Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 77

The Tathagata said to Maitreya,
'Relying on their practice of the root of good,
With minds possessed of doubt, beings remain
In the borderland, or womblike birth.'

Eliminating Alternatives

In the seventy-fifth verse of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages we saw that the border land was a penultimate destination. It is a manifestaton of Amida Buddha's compassion because even those who doubt the Primal Vow but say the Name with self-power attain a blissful outcome, although they do not reach final deliverance.

Readers will remember that the nineteenth and twentieth Vows are described by Shinran Shonin as the Essential Gate and the True Gate, respectively. They are 'provisional' and 'temporary' expedients that meet the needs of those who are committed to self-effort practices. Each Vow carries its own schema of trusting and practice. The former involves practices like those of the Path of Sages, and the latter is the exclusive practice of the nembutsu. In this verse, Shinran is speaking specifically of the practice that is associated with the twentieth Vow of Amida Buddha. This practice is exclusive nembutsu, but it is a calculative practice, in which the aspirants seek to gain merit for themselves.

I think it is useful to try to conceptualise the image that Shinran has of the situation for self-power nembutsu followers - those who doubt the Primal Vow. Shinran speaks of birth in the border land as like being locked away in a fairly comfortable hotel room, which has a view of a truly beautiful, wonderful, serene and welcoming place - our true home - that is forever beyond reach. In this way, in spite of Shinran's celebration of the provisional Pure Land as the work of Amida Buddha's compassion, he simply disposes of any value in practice that is designed to attain it: 'they do not go beyond the womb-birth of the border land.' His meaning is that we should not waste our time in any self-power practices, even the nembutsu, because it will deflect us from the ultimate goal of the Buddha Dharma, which is the True Pure Land and enlightenment.

Therefore, in the Jodo Shinshu, there is no room for self-power practices of any kind. Those who are born in the border land, people of 'self-power Nembutsu', are people of other practices but not of the 'True Pure Land Teaching' (jodo shinshu). In other words, Amida Buddha's embrace certainly encompasses those of other Pure Land traditions. Even so, wholeheartedly and singlemindedly trusting in Amida Buddha is the only outlook that carries any weight for Shinran.

This elegant perspective, encompassing a paradox, is the idea that accounts for Shinran's celebration of the provisional Pure land as penultimate, and a mark of Amida Buddha's compassion. Nevertheless, it is under no circumstances recommended. We can safely dispose of any concept of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows of Amida Buddha as stages in the process of conversion, and we can forget the idea that birth in the border land is anything other than a substitute for the real way.

Shinran's constant refrain in these verse about the actual locus of birth in the border of the Pure Land can become rather galling to people who find the imagery unfamiliar or even find it difficult to take seriously. Needless to say, I think that the existential significance of his interpretation of the traditional texts is very helpful. Since the so-called border land is not an option that we can solemnly contemplate when explored from any angles - for example, Shinran's dire warnings against it, or our sense of its irrelevance -, both it and the religious life that is associated with it, ought simply and frankly to be left behind, forgotten, and abandoned.

The religious life that is associated with birth in the border land is one that seeks to enhance the self. Accruing merit by one's own effort is the same as building a cocoon. It is to wrap oneself in a structure that shores up and seeks to acquire credit for oneself. It seeks to avoid the reality of our own fragility and inadequacy. It is to strive to salt away value for ourselves. It is spiritual miserliness. These are some of the reasons why I think that the imagery of the border land, in which it is portrayed as a gilded prison, is so apt.

Furthermore, the symbolism of birth in the border land, and the restriction that it entails, serves as a caution against adopting a program of 'training', or any kind of practice, in the belief that it may eventually lead to the crucial realizations that 'Vow and Name surpass conceptual understanding', or that the only thing for us is to 'simply entrust [ourselves] to Tathagata'.1 Engagement in the sundry practices (nineteenth Vow) and self-power nembutsu (nineteenth Vow) do not lead to an acceptance of the Primal Vow. Rather, in Shinran's view, if these ways are not abandoned, they lead away from the Primal Vow as we box ourselves in with a sense of achievement that becomes a possession, which we find harder and harder to relinquish.

By stressing the finality of birth in the border of the Pure Land, Shinran eliminates any alternative approach to the dharma that is anything other than entrusting ourselves in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Truly, the only way is faith alone.

Sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana and all good people make the auspicious Name of the Primal Vow their own root of good; hence, they cannot give rise to shinjin and do not apprehend the Buddha's wisdom. Because they cannot comprehend [the Buddha's intent in] establishing the cause [of birth], they do not enter the fulfilled land.2


1. CWS, p. 536

2. CWS, p. 240

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