Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 50

Those born in the fulfilled land - practicers of shinjin -
    are few;
Those born in the transformed lands - practicers of self-power -
    are many.
Since enlightenment cannot be attained through self-power,
We have been transmigrating for innumerable kalpas.

Two Ways, One Compassion

This verse really begins a trend within the Shozomatsu Wasan, in which Shinran delineates those things that characterise two groups of people: 'those who practice' (gyoja) and 'those who trust' (shinja). As the Shozomatsu Wasan progresses, Shinran imparts more detail about the respective approach of each of these groups; he discusses the ultimate significance, for each group, of the method that they have adopted. So, there is no need for us to consider that kind of detail at this time.

Nevertheless, the two tendencies of practicers and followers, gyoja and shinja, has been common within the Buddhist community since its inception. Indeed, there is a well-known story that Shakyamuni once adjudicated between those of 'practice' (yoga, Jp. gyoja) and the people of discipleship, followers, shinja. The practicers tended to emphasise dhyana, which is usually translated as meditation, while the followers were those who questioned the dharma through study and discussion. In dealing with the dispute amongst his disciples as to which group was more faithfully following the dharma, Shakyamuni made it clear that each group had its place, and that each should appreciate and respect the other.

In a Sutra, however, Shakyamuni clearly indicated that the 'followers' (the people of faith - prasada) would attain the highest birth:

Those who have faith in the Buddha, have faith in the highest, and for those who have faith in the highest, the highest karmic outcome will be theirs. (Anguttara Nikaya IV.34.)

As far as I know, he did not say anything like that about the 'practicers'.

The principal distinguishing features between each group is that followers question, while practicers create. As we shall see later, this latter sense of creation is ultimately cramping and, obviously, a source of restriction and limitation. It neverthess forms an interesting study in the spritual significance of attitudes and temperamental tendencies.

In the context of Pure Land Buddhism, then, the nembutsu is the common factor. Followers experience the nembutsu as the call of the Primal Vow, while practicers see it as a vehicle that will deliver an outcome. Hence, in the symbology of the Pure Land that Shinran uses, the practicers are attempting to create a Pure Land for themselves: there are many such lands. It also seems to me that this is why Rennyo Shonin suggests, in one of his letters, that a sign of faith is a questioning attitude. This is a very different concept of faith from the one that is perpetrated in most English usage.

The context of nembutsu for followers is the interrogation of the dharma. If one experiences the nembutsu as the call of the Primal Vow of Amida then the response is obviously to ask it what it wants. Followers are listeners: readers, students and questioners. Even when they speak or chant sutras, they are asking questions and listening. This does not mean that they are quietists or pietists, although some are, and they are paradoxically apt to be noiser than practicers. After all, if you ask a question and get an answer that moves you, it is natural to want to tell everyone about it.

Followers are not really very interested in the Pure Land because all that matters to them is to hear the call of the Vow. They know that they will hear it whatever may befall them, - and that the nembutsu will always be on their lips - and they are content with that.

The context of nembutsu for practicers is the application and employment of the dharma. Practicers tell the dharma what they expect from it and then strive to get it. Outcomes are expected and there is no questioning because their own objectives are their starting point. Practical matters and order are important and everything needs to have a functon and purpose. Practicers are unlikely to change their minds in the face of new ideas or evidence because the effort that their practice has needed on the way has been too great an expenditure.

Practicers desperately want to born in the Pure Land and attain nirvana or be born as bodhisattvas. Their status in matters of the dharma is of great concern and they experience anxiety about it quite a lot.

Well, of course, all of this is speculation but, from the kind of things that Shinran says, it seems to me that these are some of the characteristics that one may find in each respective group. In any case, this goes some way towards explaining the significance of different consequences for different people. As we can see from this verse, Shinran certainly does distinguish between two different kinds of nembutsu people.

But before we begin to become too self-assured, or to place ourselves within one group or the other, there is something else that Shinran tells us in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (V, 39, CWS, p. 203). This is that, despite the distinctions between the two groups, the destiny of both is Amida Buddha's contrivance. It is the work of his great Compassionate Vow.

No matter who we are, there is nothing that Amida Buddha has not done for us; there is no limit to his Compassionate Vow. There is no limit at all.

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