Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 57

O! Great Pure Land masters of three countries,
Receive and hold us in your pity!
Nurture true faith in us, and
Let us be led into the rightly determined state!


At first glance this Wasan seems to be a prayer to the Pure Land Masters, calling upon them to endow upon us Amida Buddha's 'true and real shinjin' (shinjitsu shinjin), which is the assurance of Enlightenment. 'True and real shinjin', as we have already seen, is the 'stage of the truly settled' (joju). It is the 'joyful faith' that is endowed by the Power of the Primal Vow. Because it is the 'stage of the truly settled', but not yet Enlightenment itself, Shinran adds a marginal note that says,

l.4: please bring us to enter the stage of unfailing attainment of Buddhahood.

By adding the term '... and so on' (to) at the end of the first line of this verse, Shinran calls not only upon the Pure Land Masters, but upon others to whom he turns as sources for his writings. Shinran made it his task throughout the last three decades of his life (the time, during which he lived in Kyoto) to listen closely to the Pure Land philosophers who had lived throughout the two millennia of the Buddhist dispensation (Sk., buddha sasana). From them he drew all of his inspiration, which he interpreted in the light of the understanding that he had received from Honen Shonin. Obviously, the principal outcome of this endevour was the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, his compendium of the Pure Land teaching, which not only reiterates Honen's teaching but refines and elucidates it as well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that it is to these great thinkers that Shinran should turn at the conclusion of his fifty verses on the Right, Semblance and Last Dharma-Ages. For, these great Masters lived during the Semblance and Last Dharma Ages. Of course, the Larger Sutra was no doubt originally transmitted orally by teachers, who lived during the five hundred year period that immediately followed Shakyamuni. However, the Indian Masters (Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu) lived during the Semblance Dharma Age and, by one of Shinran's calculations, the Chinese Masters (T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao) and the Japanese Masters (Genshin and Honen) all lived in the Last Dharma Age. This was the time, during which the Pure Land Way gained ascendency, largely on the basis of its capacity to meet human need during the Last Dharma Age.

Shinran's plea that the eminent Pure Land teachers of the Ages should 'nurture true faith in us' (CWS: '[guide] us to realisation of true and real shinjin') is surely not a request for some sort of supernatural or magical intervention; neither does it invoke a mystic transference of grace from them. The nurturing (or guidance) comes by way of their writings. We can be quite certain that the eminent Pure Land teachers, whom Shinran so revered, enlighten posterity and nurture true faith by this means, and this means alone. Their commentaries and inspired works have the capacity to awaken true shinjin in us because they did so for Shinran.

The writings of the great Dharma Masters provide everything that is needed for a full realisation of the shinjin that 'bring[s] us to enter the stage of unfailing attainment of Buddhahood'. It is these scriptures and texts that form the foundation of the Pure Land Way. Therefore, it can truly be said that any 'practice' in Jodo Shinshu is to 'listen to Shakyamuni and the eminent Pure Land teachers'. The role of any later teacher, like Shinran, is simply to convey, albeit in more contemporary terms, the contents of the thought of these self-same Dharma Masters. All that really remains for us, is to listen to these men, and allow them to 'nuture true shinjin in us' - the true shinjin that is the cause for becoming a Buddha.

Birth does not become settled, however, by virtue of mere study of the Dharma Masters. If their writings do not nurture true shinjin in us, then they serve no purpose at all. Our 'listening' to them is consonant with Nembutsu - indeed, it is Nembutsu - in the sense that it helps beyond calculation if we are on the same path as they are and seeking answers in our common contemplation - as finite beings - of the Infinite. Neither is the written legacy of the eminent Pure Land teachers intended to serve as material for disputation, scholarly or otherwise. There is, in their words, no mystical power to transform us; it seems to me that they ought to be heard in a context of a process, whereby we listen also to our own hearts.

The end result of any study is, in Shinran's words:

... more and more [to realise] Amida's fundamental intent and [grow] in awareness of the immensity of the compassionate Vow, so that one can explain, to those who anxiously wonder how birth is possible for wretched people like themselves, that the Primal Vow does not discriminate as to whether one's mind is good or evil, pure or defiled.
(Tanni Sho 12; CWS, p. 670.)

Listening to the Dharma Masters is identical to the traditional process - in other Buddhist schools of thought - of visiting a temple and attending to the instruction of a resident mendicant. For the Dharma Masters are our Sangha - our community of wise monks. These are holy men, of profound wisdom and insight, whose life was dedicated to study and dhyana practice. Many of them, like Shan-tao, had direct and personal encounters with Amida Buddha; they saw into the heart of the infinite reality and returned, like Shakyamuni, to expound what they had seen, and heard, to those of us who hunger for more news of the Dharma.

As the Pure Land Way begins to settle into the hearts of people in strange lands - environments, which have no traditional Buddhist background - it is imperative that we make a special effort, even though it may sometimes be arduous, to sit at the feet of our founding Sanhga, the Dharma Masters. There is some evidence already that the central insight of Shinran, which is summarised in the quotation above, is being hidden from view due to a lack of grounding in the profound and pellucid wisdom of the third tier of the Triple Gem in our Pure Land Way.

Some of us, at least, should take up the call of these wonderful teachers, and travel together in our hearts to their temples, so that we may sit at their feet and listen to their gentle, kind and wise words, in love and awe. The wonder is: that we will discover with Shinran, that, yes, they still live, and their compassion still embraces us, even now.

Some Suggested Reading on the Eminent Pure Land Teachers

It is always possible to draw close to the Pure Land Masters by using Shinran's Kyo Gyo Shin Sho as a reference. In this compendium, Shinran classifies extracts of the teachings of the Masters into relevant categories, whereby we can gain a clearer understanding of the significance of their writings in addressing specific questions that we may have. Nevertheless, the following list provides an opportunity to visit each Dharma Master within his own specific geographical, philosophical and temporal context.

  • The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine, Kenneth K. Tanaka, SUNY. This book is about the writings of Ching-ying Hui-yüan.
  • The Three Pure Land Sutras, Hisao Inagaki, Nagata Bunshodo. This book gives detailed information about selected and prominent Pure Land Masters throughout the ages.
  • Nembutsu: Nembutsu in Shinran and His Teachers, Shinei Shigefuji, Buddhist Churches of America.
  • Nagarjuna's Discourse on the Ten Stages, Hisao Inagaki, Ryukoku University.
  • T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land, Hisao Inagaki, Ryukoku University.
  • The Way to Nirvana, Ryosetsu Fujiwara, The Kyoiku Shincho Sha. This book deals with the writings of Shan-tao.
  • The Teachings Essential for Rebirth, Allan A. Andrews, Sophia University, Tokyo. This covers the teaching of Genshin.
  • Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu, Morris J. Augustine and Kondo Tessho. This is a translation of Honen's principal work.

These books serve as an excellent basis for further exoploration of the Pure Land Masters through the ages. Some are available from the Nagata Bunshodo website. Others can be found at the Buddhist Churches of America Book Store. Finally, a web-search and a visit to an on-line retailer may also help.

- June 24, 2005.

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