Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 68

People, doubting the Buddha's inconceivable wisdom,
Yet relying on the fundamental good and virtue,
Are born in the borderland, the realm of sloth and
Where the great love and great compassion are

Love and Compassion

Although it does not sound like it, 'relying on the fundamental good' refers to one's own attempt to leverage, for oneself, birth in the Pure Land. Shinran Shonin's use of the word 'tanomu', suggests a reference to the 'faith and practice of the 20th Vow'. Here he stresses the tragic failure to encounter the very thing that is real and true: the mercy and compassion of Infinite Light. This tragedy occurs because, by rejecting the shinjin of the Primal Vow, we also reject great mercy and great compassion (daiji daihi). Shinran, once again, draws upon ideas from the sutras and the commentarial tradition of the Pure Land Way, which suggest that our birth in the Pure Land will only be partial and provisional if we pursue it by means of our own efforts.

The interesting thing is that we would not seek mercy and compassion unless we felt that we were actually in need of it. As we have seen, shinjin consists of the 'twofold deep conviction' (nishu jinshin):

One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha's Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III, 13; CWS, p. 85: A quote from Shan-tao.)

The twofold deep conviction is at once the recognition that we are in need of mercy and compassion; and that mercy and compassion grasps us: carrying us out of the realm of birth-and-death. It is Amida Buddha's shinjin, Other Power, which awakens us to our need, and it is Amida Buddha's shinjin, which brings the realisation that our need has been met. People of shinjin respond to love and compassion because love and compassion has made their need evident. The person of self-power Nembutsu ('the fundamental good and virtue') believes that he is adequate to the task. He does not recognise his need. He has not 'heard' the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in the depths of his being and in association with his inner reality, so he does not trust it.

In the scheme of things, the person who does not recognise his shortcomings considers himself to be the repository of sufficient virtue to attain objectives that represent higher states of spiritual awakening. Whether such people actually exist or whether such thinking is delusion, I do not know. Needless to say, there are actually only very few people who understand what it is to be desperately in need of mercy and compassion. Yet, such a recognition, which is accompanied by the acceptance of Amida Buddha's Name, represents an awakening that is utterly liberating and joyful; bringing about a new perspective on life; opening up a bright new way of seeing things and a way to traverse this saha world, this world of endurance.

It seems to me, however, that, in fact, those who continue to follow the way of self-power are simply unaware of essential things. As we have already seen, we need to explore our own genuine capacity in the face of the task at hand. The objective of the Mahayana, at any rate, is nothing short of becoming a Buddha. We need to listen closely to the Larger Sutra and discern the precise nature of a Buddha's character and virtue. The Bodhisattva Dharmakara is our role model and bench mark; he is the standard that we are to attain if we are to truly benefit both ourselves and others. If we fall short at any point, it is because our very existence is redolent with existential infirmity. Shinran quotes the relevant passage from the Larger Sutra in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho:

No thought of greed, anger, or harmfulness arose in his mind; he cherished no impulse of greed, anger, or harmfulness. He did not cling to objects of perception - color, sound, smell, taste. Abounding in perseverance, he gave no thought to the suffering to be endured. He was content with few desires, and without greed, anger, or folly. Always tranquil in a state of samadhi, he possessed wisdom that knew no impediment. He was free of all thoughts of falsity or deception. Gentle in countenance and loving in speech, he perceived people's thoughts and was attentive to them. He was full of courage and vigor, and being resolute in his acts, knew no fatigue. Seeking solely that which was pure and undefiled, he brought benefit to all beings. He revered the three treasures and served his teachers and elders.f He fulfilled all the various kinds of practices, embellishing himself with great adornments, and brought all sentient beings to the attainment of virtues. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III, 22; CWS p. 95f.)

Amida Buddha's Light is the wisdom of this virtue that is empty of self and overwhelms the evil karma of others. It is the embrace of great love and it is great compassion. Why, then, resist its embrace? This is a profound mystery, that is, perhaps explained by the way that we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment at creating something for ourselves: like building a nice piece of furniture or growing a beautiful garden. It becomes a mystery, however, when it is forgotten that nothing is ever actually our achievement. We could do nothing without the wood for the furniture, the food to sustain our lives, the light to see by, the shelter to work in, the tools to do the job - even the appreciation of our friends. There could be nothing without the input from almost everything that is not us! Even the energy we use to think about and prepare the plans, and to do the work, does not originate in us!

Self-power itself is an illusion. If we resort to it for our ultimate destiny we will end only with a greater, more glorious illusion.

The virtue of great love and great compassion embraces us as we accept the Name and the entrusting heart. We are inherently so limited and deluded that it is hard to see how anything at all can be done without it.


- September 9, 2005.

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