Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 80

Because they take the mind of self-power as essential
And do not entrust themselves to inconceivable
    Buddha-wisdom,
They are born in the womb-palace and for five hundred years
Are separated from the compassion of the three treasures.

Resisting Compassion

Shinran Shonin's allusion here is quite wonderful. He is, once again, reminding us of the implications of a passage from the Larger Sutra, which describes the consequences of womb-birth, or birth in the border-land.

Those in the embryonic state lack... wisdom and must pass five hundred years without being able to see the Buddha, hear his teaching of the dharma, see the hosts of bodhisattvas and sravakas, make offerings to the Buddha, learn the rules of conduct for bodhisattvas, or perform meritorious practices. You should know that this is because those beings harboured doubt and lacked wisdom in their previous lives.

Again, we can see the spiritual meaning of doubt. To doubt the Power of the Primal Vow, in rejecting it by taking up self-power practices, is to reject the wisdom of the Buddha. Such people prefer to have things their own way, create their own complications and build their own edifices. The contrast is clear. To accept the wisdom of the Buddha is to be free; to find truth and sincerity. To refuse the wisdom of the Buddha is to choose to create our own wisdom from the confusion that comprises our own reality.

This theme is profound, and common in Shinran's thought. We can see, in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, that he does not accept the concept of the transfer of merit (eko, Sk. parinama) as long as a single afflicting passion is present. To underline this, Shinran quotes passages from two recensions of the Larger Sutra that describe Amida Buddha as he undertakes his bodhisattva career. The point of this is to demonstrate the utterly wise and compassionate nature of Amida Buddha.

This means that the creation of merit by practices and the nembutsu of self-power is illusory because, as, Shinran also demonstrates in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, it is like putting contaminated water into a contaminated vessel. The merit we create is developed by the passions, so to speak, for we do not have the Buddha's virtue. The power of the Primal Vow is so pure that it is not capable of contamination. That is why, when Shinran reads the passage in the Larger Sutra, for example, which describes the aspirant as 'transferring merit' to the Pure Land, Shinran instinctively reads it in the obverse way. The merit is transferred from the absolute compassion of the dharma to the imperfect aspirant. Shinran sees it correctly, not in the reverse way that is more common.

This is a truly wonderful and astonishing insight because it is truly liberating. One can see it as analogous to the comparison between buying a mass of useless goods - because we think we need to have them and we are driven by some kind of unidentified hunger or anxiety-, compared with plucking a beautiful, ripe orange or apple directly from the tree, and having our hunger and thirst nourished perfectly and without cost. In the first instance one feels disappointed and abused, even nauseous, and ultimately unsatisfied. In the latter case all of one's actual needs are met in the most perfect way.

Shinran's insight is wonderful because it is the way things really are. He sees things that are obvious, while they are not immediately apparent to us - as long as we fail to realise that it is not possible to solve a problem with another problem. In other words, you cannot overcome afflicting passions, by adding an idea of virtue that is constructed with the earth of the afflicting passions. Thus, Shinran identifies Jodo Shinshu as the 'sudden' path of 'crosswise transcendence'. It goes without saying that it is like the light of dawn entering a darkened room - something that Shinran loves to describe in his writing. Interestingly, this analogy tells us that the light is incremental but there is a certain, irreversible, point (a 'sudden' point) at which everything is seen clearly.

To be 'separated from the Buddha's compassion' is to try to create the compassion with our own limited minds. Unless we are able to literally become another - feel all of their joy, their pain, their longing, their anger, their loss, their success, their desires, precisely as they do - we cannot be compassonate in the Buddhist sense. Yes, we can try. But it is the Buddha's loving-kindness that surrounds us. And this is possible because the Buddha is free of afflicting passions. Here, Shinran's insight comes into play. For unless we receive love and compassion ourselves we cannot extend it towards others. Not only are we ignorant of just what it is but, unless we know that we are received just as we are, it is not possible for us to receive others in the same way.

At the heart of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation is the story of Ajatashatru, the prince of Rajagriha. In this story we encounter a remarkable meeting between the Prince and Shakyamuni Buddha. The Prince is so burdened by his evil karma that even his physical condition is compromised. Upon meeting the Buddha, Ajatashatru discovers that he is known by the Buddha to depths, which even Ajatashatru himself does not understand. It is then that Ajatasharu's life is completely turned around and he is able to become free. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, he discovers the compassion that he has received from the Buddha and his mind and body are healed.

As long as Ajatashatru continued to try to overcome his spiritual pain by attempting to convince himself or to rationalise his condition, his inner darkness and misery was only compounded. But as soon as he relinquished all efforts, listening to the Buddha's compassionate light, he discovered his true mind and found freedom and lightness of being.

So can we, if only we will listen to the Buddha and abandon all our calculation. To do otherwise is to shun the compassion that is freely offered and to imprison ourselves in our own confusion.

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