Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 82

The offence of doubting the Buddha-wisdom is grave.
If you come to understand this mind of doubt,
You should hold the mind of repentance as essential
And rely on the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom.

Farewell to Doubt

I hope that Shinran Shonin has helped you to 'understand [the] mind of doubt.' If you have, and you are ready to entrust yourself to the power of the Primal Vow, the 'mind of repentance is essential.' Repentance means simply to turn away from self-power and to accept the unconditional compassion of Amida Buddha. This unconditional compassion is the 'inconceivable Buddha-wisdom.'

It seems to me that this decisive 'mind of repentance' plays a very big role in Shinran's thinking and experience. We have given quite a lot of attention to the events at the palace in Rajagriha and the awful suffering of Prince Ajatshatru, which was the result of the remorse that he experienced after he had murdered his father the King. This remorse brought about a psychosomatic illness, in which he suffered from suppurating and putrid sores. Despite the fact that his remorse was profound, there was no healing of his mind and body until he repented, completely relying on the Buddha to take care of everything, and to let his entrusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna-citta) emerge by the Buddha's working.

Repentance, says Shinran, is the antidote to the grave 'offence (tsumi) of doubting the Buddha-wisdom.' I must admit that I have often asked myself why this offence is so serious and why a complete turning away from it - in a complete change of heart - is needed. The answer, of course, is that the basis of the offence is to deny the Enlightenment of the Buddha. This makes more sense when we come to think in terms of our own specific situation and our attitude in regard to it.

Let me remind readers again that we always ought to see the Dharma from the perspective of the Mahayana, which is the most popular stream of the Dharma. As readers will know, the Mahayana is descended from a movement that was involved in an irreparable schism, which occurred about a hundred years after Shakyamuni's demise. Despite much of the rather tiresome polemic that is used by the descendants of this split, the central feature of the rift was the concept of a Buddha. The Mahasanghikas, whose thought was inherited by the Mahayana, were quite unequivocal about the fact that Buddhas are transcendant, and that their wisdom is able to permeate the universe.

I have no doubt that this insistence was due to an ongoing experience of the Buddha as a living teacher, even though he had attained parinirvana and no longer graced them with his apparitional (Sk. nirmanakaya) presence, in the form of Shakyamuni. They had a direct relationship with the Buddhas and did not accept the arahants as mediators. This immediacy is an experience that is understood, for example, by Nembutsu followers even now. These matters are the basis of our discussion about doubt, but not the subject of it. Doubt is not to question the existence of the Buddha but to deny his Enlightenment; to believe that it is not universal and, therefore, that his compasson is conditional.

We assume that there are things that we need to do, or to become, in order to reach this same Enlightenment. However, this is to doubt the wisdom of the Buddhas. Since the Buddha is the wisdom that fills all things, and prajna is the knowing that all conditioned things are empty (kumon Sk. shunya), there is no discrimination in this wisdom; there are no conditions. As Professor Zuio Inagaki says, shunyata (emptiness) is 'the transcendental state attained after negating all concepts. It negates and transcends all pairs of opposites, and, at the same time, it encompasses and includes all relative, empirical spheres of thoughts and actions.'

We should not, of course, become confused by our own limited conceptual abilities. No amount of argument can relieve us of doubt and there will always be obstacles as long as we let our thought processes have the upper hand. Of course, they do have a vital role to play because, on its own terms, Shinran's thinking is especially rational. We are asked to listen - to pay attention with the object of hearing-, but hearing is ultimately at a more visceral level. That is not to put too fine a point on it. Furthermore, the entrusting heart cannot be isolated in any way from Namu Amida Butsu. To some extent the spontaneous expression of Nembutsu, however often this may occur, is associated with a moment that transcends reason; it might be a moment of repentance, joy, adoration, love or appreciation.

Yet, I wonder at a more human level: if we insist on the conditionality of the Buddha's compassion, then we strive to 'improve' ourselves in order to meet the necessary conditions. Just how can this self-important attitude manifest compassion? At what point in our own struggle did we stop seeing an achievement along the way, on our part? Would not compassion abandon a sense of achievement that sets us above others? Then what can be achieved that is compatible with compassion, except for compassion itself? This is the great realisation of the Mahayana: compassion is everything. This realisation, too, begins to develop further. In listening to the Dharma of Amida Buddha, a new kind of awareness begins to bloom in Nembutsu people. It is an aweness that self-power, at any level, is an illusion.

Yes. We move, we act, we make decisions, like a fan blade that keeps spinning after the power has been switched off. Probably the Buddhist school, which understood the exhaustion of karmic energy the best, was the jojitsu (Sk. satya-siddhi, 'Completion of Truth') school of Harivarman. Extinction of the passions is on the way as long as we let go of our illusons. 'Just say the Nembutsu and be saved by the Buddha,' is surely the most perfect vehicle given to us by the Buddha to this end.

But, then, we all know what Shinran would say in the face of all these musings.

Once you simply realize that the Vow surpasses conceptual understanding and with singleness of heart realize that the Name surpasses conceptual understanding and pronounce it, why should you labor in your own calculation? It seems to me that with all your attempts to understand by reasoning and by learning you have fallen into confusion. It is completely in error. Once you have simply come to realize that Vow and Name surpass conceptual understanding, you should not calculate in this way or that. There must be nothing of your calculation in the act that leads to birth.
You must simply entrust yourself to Tathagata.
(Lamp for the Latter Ages, 9; CWS, p. 536.)

There really is now nothing more to be said. My longing is that all people, everywhere may find the Way of Nembutsu for themselves and know this unsurpassed truth as Shinran did. Yet, it just is not possible to convince others of it. The Buddha Shakyamuni, so reluctant at first after his Enlightenment, to teach the Dharma, knew that too.

Most difficult of all difficulties is to hear this sutra, have faith in it with joy and hold fast to it. Nothing is more difficult than this. (tr. Inagaki , 1994.)

It is time to bid farewell to doubt as a theme of the Shozomatsu Wasan. It is a difficult subject and it is easy to move on. By contrast, the evidence before us is that it is not at all easy to bid farewell to doubt.

- December 16, 2005.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan


Back | HOME | Next