Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 74

Those who practice the root of good
While believing deeply in the recompense of good and evil
Are good people whose minds are possessed of doubt;
Hence, they remain in the provisional, transformed lands.

Amida Buddha's Call

Shinran Shonin is remarkable and unique because of his extraordinary depth; especially his insight into both the Buddha Dharma and the genuine human experience, which all of us share. There are so many moments of acute understanding in his writing that one never tires of listening to him. But the kind of insight and understanding that he offers will not meet the expectation of people who believe that religion ought to bring material benefit or personal power and prestige. Neither will Shinran satisfy those who seek comforting assurances or a step-by-step pattern for living. Shinran is concerned with only one eternal question. It is the question that echoes down through twenty-five centuries. Like Shakyamuni, Shinran taught 'suffering and the relief from suffering', which is the central concern of the Buddha Dharma. It is also Shinran's primary concern.

To this end, Shinran penetrated to the true core of human existence. He stared reality in the face; he saw human life: not as we would like it to be, not as it should be, not as it could be, not as we want it to be, but as it actually is. Furthermore, he dedicated himself to the thorough exploration of the Buddha Dharma: not as it was popularly thought to be, not as scholars thought it should be, not as we might hope it is, but as it really is. I say this with absolute confidence, because anyone who travels in spirit, day by day, from sitting at the feet of Shinran, out into the harsh realities of daily living, into explorations of the sutras and teachings of the Buddha Dharma, will constantly return to Shinran and discover that here is someone who has understood thoroughly. It is an understanding that he arrived at: not by sitting contemplating theory, not by isolating himself from the messy realities of human existence, not by following a predetermined course of academic study - but by living, and thinking it through for himself.

The only way to discover this is to do it for oneself also and it is truly Shinran who will show us the way. Shinran shows us how to become 'true disciples of the Buddha'. He shows us how to be nembutsu followers, in such a way as to enable individuals, with their unique karma, to hear the dharma from their own perspective. He is an extraordinary teacher. There is no one in human history that is his equal. That is why Rennyo Shonin said of him:

Relative to his spiritual lineage, he is thought to have been the embodiment of Amida Tathagata and again, the reappearance of Master T'an-luan.1

In this verse of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran finally tackles two vital questions. One of them has universal significance and the other is relevant mainly to the Pure Land way. When he speaks of one who believes in 'the recompense of good and evil', and he describes 'a good person of a doubting mind', Shinran critiques the use of religion to bolster mere ethical considerations. Goodness does not generate final liberation. Of course, it is not that goodness is to be dismissed as unimportant. In society there are few who do not wish to be seen as 'good' people. It is just that goodness is inherently superficial. The generation of good karma is desirable if we want to avoid unnecessary suffering and obtain a favourable birth, but it does not set us free. Just as good karma, by definition, keeps us 'wandering through births-and-deaths', so the good karma of reciting the nembutsu with self-effort will also keep us in the 'provisional, transformed land' and will not result in final release from suffering for ourselves and others.

The second question that Shinran addresses has become controversial at times. It is the question of whether or not the practice of the nembutsu will itself generate the shinjin that results in birth in the True Pure Land (the inconceivable birth). Here, in this verse, as far as I can see, Shinran finally closes off any such possibility. It is not true to say that self-power nembutsu and, by implication, any of the other auxiliary practices (for example, meditation) will generate Amida Buddha's true shinjin. Although it is tempting to think otherwise, such practices did not lead Shinran himself to shinjitsu shinjin, true shinjin. We see clearly in the concluding passages of the The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation that only by abandoning, relinquishing, all auxiliary practices and self-power nembutsu could he take refuge in the Primal Vow; the 'gate of true thusness'.

In the sixty-sixth verse of Hymns of the Pure Land, and a verse that we have more recently encountered in our journey through the Hymns, the sixty-sixth verse of Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran seems to suggest that self-power nembutsu will lead to the awkening of shinjin. However, such a reading - or so it seems to me, at any rate - not only fails to take into account Shinran's own experience, as he relates it, but is wrong when seen in the context of the body of his teachings. Indeed, it seems to me to be very likely that Shinran produced the verses on doubt, which we are currently considering, precisely with a view to making his position clear. Just as the most recent version of our last will and testament overwrites any earlier ambiguities, so does Shinran's writing.

Although the sixty-sixth verse of the Hymns of the Dharma-ages speaks of a nembutsu practice that is 'self-power and with a doubting mind', it also suggests that a conversion in attitude is required. In other words, there must be an inner transformation that is associated with the awakenning of shinjin, which is not generated by self-power nembutsu. It seems to me, above all, that Shinran's focus in his teaching was not the nembutsu itself, since it is a given, an integral part of the Pure Land way. Shinran's concern is with motive. He seeks to distinguish the fact that we say the nembutsu from our reason for saying it. The true reason is in having no reason for saying it. Shinran seems to be speaking of a nascent awakening that is tantamount to an evolving shinjin awareness. It is the inner disposition that is important, not the act of saying the nembutsu. It is not the nembutsu of self-power that leads to true shinjin but a free, trusting, and accepting heart.

This is a mystery but I was careful in writing my comments on the sixty-sixth verse of the Hymns of the Pure Land to show that without mentioning faith, there is, nevertheless a nembutsu that simply accepts the Primal Vow in love and trust, without asking whether or not shinjin is involved. The mystery is: that it is difficult to say the nembutsu without some measure of trust in the dharma of Amida Buddha. What Shinran is critiquing in this section of the Hymns is the attempt to accrue merit for oneself in the belief that nembutsu is a good practice that will contribute to it. He clearly sees self-power nembutsu, not as a preparatory practice but as a distortion of it.

It seems to me that the upshot of his critique is that there are two types of nembutsu practice. One is what I would call a mercantile nembutsu: a quantitative, calculating, self-interested shomyo nembutsu. The other is devoid of all considerations; it is open, trusting and free. The self-interested nembutsu is self-power nembutsu of a doubting mind

The Buddha who vowed to 'lead all beings to enlightenment' calls to us in Namu-amida-butsu. As long as we are hearing the sound of our Namu-amida-butsu as something that we can use to our own ends, to amass goodness for ourselves, we are simply not listening. But when we abandon ourselves and just say the nembutsu we will hear the true source of the voice that calls. In exhorting us to abandon ourselves and to trust Namu-amida-butsu, Shinran's voice is the calling voice of Amida Buddha. Shinran's nembutsu was the 'call of Amida Buddha's Vow'. The voice of Shinran and the voice of Amida Buddha cannot be distinguished from each other. That is not the 'practice the root of good'; it is not the 'mind possessed of doubt'.


1. Guzoku Sho, tr.: Elson B Snow

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