Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 63

Due to the offence of doubting the Buddha's wisdom
One stops in the border land, the realm of sloth
    and complacency.
The offence of doubting is so grave,
That he is bound there many years and kalpas.

Duplicity

The purpose of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is to awaken us to his mind of shinjin; the entrusting heart that will result in our ultimate emancipation. Here, once again, we hear Shinran Shonin saying that doubt (giwaku, Sk. vicikitsa) will only serve to maintain our enslavement in samsara. From the context of this verse - and Shinran's other writings - we can see that by 'doubt' he intends all those things that we put in the way of the working of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. In this verse, 'doubting the Buddha's wisdom' is a very interesting phrase and one that is full of meaning.

Shinran only rarely gives definitive insights into shinjin. As we have already seen, he prefers an 'apophatic' approach, which means that - in typical Buddhist fashion - he defines shinjin in mainly negative terms; telling us what it is not. In the next few essays we will explore some of these in more detail. However, on this occasion Shinran speaks of 'doubting the Buddha's wisdom'. This suggests that it is pertinent to explore, for the moment, one of his clear descriptions of the opposite of this kind of doubt. By this I mean to raise the question: 'Just what is it, that is to be completely free of 'doubt in the Buddha's wisdom'?

A striking answer to this question can be found in one of Shinran's favourite passages from Pure Land literature.

O world-Honoured One, with singleness of mind, I
Take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions,
And aspire to be born in the Land of Peace
    and Bliss.
(Inagaki, 1998, p. 127)

As we have so often seen, 'singleness of mind' (isshin, Sk. ekacitta) is a phrase that is of core importance to Shinran's appreciation of Amida Buddha's shinjin. The one mind is Amida's mind that Shinran experienced as the entrusting heart. It is manifested in the Nembutsu, which is especially 'I take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions' (kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai). This wonderful phrase from the opening paragraph of Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Pure Land is the precise opposite of 'doubting the Buddha's wisdom', since light is Amida Buddha's wisdom..

Furthermore these opening words of Vasubandhu indicate that its antonym, 'doubt', is double-mindedness and not just a matter of uncertainty or lack of commitment, since accepting the Buddha's wisdom is 'single-minded'. To see 'giwaku' as 'double-mindedness' helps us to get a clearer idea of just what is meant and of its essentially headstrong character. Indeed, in this wasan, we hear doubt described as an 'offence' (tsumi). Tsumi, in modern Japanese, means a crime or misdemeanour. As I understand it, it is close to the English word 'sin', in the sense of wilful wrongdoing and, in this case, it even has relevance in the sense of disobedience, although, of course, without the theological implications.

You will remember that, in the Book of Practice (34) of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran tells us that 'kimyo' - the opening word of the ten-character form of the Nembutsu (above), and the equivalent of 'namu' - is the 'command of the Primal Vow' (CWS, p. 38). In this wasan, we hear that doubt is a grave error. We can only infer from these two ideas that there is a sense in which doubt is a tsumi because it is disobedience. It means that we are duplicitous, double-minded in a vicious way. There is something deceitful about it.

Indeed! It is self-deceit. It is a self-deceit that is an extreme form of arrogance and a complete failure to know and appreciate reality. I think it is fair to put it this way because of the strength of Shinran's language in this verse. Furthermore, it seems that he is expressing his own visceral feeling, since this wasan does not seem to draw on an earlier Pure Land text for inspiration, as many of them do.

This strength of feeling lends an importunate tone to Shinran's expression and makes his plea very hard to resist. I have always found this verse to be very arresting and have felt fairly certain that Shinran means here, not just 'doubt' but duplicity, which is a vice. One can sense a note of impatience, a rather accusing tone and a dire warning that is so stark that we feel compelled to listen. In this verse we hear again the 'command of the Primal Vow... (to go on) ... calling to, and summoning us.' (CWS, p. 38).

This reminds me of a common occurrence in our human experience. Have you ever been determined to do something special for someone - whether a loved one, a customer or an employer, for example - and gone to a great deal of trouble, with much effort to accomplish the task well? But, just as you are about to present the wondrous results of your toil, the person for whom it is intended asks you to do the job that you are just about to finish. This always conveys a sense of betrayal and lack of trust; it can be very disappointing and hurtful. 'How could they not know that I would do this, and do it well?' we ask ourselves.

I always feel so strongly that it is this same sense that Shinran has here; except that his anguish is on Amida Buddha's behalf. This is no wonder, since Shinran was a person of shinjin. He would see things - especially himself - in the light of Amida Buddha's wisdom: as a foolish being. This sensibility, or so it seems to me at any rate, would imbue a sense of hurt and even outrage that foolish people could try to do, for themselves, the task that Amida Buddha has already completed. And I think that, to a significant extent, Shinran is thinking of himself: remembering, no doubt, the efforts he made until the time of his meeting with Honen Shonin.

So it is that in Notes on 'The Essentials of Faith Alone', Shinran also expresses his feelings in similarly strong terms:

Even saintly people who observe these various Mahayana and Hinayana precepts can attain birth in the true fulfilled land only after they realize the true and real shinjin of Other Power. Know that it is impossible to be born in the true, fulfilled Pure Land by simply observing precepts, or by self-willed conviction, or by self-cultivated good. (CWS, p. 458)

So tsumi calls up for us again the karmic evil and the past, habitual actions (shukugo) and attitudes that have kept us in bondage to samsara. It is, above all, duplicity, wilful double-mindedness, that nutures the illusion of self and the belief that we have the capacity to fly free from from bondage and suffering through the round of births-and-deaths by own own paltry efforts.

For Shinran, the breaking free from this duplicity occured in the very moment of single-hearted trust in the wisdom of the Primal Vow. Is it any wonder that he became so conscious of the gravity of doubt in the Buddha's wisdom? Is it any wonder that he seems impatient with those who wilfully try to do the thing, that has already been completed for them, by the 'Tathagata of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions'?

- August 5, 2005.

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