Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 45

Realisation of true and real shinjin
Is rare in the defiled world of the last dharma age;
The witness of Buddha countless as the sand of the Ganges
Reveals how difficult it is to attain.

Difficulties

As we have already seen, a common feature of the Pure Land is the idea that attaining the true believing mind (shinjitsu shinjin, Sk. satya prasanna citta) is extremely difficult. The most prominent reference to this difficulty can be found at the end of the Larger Sutra. In that context we learn that there is a deepening process of increasing difficulty, of which gaining faith in the teaching is the most profound of all. We have given consideration to the implications of this claim in relation to the content of the Sutra itself and the concern in both China and Japan about the Last dharma-age, which is raised again in this verse of the Wasan.

On several occasions in his writing, Shinran Shonin points out that, while birth in the Pure Land is easy, the attainment of true shinjin, which is the cause of birth, is extremely difficult. This assertion carries two significant implications. The first is that Shinran is able to qualify the original claim of Nagarjuna that the way of 'thinking of Buddhas' (nembutsu, Sk. buddhanusmrti) is the path of 'easy practice', by accepting the assertion but casting a new light on our capacity to generate the cause. Furthermore, Shinran considered that the attainment of faith was actually impossible by our own efforts, since ordinary beings (bombu, Sk. prthagjana) are, by definition, not equipped to do so.

In the most commonly received traditions of the Buddha Dharma, both within the way of the elders (Sk. sthaviravada) and the Mahayana, 'entry to the first stage of enlightenment' is accompanied by the awakening of faith (shin, Sk. shraddha). Upon entering the first stage, we leave the status of a common being, a prthagjana. It seems to me, therefore, that Shinran is correct and that his thinking is completely aligned with the tradition as a whole. Shinran's insight is that, while remaining prthagjanas, foolish or common beings, we receive the shinjin that is endowed by the Buddha. It is shinjin that is the cause of our ultimate attainment of Nirvana.

In previous references in the wasan about the difficulty of attaining shinjin, the focus has been on the lack of opportunities to hear the dharma, due to the fact that it is statistically unlikely that we will be born during a time that a Buddha's teaching is available. Now, however, it seems that it is the nature of shinjin itself that is the problem. In this verse there is a juxtaposition between the rarity of shinjin and the context of the Last dharma-age and this suggests a predicament that is associated with turbidity.

I believe that there is an endemic problem in relation to Shinran's teaching about shinjin, which lies principally in the need to reify Jodo Shinshu faith in order to discuss it. What happens here is that, although Shinran is absolutely unequivocal in insisting that shinjin is ineffable - in every sense of the term -, whenever it is objectified it becomes distorted and ceases to be itself. The import of this is both objective and subjective. In the case of the latter, for example, as soon as we think to ourselves, 'That experience was the moment that I attained shinjin,' we have entered into a false notion of it. We ought not be dismayed at this, however, because all attainment in the Buddha Dharma is similarly delicate due to the key imperative of the dharma, which is the realisation non-ego (Sk. anatman).

At the objective level lies the peril of thinking that our attainment of shinjin is somehow dependent on the sanction or authorisation of others. In dismissing such an idea Shinran says,

Concering the nature of shinjin, I have learned from the Master of Kuang-ming temple that after true shinjin has become settled in us, even if Buddhas like Amida or like Shakyamuni should fill the skies and proclaim that Shakyamuni's teaching and Amida's Primal Vow are false, we will not have even one moment of doubt. 1

In his writings, Shinran does give certain clues as to possible manifestations of faith, apart from the Name itself. For example, there is a self-awareness that is penetrating and realistic. Shinran also suggests that there is also a tendency to stop judging others as good or bad. That is to say, there is a concommitant deepening of the mind of equanimity (byodoshin) in relation to people and events. Of course, shinjin also implies unshakeable confidence in the Buddha and a strong ongoing desire to hear the dharma.

