Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 92

Through vast kalpas of many births until now
We have been bathing in his compassion:
Incessantly taking refuge with singleness of heart,
We should rejoice in continuously praising him.

Compassionate Light

Once again, Shinran Shonin uses his appreciation of Shotoku Taishi's efforts on our behalf as an occasion to reflect upon the timeless nurture, which we have received from Amida Buddha. Since the beginning of time, Amida Buddha has appeared over and over again, in the laborious and endless task of embracing us in his light. To achieve this, he has taken the form of the people who have inspired and guided us - daijin, great people, like the countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the universe, but also our parents, children, relatives, lovers, spouses, teachers, acquaintances and friends.

Coming to see the significance of Shinran's reminder that we have been so generously cultivated by the Primal Vow, it is inevitable that joyful faith will result, spontaneously (jinen), in single-hearted, and continuous, unfaltering trust.

'Joyful faith' (shinjin kangi) is the way that the Larger Sutra describes our awakening to Amida Buddha's compassionate embrace through hearing the call of the Primal Vow in his Name, Namu Amida Butsu.

Inevitably, the exuberant procession of people who have played a role in bringing the Name of the Buddha of Inconcievable Light into the orbit of our lives - as we cycle through samsara -, dissolves into an awareness of the compassionate embrace of the Buddha himself; in a heart that adores only his light in Namu Amida Butsu. So it is that this verse from the Shozomatsu Wasan always reminds me of a wonderful phrase in the Shoshinge. The Shoshinge forms the central part of both the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and the daily liturgy of Jodo Shinshu. Many followers become intensely aware - and deeply appreciative - of its content and significance.

The phrase I am speaking of is sesshu no shinko - 'the embracing heart of light'. To my mind, it is the perfect description of Amida Buddha. It tells us of his essential nature, that of light; it tells us of its ubiquity, its compassion. The phrase occurs in verse eight of the Shoshinge (CWS, p. 70). It has become a daily reminder to me of the intractable contrast that there is, in this life, between the radiance of the light and our inability to see it because of our blinding passions.

The light of compassion that grasps us illumines
    and protects us always;
The darkness of our ignorance is already broken
    through;
Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire,
    anger and hatred,
Cover as always the sky of true and real shinjin

The verse is marvellously constructed. Firstly, it begins with the heart of light.

In the phrase shinko, the heart of light, the character 'shin' ('heart' or 'mind') is the 'jin' character in the term 'shinjin'). Secondly, the verse ends with the turbidity that is caused by our evil passions. The verse is, indeed, a description of shinjin as the 'two aspects of deep faith' (nishu jinshin). These two aspects involve the simulataneous and deep awareness of our own incapacity in the matter of salvation and the 'embracing light' that is the source of the entrusting heart.

Right at the outset of this long series of essays on the Sanjo Wasan, I pointed out that Shinran's attention is first drawn, in the Wasan on the Pure Land (jodo wasan), to the light, radiance, and wisdom of Amida Buddha. The first fifty verses of the Jodo Wasan are based on the San Amida Butsu Ge by that great Master of the Light, T'an-luan.

So, Shinran Shonin begins with Amida Buddha, whom he locates in the irrecoverable past. The Primal Vow is, indeed, primary and primal. Then Shinran earths Amida Buddha in the life and teaching of Shakyamuni. For, Shinran's heart moves from the Pure Land to the cosmos, and the appearance of the truth, which is Amida Buddha's Primal Vow, in the life and teaching of Shakyamuni.

In the volume of wasan that praise the seven Dharma Masters (koso wasan), Shinran traces the emergence of the Primal Vow into history and along the path that it traversed to the 'millet-scattered islands' that Shotoku named the Land of the Rising Sun (nihon). Throughout the Koso Wasan, the clouds of the Dharma Ending Age (mappo) gradually gather and thicken. The light of Amida Buddha, which is reflected in the lineage of our Dharma teachers, is finally extinguished with the passing of Genku (Honen Shonin) to the Pure Land.

I believe that Shinran considered that, from the moment of Honen's departure, there is no teacher; there is no longer any living light. It seems correct to me that, indeed, we are living in the era, in which the light of the Dharma is guttering out. The sun of the Dharma has already set, only the Nembutsu remains and it is now only this that is the voice of the Buddha in the world.

The Shozomatsu Wasan reveal a profound consciousness of the gloom that besets us. Indeed, and so am I. We are on the cusp - as we encounter this penultimate verse on Shotoku Taishi - of the final stages of the great drama that is the most striking feature of the Sanjo Wasan. For now we enter a truly painful realm, in which the light of the Nembutsu shows up the darkness in our hearts.

This is the final and most harrowing fact of the Nembutsu Way. For those who live in the Light, live in the truth. In the ultimate verses, Shinran uncovers the horror of the utter corruption of the Sangha, of himself, and of humanity at large. The world, he shows us, has moved from the clear light, the blazing light of the wisdom that is the Primal Vow, to the world's final descent into darkness and dissolution.

Yet...

The same shingyo kangi, joyful faith, that we loved to hear in the Jodo Wasan, sings with even greater eloquence in these most gruelling of revelations. The joyful faith, as we shall see, becomes utterly triumphant - even in the Dharma's darkest hour.

How wonderful it is! How glorious!

kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai
Taking refuge in Tathagata, whose light fills the ten quarters.

- February 24, 2006.

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