Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 51

The directing of virtue embodied in Namu-amida-butsu,
Is, in its benevolent working, vast and inconceivable;
Through the benefit of the directing of virtue for going forth,
We enter the directing of virtue for returning to this world.

Beyond Comprehension

When shinjin is born in a person's heart, perception is elevated and enlivened, so that the nembutsu is seen for its underlying 'benevolent working'. It becomes a living reality and is known to be the working of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. It becomes the only light, the only teacher: hence, for Shinran, for example, any cognate that reminded him of 'light and life' would do as a form of words to represent Namu-amida-butsu. There is no such thing as shinjin that does not perceive the benevolent working of Namu-amida-butsu and understand it as both the substance and the expression of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

Nembutsu is no longer a strange phrase that has no relationship with us, it becomes compassion's call to suffering beings and the living virtue of the dharma body. Shinran is amazed to discover it thus. How could this have not been obvious to him before? He realises that shinjin is beyond description and beyond belief. Beyond comprehension, it is yet wondrous and awe-inspiring to find everything of truth and worth, everything of meaning, light, power, joy, and compassion - in the six syllables:

Namu-amida-butsu

Nembutsu is, indeed, wonderful beyond comprehension - it can neither be encompassed nor fully understood but it reveals an ineffable humility and intelligence in the 'wisdom that fills all things'. To discover the virtue of nembutsu is to find that it is not in grand gestures, pompous words, the exercise of power, or the external imposition of authority, that the truth of all existence is known... but in a sigh that is at once the most profound pain and deepest joy. The breeze stirring the leaves of the forest and unexpected beams of dawn light.

It is the spontaneous way (jinen) of non-contrivance, the way of the most profound freedom that demands nothing but facing up to the truth of things as they really are. The nembutsu is natural, spontaneous, always taking us by surprise and bringing us delight. It reminds me of streams of dawn sunlight appearing in the darkness of a forest, or the song of a solitary bird in the grasslands, or a new moon appearing just above the setting sun, or a little flower, growing from a crack in a busy footpath.

We are isolated from profoundly moving events, and we miss them, because we are not comfortable with the world as it really is. That is why the benign power of Namu-amida-butsu - something so natural, unassuming, and so plain - is so vast and difficult to comprehend. For we live in a world of grandiose distractions, of noise, of artificiality, of contrived and false beliefs, of masks, of lies, of self-importance: a world where there is no room for truth and, therefore, there is scant regard for Namu-amida-butsu.

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