Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 46

If we had not encountered
Amida's directing of virtue for going forth and returning,
Our transmigration in birth-and-death would have no end;
What could we do then, sinking in this sea of pain?


'Transmigration in birth-and-death' reminds us of the endless cycle of the seasons. In places that experience monsoonal conditions, living things wither and die as the dry season draws to a close but, when the rain comes, there is a sudden surge of exuberance and new life. Insects hatch from their eggs, animals produce their young, grass springs to life and new growth appears on trees. As the season progresses, animals and plants mature, prepare for the coming of a new generation and pass into dormancy or death.

I have no doubt that the authors of the Upanishads discovered their understanding of the continuity and cyclic nature of life from endless contemplation of their natural environment. As a religious account of our experience, I think the concept of samsara, the unceasing 'flow through birth-and-death' is correct; it reflects the 'way things are'. By contrast the idea that every birth-and-death is unique and unrepeatable - and that time is linear - was contrived in a desert environment, where life is ephemeral and regeneration is always uncertain. In this context, living things only have one chance, rather than a very rare chance, as in the Buddha Dharma.

In all this, I think the Mahayana has found a fine and sound balance. It upholds the shunyatavada idea that 'all factors (Sk. dharmas) are void', yet it accepts that samsaric conditions are a given. This frees the round of births and deaths from the constraints that are implied by belief in a discreet, isolated and transmigrating psyche. Hence, both individuality and the interconnected - and interdependent - nature of existence are received as true. There is one life - tathata, suchness - that emerges as a riotous variety of forms and individual lives. So, Amida Tathagata is also immeasurable life.

While Shakyamuni denied the existence of a transmigrating soul he was able to recall events from the timeless past. He could identify those who were the players in the story, with himself and his contemporary companions. These seeming contradictions are paradoxes and bespeak the recondite nature of all existence. It seems to me that orthodoxy invariably embraces ambiguity and anomaly. We always need to find a way to construct a view of the world that encompasses all that we know and casts away nothing. Hence, for an enlightened one, like Shakyamuni, who understands all things as they are, it is possible to teach that anatman is an essential truth, yet know, at the same time, the contours of a timeless existence, which is unique and limitless.

Another feature of samsara is that all of the past is contained in the present and all of the present in the past. Samsara is not like a railway track; it is not a fixed path that runs from a starting point to a destination. There is no destination in the Buddha Dharma but only the extinguishing of the flame (Sk. nirodha) of ignorance (Sk. avidya) and thirst (Sk. trshna). There is no beginning, only unformed potential; nirodha is at once destiny and origin.

There are many metaphors for samsara but I always think that the flowing cycle of water is one of the best. Think of the ocean, a vast undifferentiated mass of water. Evaporation is of molecules, particles of the whole. Rising over the coast, droplets begin to take the shape of thunderstorm, a living thing that is born, matures, grows old, exhausts itself and disappears. The water from the thunderstorm flows through long streams and over time, eventually returning to the ocean, where only a few molecules that once made up the thunderstorm will return next time to the source of the stream.

Of course, metaphors can be taken too far and they are not the reality that they attempt to explain. Yet, it seems to me that the use by the Ryukoku Translation Series - in this verse - of the word 'flowing' (rinne) is most apt. Samsara (ruten) is always understood in terms of ebb and flow, of constant flux and change. In this timeless tide, new shapes and forms emerge, which become our form and our experience.

The dharma identifies six courses or realms of existence: there is naraka (hellish), where ignorance, greed and aggression predominate, preta (hungry wraiths) greed, tiryayoni (brutish) ignorance, asura (warrior gods) aggression, manusya (humanity) virtuous, and deva, (divine) intellectual life. All of these are experienced both now and in other existences where one or other of these realms is dominant. We cannot affirm transmigration through these realms, nor that our existence is limited to our birth and death in this immediate life. Either way, the places we have been, so to speak, are with us now and by our actions we create for ourselves the places that are yet to come.

It does not matter whether our world-view is in keeping with the Buddhist conception of samsara, or whether we prefer to see things more in the light of modern cosmology. In keeping with the Mahayana concept of the Two Truths, highest and conventional, I accept both concepts as addressing different spheres of human endevour. In any case, it seems to me that our individual existence is a remarkable event, which has emerged from forces and conditions that are vast and beyond calculation.

This fleeting and fragile life gives us little opportunity to make good choices but it seems to me that the most important thing is to come into a living relationship with Buddha, the 'wisdom that fills all things'; a relationship that is in accord with truth and that is a source of profound inner freedom, for the ultimate benefit of all, as the 'merit transference of outgoing and returning' portends. Otherwise, all opportunity will be lost almost forever.

Until we accept the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in Namu-amida-butsu, our situation will continue to be urgent and perilous.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next