Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 52

Out of the great compassion of outgoing
    merit-transference,
The great care of merit-transference of returning is
    attained.
If it were not for the Tathagata's merit-transference,
How could we ever attain realisation in the Pure Land?

Suffering

The Sanskrit term karuna, which is usually translated as 'compassion', is represented by Japanese characters that are pronounced 'ji' and 'hi'. In this Wasan each of these characters is used in the two opening lines. In this translation 'great compassion' is originally daiji and 'great care' is daihi. In The Collected Works of Shinran (p. 411) 'great love' is used in the first instance and 'great compassion' in the second. Obviously the translators have not wanted to sound repetitive. However, the word compassion could easily have been used in both cases. A summary of these two lines would be, 'by the power of compassion we become compassion'.

This verse is vitally important, because it highlights the Mahayana bona fides of the Pure Land tradition. One of my early encounters with Shin was in a small booklet that a friend of mine gave to me after she had returned from a holiday in Japan, where she had visited the Honpa Hongawanji in Kyoto. This booklet opened with a very striking and clear statement that Jodo Shinshu is the 'Way of Going and Returning by the grace (sic) of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.' It said that through the Nembutsu we are born into the Pure Land and return to the world of suffering to help living beings.

The impact of this claim was powerful for me because, until then, my great misgiving about the Buddha Dharma had been its apparent selfishness. I had not understood it at all, of course, because it is nothing of the kind. For, when Shakyamuni attained Enlightenment, he did not disappear into Nirvana but actively returned to teach the Dharma and to bring relief to suffering beings. Furthermore, I had been poorly informed about the Pure Land Way, since people are distracted by the concept of the Pure Land and not by the function and purpose of the Pure Land teaching.

The Mahayana is the successor of Shakyamuni's example. Although there are, indeed, some Buddhists who strive to attain the status of Arhat and become free of suffering for themselves, the Mahayana is the 'Buddha-vehicle'. It is the sphere of endevour whereby people aspire to replicate the pattern of the buddha-carita that was represented, in this era, by Shakyamuni: returning to 'the boundless ocean of birth-and-death' until it is exhausted.

Thus, the Mahayana conceives of the Enlightenment of compassion as alive, and active, in the world. Since it is our task to join this activity, the image of the Pure Land as a paradise - a final resting place for tortured souls - is a grotesque caricature of the reality. Such an idea is neither Buddhist nor compatible with the Mahayana. It is certainly not in keeping with the teaching of Shinran and Jodo Shinshu

Whereas the common conception of the Buddha Dharma is that it promises the individual a way of life that is insulated from suffering, the fact is that this is a superficial misconception. The Buddha Dharma seeks the ultimate relief of suffering, to be sure, but it actually invites us to deeper engagement in it until that time. The 'relief of suffering' is not a reference to the suffering of an individual but of all suffering (Sk. dhukkha), as an entity and condition of existence.

Upon awakening Enlightenment, and realising the Fourfold Noble Truth, a Buddha takes on the suffering of beings. The meaning of compassion in the Mahayana is not the pity that an individual may feel for beings who are entirely unlike him. The awakening of a Buddha is the removal of a concept of self and of the ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya) that isolates, confuses and oppresses the suffering being, thus making possible a total identity with those in anguish.

The distinction between an unenlightened suffering being and that of a Buddha is not the removal of suffering from the equation but a radical difference in perspective. We, unenlightened men and women, experience suffering as something that happens to us, but the Enlightened One knows suffering as integral to existence.

The very purpose of the Nembutsu Way is not an ultimate escape from suffering but a new relationship with it. For ordinary beings, dhukkha is a source of pain, distress and oppression but, for a Buddha, the task of taking on the suffering of the world is qualified by compassion and understanding; it is something that must be addressed on a cosmic scale. It is seen for what it is and, thus loses its oppressive nature.

The Sankrit word karuna can easily be seen as a kind of rational concept. Compassion is the only word we have for it but it is inadequate because it lacks the actual reality of the agony of the object of the compassion. Karuna has, indeed, no object; it becomes the suffering being. That is why it is possible to speak of 'merit-tranference' and 'receiving the virtue of the Name'. The Nembutsu tells us that the Buddha has actually taken on the very reality of our being, closer and more intimate than our thoughts - indeed, much deeper still, at the very core of existence. The Nembutsu signifies, in its form and dynamism, the adoption of our inner lives as integral to it. Amida Buddha thus becomes us, exactly as we are, in namu-amida-butsu.

The virtue of Amida Buddha's compassion serves only this purpose: the extension of his compassion to all beings, until 'the endless stream of birth-and-death is exhausted'. So it is that those who accept his compassion, indeed, become his compassion in the realm of suffering. Birth in the Pure Land is not the end, but the beginning. The outcome of compassion is 'the great care of merit-transference in returning'.

- May 20, 2005.

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