in this verse, that

... we must recognize that the great aspiration for enlightenment
Cannot be accomplished through self-power

The purpose of the Eightfold Path in the Hinayana and of the Six Paramitas in the Mahayana branches of the Buddha Dharma is, obviously, to eventually transcend the corrupting and deranged illusion of self that so besets us, inhibiting the manifestation of compassion in the world. Within the Mahayana, however, the Pure Land way does not seek this transcendence in this life. Rather, the light, the wisdom, of Amida Buddha shows us the self as it is: a mass of afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas) that are worthless hindrances in pursuit of our quest for enlightenment. Instead, by means of eko, the overwhelming power of enlightenment that is the Buddha Amida is transferred to us. It is this that carries us across the stream of birth-and-death.

Yet these insights are only one aspect of the power of another and, for all the transformative understanding that they bring, they remain largely subjective - and they are ultimately inexpressible. For Shinran it is, once again, the words of the Buddhas that is the ultimate source of inspiration and authority, not our internal insights. This verse continues the theme of the previous one (43) in having recourse to an initially objective influence as the true source of our inspiration and guidance. In verse forty-three we heard that the words of the Buddhas Shakyamuni and Amida were the principal source of our confidence in the Pure Land way. Now, Shinran ramps-up these objective criteria - in support of the Pure Land way - by bringing to bear upon us the commendation of all of the Buddhas of the ten directions.

The multitude of Buddhas throughout the universe, to whom Shinran refers in this verse, are described in the Amida Sutra, the second of the Three Pure Land Sutras. As we have already seen, this sutra is, without question, the most popular religious text in east Asia. It is, indeed, probably the section in which we learn of the commendation of the nembutsu by all the Buddhas of the ten directions, that underlies this popularity. Part of the reason for this is that the name that these Buddhas have given to the Amida Sutra is 'Praises of the Inconceivable Virtue and Protection by All Buddhas'. No doubt many people read, copy and recite the sutra as a way of gleaning support from this great cohort of Buddhas. Nevertheless, as Shinran points out, they also commend the nembutsu, since this is the main purport of the Sutra.

Just as the last verse in the wasan collection posed a problem for us, so does this verse. If the principal reason for accepting the dharma is the commendation of Buddhas throughout the universe, then are we being asked to give a literal interpretation of a sutra that speaks of conditions and events that are incomprehensible to us?

In my view, Western hermeneutical patterns are not useful in this case because, from the perspective of the dharma, all constituent entities (Sk. dharmas) are void (Sk. shunya). In approaching the Buddha Dharma, we need to adopt a new mind-set to accommodate its assumptions and verities. In the case of the Pure Land tradition, we need always to keep in mind the strong role played in the development of its theory and practice by the Three Treatise School of the sarvashunyavada tradition, through the agency of T'an-luan.

In any case, as happens in relation to many systems of thought that have emerged from a European context, the interpretation of religious texts has now fallen into an antagonistic, adversarial mould. On the one hand, religious texts are taken to be literal fact. The ultimate end of this approach can be utterly oppressive. Sacred texts become vehicles of control. Their contents become burdensome and a source of emotional slavery. On the other hand, techniques of historical and textual criticism are brought to bear on sacred texts. The outcome of this is to divest them of meaning and power, reducing texts to empty fossils that no longer have any value to ordinary men and women.

Shinran, however, had a strong sense of the implicit meaning of our textual tradition. His interpretation of the sacred stories that so inspire us was to point beyond the details and facts to the timeless verities that underpin them. From the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho we discover that he is especially indebted, indeed, to the sarvashunyavada teaching of the Madhayamika school that was expounded by Nagarjuna.

For this reason, Shinran is never tempted to spend time picking at the finer points of the received tradition in such a way as to deflect us from coming into touch with the great and eternal verities that they are intended to convey. He had neither a literal, slavish hermenuetic, nor a barren obsession with origins and long-lost contexts. It is impossible not to feel profound gratitude for his insights and approach. Furthermore, in this case Shinran sets up a delicious paradox that is hard to resist. In calling upon objective evidence, he appeals to an intuitive sensibility.

In this verse, then, Shinran is pointing not so much to questions about the Buddhas of the universe but to the fact that the universe carries within it an insuppressible love, support and compassion that is heard, as Namu-amida-butsu, within our hearts, and that it is both foolish and futile to resist it.

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