Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 76

The Bodhisattva Maitreya
Said to the World-honoured one,
'What is the cause and condition of
"Womblike birth" and "transformative birth"?'

Womblike Birth

In the tradition of the Buddha Dharma, 'birth' (Sk. jati) describes the karmic outcome that follows 'death' (Sk. marana). Jati-marana is the repetitive process of the entire scope of samsara - of life fuelled by desire, wrath and folly - forming and re-forming itself into individual entities, throughout time and space, endlessly. Such a process is an enslaving, oppressive reality that can only be ended in the freedom (Sk. moksha) that results from enlightenment (Sk. bodhi). Bodhisattvas willingly re-enter this process in order to lead others to the freedom that they have found. It is this 're-entry' of Bodhisattvas in order to help others that is the basis and motivation of the Pure Land way, especially in the light of the teaching of Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, Master T'an-luan and Shinran Shonin.

Speaking of Vasubandhu, it is his great work Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam, that provides us with the most detailed analysis of the process of birth-and-death. Chapter three gives detail of the various kinds of birth.

There are here four 'wombs' [Sk. yoni] of beings, beings born from eggs &c.1

Yoni, we are told, means 'womb' and signifies 'mixture', because birth is common to all living things. Everything is born and dies. The four yonis are: eggs, wombs, moisture and transformative birth. Beings born from eggs includes 'geese, cranes, peacocks, parrots and thrushes'. Mammals all have womb birth. Beings born from moisture are animals like maggots, which seem to arise spontaneously from rotting corpses. They were thought to emerge from the elements by a concentration of fundamental particles.

Transformative birth is spontaneous. Such birth applies to beings who arise fully grown and complete, 'with their organs neither lacking nor deficient, with all their major and minor limbs intact.' They are apparitional (Sk. upapaduka) because 'they are skilful at appearing, and because they arise all at once.' Apparitional birth is of complex value because it is the best kind of yoni - gods have apparitional birth -, although it is also the way of birth for hellish beings.

In the Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam a we are told that Shakyamuni chose womb birth in spite of the fact that he was at the last stage of his bodhisattva career and could have chosen a transformative birth if he had wanted to. This is consistent with our Pure Land tradition in that the twenty-second Vow of Amida Buddha offers us the capacity to choose the kind of yoni most appropriate for the work of saving others that we want to undertake.

The Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam gives two reasons for Shakyamuni's choice. The first is that he wanted to form a familial relationship with the Shakya clan. His second reason for a womb birth was that he wanted his ashes to be available as relics:

... through the adoration of these relics, humans and other creatures obtain... deliverance.2

Buddhist relics are housed in stupas. These relics were originally the ashes of Shakyamuni, which were divided up into five portions and distributed after his cremation. Adoration at stupas has been a central and most popular Buddhist practice since that time. When it comes to birth in the Pure Land only transformative and womb-like birth is relevant. Transformative birth arises for beings who have attained the 'five wisdoms', while birth in the so-called border lLand is likened to womb-birth, with all it attendant limitations. The point about womb-birth is that those who are born that way have not been able to transcend the habitual limitations and oppression of samsaric existence completely. Unlike the last stages of the bodhisattva career no choice is involved. Birth into the womb-palace is not a matter of choice. In the next few verses, Shinran begins to strengthen his warning about the nature of womb-like birth in the Pure Land, and his tone becomes more urgent.

Of course, Buddhist theories of types of yoni have little relevance for us in our daily lives. However, I wanted to tackle the topic of yonis, in this essay, in order to underline Shinran's insistence on the importance of the settled mind of shinjin. The point to make here is that, without the Buddha's wisdom, which is realised in shinjin or the nembutsu, we cannot fulfil the bodhisattva way. It is the Buddha's wisdom that is important, since we are, by definition, the unwise, bombu.

There is a powerful underlying theme in these verses that is easy to overlook without taking the symbolism associated with womb-birth into account. The verses reveal a very important aspect of Shinran's thinking in the matter of birth in the Pure Land way and of its relevance to the bodhisattva vocation. It is clear to Shinran that the kind of birth that we experience in the Pure Land way depends on whether or not we are people of shinjin nembutsu or those who doubt the Primal Vow and practice the nembutsu as a means of gaining merit for ourselves. An transformative birth in the Pure Land is the beginning of an enlightened existence, whereas a womb-like birth occurs for those who are still enmeshed in samsara, the result of self-power practice.

Either outcome, as such, however, is not a matter of choice. Unlike Shakyamuni, we do not select a womb-birth for ourselves. This event is just the outcome of the karma that we have created. Apparitional birth also occurs as a result of the fact that we have accepted the transfer of Amida's wisdom in the nembutsu of shinjin. Up until that point, however, the kind of birth that we go through is the outcome of existing factors. In neither case do we specifically select the type of birth. We decide to accept or reject the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and the resulting outcome naturally follows, according to the law of karma.

Shakyamuni's womb-birth was a matter of choice. It was something he undertook as a device, which would serve for the benefit of others. This was possible because of the high level of his development along the bodhisattva way. That kind of choice is not ours.

In other words, as Shinran often points out, although people of shinjin are 'equal of Tathagata' and at the 'same stage as Maitreya' - the stage that Shakyamuni had reached at his human birth - this does not mean that we are bodhisattvas in this life. Womb-like birth for us occurs as the result of our rejection of the wisdom of the Buddha and not because of our choice to help others. Entry into the Pure Land by whatever kind of birth is determined for us by whether or not we accept or reject the shinjin that is offered to us in the nembutsu.

The very fact that our womb-like birth is not a self-determined destiny but signifies that we are still in the thrall of samsara, underlines the insistence of the Pure Land teaching that entry into the life of Tathagata, which is for our benefit and the benefit of others, has not yet taken place. The fact that we are the 'equal of Tathagata' or 'at the same stage as Maitreya' does not mean that we are already Tathagatas and neither does it mean that we are bodhisattvas like Shakyamuni just before his final birth.

Full entry into the bodhisattva vehicle depends upon our 'transformative birth' in the true, fulfilled, Pure Land by virtue of Amida Buddha's wisdom, the shinjin, that is its karmic cause.

Truly we know that without the virtuous Name, our compassionate father, we would lack the direct cause for birth. Without the light, our compassionate mother, we would stand apart from the indirect cause of birth. Although direct and indirect causes may come together, if the karmic-consciousness of shinjin is lacking, one will not reach the land of light. The karmic-consciousness of true and real shinjin is the inner cause. The Name and light - our father and mother - are the outer cause. When the inner and outer causes merge, one realizes the true body in the fulfilled land.3

The immediate choice for us is not the kind of birth we will have. The matter that is of first and most urgent concern for us is whether or not we entrust ourslves to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Birth in the Pure Land is not enough; it is 'realising the true body in the fulfilled land' that matters, if we are enter the bodhisattva way for the sake of others. Any kind of womb-birth, so to speak, represents a continuation of the conditions of samsara, no matter how comforting or pleasant they may seem.


1. Abhidharma kosa bhyasyam, Louis Vallée Poussin, Leo M. Pruden, Asian Humanities Press, 1991, Vol II, pp. 380ff.

2. op. cit. p. 382

3. CWS, p. 54

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