All of these putative manifestations are intangible and vague. They are also subject to artifice; people who have no association whatever with shinjin can act out supposed requirements for it in order to convince themselves, and others, that they have attained it. However, we can rest assured that there are no prescribed manifestations of the attainment of true faith.

On the other hand, in terms of the aspirant's inner life, Shinran reveals a rich and inspiring world. In his book on Shinjin, which is volume three of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran draws extensively on the writings of the dharma masters, especially T'an-luan and Shan-tao, yet reads them in the light of his own insights and experience. It is here that we find a detailed account of the inner life of the person who has realised Amida Buddha's shinjin.

Although, at first, Shinran's presentation seems to be complex, we gradually become aware of the unitary nature of shinjin. Shinran is, after all, following the sublime Buddhist tradition of exegisis, in which principal concepts are dissected and analysed in minute detail - and evidence amassed from the Dharma's vast resources. The Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam is a glorious example of this - and so is the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

So it seems to me that the most daunting obstacle in relation to shinjin is the reification of it. For deep faith is accurately and brilliantly understood by Shinran as a multi-layered, multi-faceted, living, light-filled reality that is, nevertheless, a singular and spontaneous event. No other thinker in human history has understood it as well as Shinran.

In the process of reification, only partial accounts of shinjin tend to be given. As a result of this the Anjin Rondai, which contains the Hongwanji's critique of distorted emphases of shinjin, identifies some twenty or more mistaken views. Each of these has been proposed at one time or another, and keeps re-emerging even in our own time. One of these is, indeed, the view that 'true shinjin is manifested in mind, mouth and body' (sango kimyo): that there can be objective evidence in a person's demeanour, which reflects the attainment of true shinjin.

Related to this erroneous idea is the current emergence of thinking that is closely aligned with the heterodox teaching of senju-kenzen, that shinjin is granted only to the good and the intelligent. This is in spite of the fact, for example, that Shinran reads Shan-tao's Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra to say that

We should not express outwardly signs of wisdom, goodness, or diligence, for inwardly we are possessed of falsity. We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. They cannot be called true, real and sincere action. 2

Here we see one aspect - ki no jinshin - of nishu no jinshin, the 'twofold deep mind of faith'. The other is ho no jinshin - unconditional trust in Amida Buddha. This makes it clear that people of shinjin are very unlikely to want to pass themselves off as good or superior people who believe that they are entitled to tell other people how to live their lives. Yet it is being widely suggested that people of shinjin are necessarily inclined to set themselves up as models of rectitude and that they are qualified to criticise and shame people who fall short of their own standards of excellence or insight.

Here, then, developing right before our eyes is a representation of shinjin, which is not shinjin, because it is tending towards senju-kenzen, that Amida's Vow will only embrace the good and the brilliant. It is also disingenuous to suggest that ordinary, unimaginative and confused people are still embraced by Amida's Vow, while, at the same time, qualifying shinjin in moralistic and highbrow terms.

My intention here is to give but one topical example of ways that shinjin becomes difficult. I certainly do not want to criticise those who feel a strong personal impulse to work for the betterment of society or who work in fields of research and as scholars. Indeed, I think all of these pursuits are of the utmost importance. However, my intention is to show how the tendency to want to cling to one aspect or another of the teaching and exalt it at the expense of others becomes a serious stumbling block for ordinary people who are seeking the way.

In truth, however, the greatest difficulty of all is the ultimate simplicity of shinjin. For, a profound and frank acknowledgement, which is both visceral and rational, that the task of attaining liberation from the round of births-and-deaths - and from the endless suffering of samsara - is utterly beyond the capacity of an evil and vacuous being like me, can only lead to the complete abandonment of everything. At that same moment, when there is nothing left and nothing more that can be done, there is just Infinite Light and Infinite Life, to turn to. This is not actually a complicated matter.

After that, nembutsu - or, if we choose, the wasan or the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho - may be taken up with joy, no longer a source of insight, searching or pleading. For in them is recognised with deep consent that, yes... this is indeed the way that things really are.


1. CWS, p. 575.

2. Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III, 13: CWS p. 84.

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