Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 59

The benevolence of the Tathagata's great compassion,
Even if we must crush our bodies, should be returned in
The benevolence of the masters and teachers,
Even if we must break our bones, should be returned in


nyorai daihi no ondoku wa
mi o ko ni shi to mo hozu beshi
shishu chishiki no ondoku mo
hone o kudaki te mo shasu beshi

In many Shinshu Temples and meeting-places, these words continue to resonate in the minds of those who attend, even as they make their way back into the world of work, family and the confusion and drudgery of everyday life. Along with the Ryogemon, which is a short statement of the received tradition of Shinshu, most Hongwanji members know the Ondokusan by heart.

Ondoku, the key word of this verse, means 'blessing'. It is not really a very good word but 'benevolence' sounds too cold and formal. Ondoku evokes, for me, a response that is filled with warmth, friendship, dependence, appreciation and indebtedness. It is indebtedness, gratitude, appreciation and being beholden to the overwhelming generosity (dana) of Amida Buddha, which is so great that any puny efforts on my part seem to be completely worthless. How on earth can anyone repay the opening of the way to Enlightenment - and release from samsara - that is bestowed by Amida Buddha? How can anyone repay the embrace that does not forsake, the light that fills the ten quarters?

Ondokusan is a verse that is based on the writings of Shan-tao:

For kalpas upon kalpas - stacked high and linked together - you should crush your bodies and break your bones to return in gratitude the Buddha's compassion.

I am sure this sense of gratitude is spontaneous and there is no doubt that it is expressed as 'Namo Amida Butsu':

True and real shinjin is unfailingly accompanied by the Name. (shinjitisu no shinjin wa kanarazu Myogo o gusu.) (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III.50, CWS, p. 107)

Gratitude abides as a definining characteristic of Nembutsu living. (Although 'gratitude' is too perfunctory a word for something so full of warmth and appreciation, it is impossible to avoid it.) In any case, since Shan-tao suggests that an expression of gratitude involves a crushing effort, how can it be the Nembutsu of Amida Buddha's shinjin, which requires no effort on our part.

Since it is an attitude that is integral to Nembutsu life, it is inevitable that gratitude is a pervasive phenomenon, yet it would seem that something additional to Nembutsu is intended. So it is, that, instead of being a matter of Nembutsu, attitude and demeanour, gratitude in Jodo Shinshu is occasionally interpreted in a mandatory way. While many people may feel moved to adopt extra practices, on their own initiative, as ways of expressing gratitude, any mandatory imposition of such practices, it seems to me, misses Shinran Shonin's interpretation of Shan-tao's statement.

I have heard of many ways that people attempt to impose on others some specfic view of how this gratitude should be expressed. It is easy, for example, to think that the phrases 'crush our bodies' and 'break our bones' may indicate some kind of ascetic practice. However, although it suggests 'effort' of some kind, it is not necessarily cruelty to oneself. Or, is it 'effort' (shojin haramitsu, Sk. virya paramita), one of the six Paramitas? The answer is that Shinran nowhere suggests any such thing.

I have also seen it suggested that gratitude is expressed by taking up the five 'right' practices (shugyo) that were outlined by Shan-tao. These are, reciting Pure Land Sutras, meditation on Amida Buddha and the Pure Land, worshipping Amida, saying the Nembutsu and making offerings to the Buddha. While this sounds feasible, it is, again, not suggested by Shinran that this is what is intended.

Indeed, when we chant sutras, it is usually just the gathas from the Larger Sutra, Shinran's poem, the Shoshinge, or the Amida Sutra that we use. These resources are really expansions of Namo Amida Butsu. The Shoshinge is essentially a form of taking refuge in the Three Treasures: Buddha (Amida), Dharma (the Primal Vow) and Sangha (the Seven Pure Land Masters). These sutras are hardly representative of the 'five right practices'.

Sometimes, too, it is suggested that we show our gratitude in ethics or obedience to precepts. This is possible, of course, but it would be a spontaneous ethic based on gratitude for those people and things that sustain our life so that we can hear the Dharma: our parents, friends, employers, family, our food and so on. This can surely not be a reference to the difficulty that Shan-tao suggests in the passage that is the basis for this wasan.

In any case, Shinran did not suggest that an ethical system - or adherence to precepts -, demonstrates gratitude to the Buddha. It is true that he did counsel us to behave in an ethical way but he never seems to have linked this to gratitude for the benevolence of the Buddha, which would be a kind of emotional blackmail. When Shinran did encourage us to be ethical, it was usually on the basis of casting off the 'evil of this world'. His strongest admonition in support of ethical behaviour appears in the sixteenth letter of the Lamp for Latter Ages (mattosho). He summarises his position in this way:

One must seek to cast off the evil of this world and to cease doing wretched deeds; this is what it means to reject the world and to live the nembutsu. (CWS, p. 547.)

Truly, the basis of the world is greed, anger and folly. Shinran is actually suggesting that those who live the Nembutsu way, naturally lose, over time (Shinran suggests), any antinomian (lawless) inclinations; any tendencies to act out anti-social impulses. His tone is cautionary and he is careful to remind us in a similar context (in other letters) that Amida Buddha embraces us, who are full of evil passions (bonno, Sk., kleshas), even though we may wonder how this is possible. However, in the ninteenth letter of Mattosho he says that after many long years of saying the Nembutsu the main 'sign of rejecting the world' is 'the change in the heart that had been bad, and warmth for friends and fellow-practicers'.

In any case, 'signs of rejecting the world' does not address the questions that arise from a concept of the gratitude, which is expressed in terms of 'crushing our bodies' and 'breaking our bones': massive, crushing effort.

Interestingly, it is Eshinni, Shinran's wife, who gives the most unequivocal quote from Shinran that explains how gratitude would express itself in the life of a Nembutsu follower, apart from saying the Nembutsu itself. In one of her letters, she quotes Shinran as saying:

... the repayment of the Buddha's blessing is to believe the teaching for oneself and then to teach others to believe (ji shin kyo nin shin)... this is the most difficult of all difficulties. (The Life of Eshinni Wife of Shinran Shonin, Yoshiko Ohtani, p. 95f.)

In addition to this, Eshinni quotes Shinran as also saying that 'the saying of the Nembutsu is sufficient in itself.' So, apart from Nembutsu, returning gratitude to the Buddha is believing the teaching for oneself and teaching others to believe. Furthermore in this letter, Shinran explicity says that other practices are irrelevant and unnecessary. Eshinni's letter tells us about a time that Shinran recited the Larger Sutra over and over again 'for the benefit of sentient beings', but realised that it was a dreadful mistake.

This, then, lies at the true heart of our response of gratitude for the Buddha's benevolence. Immediately we understand this, we can also understand why our bodies will be crushed and our bones broken. What is there in the universe and in eternity that is more difficult than this? The Nembutsu we say is 'the call of the Vow' and gratitude expresses itself, beyond this, when we explain the way of Nembutsu to others - the most difficult of all difficulties. This is the crushing debt that we owe to the Buddha and to the Dharma Masters.

Singing together the Ondokusan at the end of our Nembutsu meetings, we go out into the world knowing that our only burden is to 'believe the teaching for oneself and then to teach others to believe'.

- July 8, 2005.

The above fifty-eight wasans are on the Right, Semblance, and Last Dharma Ages.
(Ryukoku Translation Series Vol. VII. p. 59.)
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