Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 61

Because one doubts the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
And prefers to pronounce the nembutsu through
    self-power,
One stops in the border land, the realm of sloth and
    complacency:
There is no gratitude for Buddha's benevolence.

The Wasan

How joyous I am, Gutoku Shinran, disciple of Sakyamuni! Rare is it to come upon the sacred scriptures from the westward land of India and the commentaries of the masters of China and Japan, but now I have been able to encounter them. Rare is it to hear them, but already I have been able to hear. Reverently entrusting myself to the teaching, practice and realization that are the true essence of the Pure Land way, I am especially aware of the profundity of the Tathagata's benevolence. Here I rejoice in what I have heard and extol what I have attained. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Preface)

Whenever you read this final paragraph of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, do you not also weep with joy? When I read it for the first time, I wept, even though I knew nothing of the content of the book that followed. Later I discovered it to be the most wonderful document that has ever been compiled and that it is utterly without peer. There is nothing that is half as wonderful as this. Master Zuiken Inagaki described the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho as 'The Book of Life'. And, so it is.

We have already seen that 'awakening faith and causing others to awaken it' is the task of those who feel gratitude for the Dharma; the gratitude that cannot be contained. It is this that clearly drove Shinran to write and teach, even though many tried to stop him; even though an arrogant elite tried to stop him. You cannot imprison joy, even though those whose hearts are built of clay illusions cannot understand it.

Shinran seems, almost entirely, to have been moved to set down his understanding of the Dharma of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha from the boundless reserves that were fuelled by the joy and gratitude that he felt. It is well-recognised that he did not intend to create any new religious movement. Rather, he clearly saw himself as a mouthpiece for established truths. In writing the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, he skilfully speaks in terms that clarify the Dharma in revealing ways, casting old concepts in new lights and uncovering ageless anomalies and peculiarities in the traditional understanding of the Buddha's teaching. He did this in such a way as to allow the powerful light of the Primal Vow to be clearly seen.

He adds nothing. Rather, he serves as a filter, which separates out extraneous matter and those encrusted obfuscations that were tending only to serve the designs of vested interests. The result is a clear image of the Dharma: one that is quite remarkable.

Because he had written the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho in kambun (the Japanese form of classical Chinese), Shinran quickly realised that he also needed to address ordinary people who could not read it. It seems to me to be very likely that Shinran used the kambun form because the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is essentially a compendium of ancient texts that were written in that style and not as an apologia that was directed at the scholarly classes.

It is sometimes claimed that Shinran intended the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho to be a scholarly work but, if this is so, why does he address ordinary, confused people and not scholars in the Preface? Instead, I think he was writing as a way of setting out a schema that was a declaration of his joy, yet he felt it appropriate to use the sacred language of the Dharma as a way of honouring it, in the first instance.

Shinran seems to have turned his hand to composing the songs, the Wasan, which this website has been created to promote, almost immediately upon the completion of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. It would seem to me that this may well indicate that he always intended to write in the language of ordinary people. He describes Wasan, not so much as 'Japanese Songs', which is the literal meaning of the word, but as 'softened praise', indicating his intention of making the Dharma more accessible. He explains similar intentions, in writing in this way, at the end of another early work called Yuishinsho Mon'i (Notes on 'Essentials of Faith Alone').

That people of the countryside, who do not know the meanings of written characters and who are painfully and hopelessly ignorant, may easily understand, I have repeated the same things over and over. The educated will probably find this writing peculiar and may ridicule it. But paying no heed to such criticisms, I write only that ignorant people may easily grasp the meaning. (CWS p. 469.)

The Wasan, then, are essentially the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho set down in verse. Indeed, Zuiken Inagaki recommended the Wasan as the basic text, which should be studied by followers of the Nembutsu Way. In a letter to an enquirer, written several decades ago, Zuiken said that, although the Tanni Sho had become a popular manual for Shinshu followers, the Wasan served as a more thorough-going guide. I do not remember his reasons for saying this, but perhaps the Wasan cover more aspects of the Dharma, leaving nothing of importance out. This contrasts with the Tanni Sho, which is a secondary document that deals with common misunderstandings, to correct them. We need both books but the Sanjo Wasan is the basic guide.

The Wasan are based on the imayo style, which was a form of song that was gaining in popularity in Shinran's time. It was used to celebrate the lives of famous monks and nuns, but also of farmers and trades-people. It is a form that is easy to commit to memory and it seems to me to be very likely that this was Shinran's intention. If he was writing for people who were 'painfully and hopelessly ignorant', then it is hard to be believe that his intenton could have been otherwise. One thing that often exercises my mind is whether or not those who used his songs could have understood their content.

It seems to me more likely that Shinran's principal intention was to capture their interest. Given the profane use to which the imayo song style was also put, it is clear that Shinran was keen to reach to the very heart of ordinary, uneducated society, using the most popular vehicle he could find. Imayo songs were also integral to the equivalent of troubadors and the music of bawdy houses. Since, indeed, imayo songs are hardly all the rage in our time, I am sure that - had he lived now - he would have used rap music or web logs. To use another fairly precise correlation between then and now, Eminem could have been a purveyor of the Dharma, or perhaps, it may have been presented on Big Brother or in an article in Playboy or Unzipped.

It is easy to forget the extent to which Shinran went to present the Dharma, literally to the masses (gummo), including the outcastes of society. It is tragic beyond description that we are so unwilling to do the same thing now. The only excuse we can really have is that it is a hard thing to do. But what about the mandate from Shan-tao that we should 'repay our gratitude, though our bones be crushed'?

- July 22, 2005.

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