Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 75

Since one has no faith in Amida's Primal Vow,
Though he is born, while retaining his doubt,
His flower will not blossom immediately.
Thus he is likened to being in a womb.

No Rejects

This verse of the Shozomatsu Wasan affords an opportunity to refine for ourselves the significance of two related features of Shinran Shonin's teaching. The first is the precise nature of 'doubt'. The other is the penultimate nature of birth in the 'provisional' Pure Land, whereby Amida Buddha's compassion triumphs even during the most dire karmic outcomes.

The Borderland or Womb Palace - the Provisional Pure Land - is the penultimate destiny for followers of the Nembutsu Way who continue to rely on their own efforts to become free of the results of their evil karma. Although the refrain in Shinran's Songs on Doubt is that 'doubt is a grave matter', in the final analysis, birth in the Womb Palace is still part of the compassionate working of Amida Buddha's Vow.

'Retaining doubt' means, simply, to continue in religious practices in the expectation that they will lead one out of samsara because of one's own effort. It is important to be clear that 'doubt' (gi) clearly does not necessarily mean 'unbelief', as it often does in English usage. Doubt, in Shinran's teaching, is not really related to concepts of 'sceptical doubt' and 'unbelief'. It may be manifested in a practical way, that is, lack of trusting in the Primal Vow. If we do not trust in the Primal Vow, we may find that we try to do for ourselves the things that have been completed for us by the Buddha, including both the Nembutsu and shinjin.

On the one hand, people who 'believe' in Amida Buddha may still be people of 'doubt' because their trust is not visceral and natural. It does not lead them to confidently abandon sundry practices, or to say the Nembutsu in a free, spontaneous manner as an expression of trust, acceptance and thanksgiving. On the other hand a person of a 'trusting heart' may not be particularly conscious of Amida Buddha as a distant object of faith but rather as a 'real person' - like a loving parent, perhaps -, with whom they have a dynamic, unselfconscious and unquestioning relationship. This latter perspective is mightily difficult to convey to other people, which gives a high level of plausibility to the traditional Pure Land caution that it is a supremely difficult path to teach.

Belief is not a prerequisite of discipleship in the Pure Land Way. Indeed, many, if not most forms of belief, comprise self-effort and calculation - sometimes very rational. It is worth noting that the Jodo Shinshu declaration known as the Ryogemon, (a 'statement of understanding'), which is mandatory for Hongwanji priests at their ordination, is not, strictly speaking, a creed. The use of the word 'creed' to describe the Ryogemon is an example of a tendency to use English terminology without taking account of its cultural accretions or the common understanding of what is meant by it. Credulity is not always the same thing as knowledge.

The Ryogemon does not mention belief in events, relationships that are not one's own or putative historical facts of any kind. Rather, it is a personal act of assent that is based, at every point, on the teaching of Shinran and Rennyo Shonin. In saying the Ryogemon, aspirants for ordination affirm that they are 'abandoning' all sundry practices and entrusting themselves to Amida Buddha, but they do not say that they believe in any particular doctrines or theses. The inner disposition is one of gnosis, of knowledge and understanding, rather than hope or belief.

Here, the teaching is not an alien thing. It is something that one takes upon oneself as a mandate, a charge and a duty that is born of gratitude; in the way that one might inherit a property from one's parents. One accepts one's inheritance from Amida Buddha. The question of belief in Amida Tathagata does not arise because, as the Anjin Ketsujosho suggests, the Nembutsu is so integral to one's own reality that it seems as odd to question this as to ask, in mid-morning, if the sun has risen. Doubt, then, is not unbelief. It is, rather, belief in impossible things: for example, that a bombu can use his bombu condition to attain Nirvana.

Needless to say, in spite of his references to the gravity of doubt (that is, of self-power practices), Shinran is at pains to assure us that we are, in any case, the object of Amida Buddha's compassionate Vow. In this verse, Shinran speaks of birth in the borderland, the womb-palace, in terms that remind us of a late flowering, as when someone realises their full potential late in life. Amida Buddha's light embraces and does not forsake those who say the Name for whatever reason. Birth in the womb palace or the borderland is penultimate. Far from being a sign of rejection for our failure to entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow, it is actually a sign of Amida Buddha's irresistable compassion.

The depth of the Buddha's benevolence is such that even with birth in the realm of indolence and pride, the borderland, the city of doubt or the womb-palace, which is brought about only through the compassion revealed in Amida's Nineteenth and Twentieth Vows, we meet with a happiness that surpasses understanding. Thus the depth of the Buddha's benevolence is without bound. But how much more should we realize the benevolence of the Buddha with birth into the true and real fulfilled land and attainment of the enlightenment of the supreme nirvana. (Lamp for the Latter Age, 2; CWS, p. 527)

Speaking of the most dire karma, slandering the Dharma, Shan-tao reflects on a similar outcome:

Even if one has committed it, one will nevertheless be grasped and brought to attainment of birth. Although one attains birth in the Pure Land, however, one must pass many kalpas enclosed in a lotus bud. Such people ... do not undergo any form of pain. In the sutras, it is taught that their state is like that of a bhiksu who has entered the bliss of the Third Dhyana Heaven. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, III, 121; CWS, p. 148.)

The embrace of Amida Buddha's Light cannot ultimately be resisted. It does not forsake people of the Nembutsu, whatever their disposition in relation to it. So it is that all Nembutsu people have a home within Amida Buddha's embrace and no one is rejected; not even those of doubt and self-power practices. Amida Buddha illumines everyone, even those who are not entirely sure about trusting him.

- October 28, 2005.

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