Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 48

Entrusting ourselves to the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom
Is taught to be the cause of birth in the fulfilled land.
Realisation of shinjin, which is the true cause,
Is among all difficulties even more difficult.


In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran sets out to guide us through all possibilities and gives us a thorough explanation of every conceivable facet of the way. To this end, in the last volume he also eliminates the ultimate validity of non-Buddhist teachings. In Shinran's thinking, there can be no doubt that there is no room at all for any kind of relativism. Only 'The True teaching of the Pure Land Way' (jodoshinshu) can guide us to release from suffering and ignorance. Only the True Teaching is the manifestation and practice of the wisdom and compassion that fills the universe. Indeed, as far as Shinran is concerned, Shakyamuni's mission was exclusively to present the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

This absolutism needs to be understood because it serves to emphasise the uniqueness of Jodoshinshu. It is not founded on a narrow arrogance but on two salient facts that pertain to the teaching itself. The first is that the compassion of Amida Buddha is itself absolute and entirely unconditional. No other religion is as unequivocal as this. Even 'evil' people, or pariahs, are embraced unconditionally, with no requirement incumbent upon them, except to trust wholeheartedly in the Primal Vow, the Name, of Amida Buddha. A further absolute in Jodoshinshu that is unique comes from the fact that no dynamic is accepted apart from the absolute Other Power (zettai tariki). Some religious traditions come close to Jodoshinshu in regard to the former attribute but, none can approach it in the latter.

Shinran saw other Pure Land traditions as of value only to the extent that they had the capacity to assist people to attain birth in a Pure Land where they would eventually attain enlightenment. He also saw other, non-Pure Land Buddhist traditions as provisional, to the extent that they served to awaken people to the need to turn to the Pure Land way. When he surveyed other non-Buddhist religious traditions, Shinran classified them as invalid. Hence, it is clear that Shinran rejected, out-of-hand, any relativism in questions of religious teaching and awakening. There is only one 'True Teaching' (shinshu) and that is the 'True Teaching of the Pure Land Way' (jodoshinshu).

When it is considered that Jodoshinshu attracts a miniscule following in terms of the overall population of the world, and that Shinran himself was keenly aware - in keeping with the teachings within the Pure Land tradition itself - of the difficulty in accepting and holding to this 'easy path' (igyo mon) which is, paradoxically, 'the most difficult among the difficult', such claims seem to be audacious to the point of absurdity. How is it possible for a teaching with such a small following (some twenty-five million people, most of whom profess only nominal allegience) to sustain such an incredible claim?

As Shinran's exposition of Jodoshinshu unfolds in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, we come to realise just what he understands by his sense of the matchless truth of his insights. In fact, he makes no assertion that others ought to convert Jodoshinshu. Rather, he sees other religious traditions as serving as vehicles, which will ultimately deliver believers to the gate of the Primal Vow. While there is no relativity in his perspective, he knows that all other paths are useful but will ultimately be abandoned; they are used and then 'abandoned, after a while'.

Hence, the direction of Jodoshinshu - or so it seems to me, at any rate, - is not intolerance or absolutism but ultimacy. Indeed, we cannot come to the point of abandoning other teachings unless we are totally committed to them; unless we take them seriously and put our whole trust in them. Relativism will actually thwart this process. Half-hearted commitment will not do. We must be fully engaged with our own religion, whatever it may be. Any attempt to be partly this or partly that will not suffice. Partial commitment is too amorphous to be of any redemptive value. It is also incompatible with the Buddhist concept of eka-citta (isshin) - intense and focussed concentration and absorbtion.

In terms of relations with others - and communal harmony -, however, people are often troubled by the implications that flow from any narrow focus in regard to questions of religious faith. As we have seen, people sometimes characterise such attitudes in pejorative terms, instead of trying to understand the phenomenon. It is important to realise, however, that faith-commitments often arise from a very protracted and profound quest. As Nagarjuna pointed out, one of the gravest evils we can commit is to behave in a dismissive or derisive way in regard to the religious beliefs (dharma) of others. Indeed, he cautioned us that ridicule of another person's religion was the karma that would end in hell.

Although Relativity may be an important physical theory, relativism is an impossible and ill-considered attitude because it fatally undermines any inner centering, focus, purpose or identity.

There is no intrinsic relationship between religious teachings that have similar superficial characteristics. Sometimes, for example, it is suggested that Jodoshinshu is similar to Lutheranism. Such a comparision, however, neglects almost all of the specific characteristics of each tradition. In fact, when the teachings of their respective founders are carefully examined, it becomes quite clear that there is absolutely no relationship at all between them - and neither tradition has anything that is held in common.

Again, relativism sometimes uses evolution as a paradigm, whereby common characteristics are taken to be evidence of common origins. It seems to me, however, that evolution in this case means little; although it has some academic interest, to be sure. For, the organisms - whether ideological or biological - that grew from common ancestors have, nevertheless, become something unique and quite other than their antecedants. In the case of Jodoshinshu, however, we do not 'evolve' through various stages to Jodoshinshu, as though it is on some higher but linear plane. It is Shinran's contention that we 'abandon' altogether our original faith and 'turn' completely and unconditionally into the gate of the Primal Vow.

Such a perspective flies in the face of the human habit of wanting to see relativistic relationships between varying traditions. People confuse co-existence with tolerance. The tendency to want to see common threads in disparate realities is a function of human consciousness but it is, essentially, illusory. At the same time, the fact that differences and individuals have a unique and discreet reality, becomes a problem when it is suggested by conceptions of relativism that minor adjustments in outlook, belief or experience can move something that is essentially unique into another essence altogether. In the case of religion, this means, it is suggested, that all that is needed is to swap one god for another since all gods are really the same. What is needed, however, is the utter demolition of the original construct and the adoption of a new one.

Upon realising the ultimacy of Jodoshinshu, we are left with the question as to what we need to do about the fact that it is truth and everything else is either provisional or invalid. In this regard, I see no problem. We need only to be ourselves, just as we are, thoroughly, honestly and kindly. There is nothing we are required to do. It is not our business to compare ourselves with others.

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