Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 47

When we entrust ourselves to the inconceivable
   Buddha-wisdom,
We dwell in the stage of the truly settled.
Those who are born transformed [in the Pure Land] are of
    superior wisdom,
And they realise the supreme enlightenment.

Arenas

The awakening of shinjin is described in the first line of this verse. In the second line, Shinran Shonin reminds us of its remarkable significance.

The original term translated as 'born transformed' gives a description of birth in the Pure Land that is in keeping with traditional Buddhist concepts of the way that new life begins in accord with each specific context. In this case, Shinran extrapolates the significance of 'born transformed', which alludes to the transcendent nature of the Pure Land, to mean nirvana and final release.

Shinran's understanding the Buddha Dharma would now be described as 'lateral thinking' or 'thinking outside the square'. It marks him as a genius because, once he outlined these apparent new perspectives to his hearers, they realised that he was pointing to self-evident and obvious truths. Indeed, it now takes a mammoth effort of sophistry and argument to refute Shinran's teaching, simply because he points to things that are so plain to see.

In an earlier essay, I spoke of the way that, when we were children, we used to find faces, animals and other objects in the shape of the clouds. This playful activity is the obverse of Shinran's thought processes. Whereas we were interpreting facts in irrelevant ways by imposing upon them our own illusions, Shinran removes the fanciful illusions that people have of the Buddha Dharma and points to realities, just as they are, without any embellishment. He strips away the clutter of much Pure Land thought and insists that the Pure Land is a synonym for nirvana.

When we realise that he is telling us this, we wonder why we did not originally appreciate these obvious ideas ourselves. Why should we be surprised by this? After all, the Sanskrit antonym for dhukkha, which means pain, suffering or existential discomfort, is sukha: a part of the composite term sukhavati. Sukhavati (the Land of Bliss) is, of course, the original name for the Pure Land and 'bliss' is, in turn, a synonym for nirvana. So, we can see that, from the very beginning, the Pure Land has been a representation of the central reality of the Buddha Dharma, which is nirvana.

One of the most wonderful concepts of the Buddha Dharma is the way that it 'grades' experience and people. In this verse, we are reminded that those who 'entrust [themselves] to the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom, dwell in the stage of the truly settled'. Here is an instance, in which, while maintaining an uncompromising loving-kindness and compassion for all beings - even the most disagreeable and revolting - the dharma is not reticent about pointing out that some people are nearer to an understanding and experience of truth than others. The dharma is, at once, truly honest and authentically kind!

This presents a contrast with the catch-cry of the French revolution that 'all men (sic) are born equal'. While the intention of this phrase is to remind us all of our common humanity, it has become a source of disappointment for those who fall short of certain levels of merit or status. It is wonderful that the dharma retains a profound measure of honesty that does not demur at problems of difference, while, at the same time, embracing all beings in its exquisite love.

The dharma recognises that there are differences between us in relation to ability and talent. It sees us as dwelling within the consraints of the arenas of existence in which we find ourselves from birth. We live, for a time, within the proscenium of our personal limitations and constraints. There is only a limited range of things that we can change, despite the modern rhetoric. Needless to say, the dharma does not condemn anyone or wish them any harm. The dharma helps us to understand that life is complex and that human capacity and character are infinitely varied. It embraces all variety in its compassion.

There are innumerable 'arenas' (Sk. bhumis) of realisation and engagement in the Buddhist world-view. The sad fact is that we are divided by these genuine levels of attainment. Those, who hear the dharma of Amida Buddha, know what it is to belong to the most needy realm of human existence; we are the ones who understand very little. People like us have 'missed the bus', 'failed in every way' and are 'losers', as the saying goes. Although such people may be anything other than this in the eyes of the world, they know the truth of it, because a wise and loving light plays within their hearts and minds.

How astonishing, then, it must be, to find oneself at the destination, not having waited in a mezzanine arena; assured of Enlightenment, without the discomfort of the journey; a journey that was never needed, in any case.

As Shinran would say, 'How inconceivable is the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha's Primal Vow.'

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