Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 78

Due to the offence of doubt in the Buddha-wisdom,
One will be imprisoned for five hundred years;
Thus, warning is given vehemently---
That is what is taught to be womb-birth.

The Shackled Heart

These Wasan on giwaku (doubt) grow ever more strident. Indeed this and the final section of the Shozomatsu Wasan reveal a side of Shinran Shonin that is not really present anywhere else in all of his vast writings. The only other places that are notable for this kind of stern caution are in Shinran's letters, especially the one that he wrote to his son, Zenran. This begs the question as to why Shinran has such a strong sense of urgency in addressing the problem of doubt. Is he behaving like a pedantic inquisitor who is bent on maintaning some kind of putative orthodoxy? Or, is there another motive that lies at the heart of his severe cautions?

Shinran has been my friend and guide for some thirty years now. I discovered him a couple of years after my first encounter with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in the Larger Sutra. In my case, it was a matter of finding a faith community that was built around the Primal Vow. I discovered the Vow first, the community later. In due course, with the help of the Pure Land Master, Zuiken Inagaki, I came to realise that, of all people in human history, it was Shinran who was the great exponent of the Sutra and of its core intent, which is, indeed, the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

It then became necessary to begin to read Shinran and to listen to him. Since that time, he has become my best friend. He has no comparison in my eyes, and almost all religious teachings, which are not his, now seem to have little to offer by comparison. It seems to me that Shinran's encounter with Amida Buddha was so long, profound and enduring that in many ways he became the embodiment of the Buddha. You will remember that his wife Eshinni had a dream in which she saw Shinran as Avalokitshvara Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion.

I concur with Eshinni Sama's inner understanding; Shinran saw into the heart of all that is eternal and true. As a result, it simply remains for us to listen to his voice as clearly as we can, constantly marvelling at his astonishing insight and depth. No wonder that so many millions of Buddhists have followed his way with such enthusuasm and joy.

The power and depth of Shinran's teaching is so compelling that one finds oneself feeling at home with it even though one is surrounded by people who are totally ignorant of it, or perhaps, though numbering themselves among his followers, do not know his works well; people who prefer to draw on the insights of those who are closer to Shinran as a result of their own application. Yet those who do begin to listen to Shinran, going beyond the opinions of those who interpret him, and listening to him on his terms, will find themselves entering into the ineffable liberation that he, himself, found in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. They will do so with ever more profound joy and exhilaration, becoming ever lighter in heart and in spirit.

So, Shinran is not a stern guardian of a mere formal orthodoxy. He is the exponent of the path of true and ultimate liberation; a path that is, in his words, inconceivable and, which, therefore, requires repeated listening until one becomes saturated with it. This is because, ultimately, it cannot be fully heard in the rational realm, but beyond and more deeply than that. Shinran's teaching requires not only ratiocination but emotional intelligence as well - something that we all possess. His teaching is not just 'spiritual', it is tangible, too; it will pervade every aspect of our being because it is imbued with the 'light that shines unhindered through the ten quarters'. In any case, reason alone can lead to good or evil outcomes and has been employed in the deployment of both kindness and cruelty. Reason has its role but Shinran also reveals his inner depths and gives us the courage to venture into the same levels of personal honesty that he does.

Shinran becomes stern and trenchant because of his alarm at those who speak in his name but have the effect of stultifying the liberation that comes from the Primal Vow. There can be little doubt that his bitter encounter with the deceitful and narcissistic behaviour of his son, Zenran, led him to identify some aspects of his teaching that needed a more vigorous defence.

The exact details of Zenran's wrongdoings are not entirely clear. However, Shinran expresses the greatest sadness at the way that people have abandoned the Primal Vow. Thus, it seems that Zenran's greatest offence was to teach that the Primal Vow was of no use. In response to this distortion, Shinran, himself, seems to have become even more conscious of the light and joy that the Primal Vow imparts to people that are oppressed by karmic evil. It seems to me that his emphasis on the need to abandon all self-power effort, even saying the Nembutsu in that way, clarifies some of his earlier writing and may serve as a re-assertion of the exact and core principles of his teaching.

Indeed, chronologically, it is possible to detect a transitional phase from a measure of equivocation, through a more incisive view in Mattosho 2 (which I quoted in my essay on Shozomatsu Wasan 75) and coming to rest in his final position in this section of Shozomatsu Wasan. Mattosho 2 was written a year before Shinran disowned Zenran and five years before he composed the Shozomatsu Wasan. In this volume, there are many places, in which Shinran re-iterates ideas from earlier volumes of the Wasan but in a less equivocal way. It is as though he wants to ensure that misunderstandings that were conceivably perpetrated by Zenran should be overcome by re-stating the correct position.

The imagery that Shinran continues to use indicates his alarm at the way the joyful teaching that he proclaimed was being turned into an oppressive regime by those who asserted their authority in order to abuse it. Those who assert that self-power practices of any kind have a place in the Way of the Primal Vow are imparting to others only the legacy of a shackled heart: one imprisoned heart and mind seeking to imprison others.

This is another verse in which Shinran identifies doubt with self-power practices. If we are to be faithful to him - or, if we have an inkling of the joy and liberation that is the gift of the Primal Vow - then we will heed his vehement warning about the dangers of this kind of doubt.

- November 19, 2005.

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