Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 93

The compassion of Prince Shotoku,
Incessantly protecting and nurturing,
Encourages us to enter
The Tathagata's twofold merit-transference.

Going and Returning

As we draw near to the end of the Sanjo Wasan of Shinran Shonin, and the first draft of these essays, we ought, perhaps, to recapitulate key concepts in Shinran's teaching as opportunities arise. This verse, for example, offers us a chance to reaffirm the essential premise of Shinran, which is that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha enables ordinary people, 'through the twofold merit tranference' to become Buddhas so that they can deliver all suffering beings.

People who 'receive the Buddha's practice (that is, saying the Nembutsu) and his shinjin', enter the 'rightly established state' (shojoju) in this life, rather than in the Pure Land, as many Pure Land masters had taught. This is the 'merit transference in the phase of going' (oso eko). The entrusting heart arises upon hearing the Primal Vow in namu-amida-butsu. Shinjin is an 'other regarding' disposition, not just because it is the work of the Primal Vow, but because it 'seeks to save others'. As the Larger Sutra tells us, it is the 'joyful faith' (shingyo kangi) that is the fulfilment of the eighteenth Vow.

[The] aspiration for Buddhahood is none other than the wish to save all beings. The wish to save all beings is the wish to carry all beings across the great ocean of birth-and-death. This shinjin is the aspiration to bring all beings to the attainment of supreme nirvana; it is the heart of great love and great compassion. This shinjin is Buddha-nature and Buddha-nature is Tathagata. To realize this shinjin is to rejoice and be glad. People who rejoice and are glad are called 'people equal to the Buddhas.' (Notes on 'The Essentials of Faith Alone', CWS. p. 463, et. al.)

The work of the Primal Vow does not end with the burgeoning Nembutsu-faith that is transferred by the Primal Vow. This process of awakening is only the beginning. The second part of the 'twofold merit transference' is described by Shinran in the fourth book of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, 'On Enlightenment', section 14. It is the 'merit transference in the phase of returning' (genso eko).

Second is Amida's directing of virtue for our return to this world. This is the benefit we receive, the state of benefitting and guiding others. It arises from the Vow of necessary attainment of the rank of succession to Buddhahood, also know as 'the Vow of succession to Buddhahood after one lifetime.' It may further be called 'the Vow of directing virtue for our return to this world.' Since this Vow appears in the Commentary on the Treatise, I will not quote it here; see the passages from the Commentary [that follow]. (CWS, p. 158)

Since my first encounter with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, in the Larger Sutra, I have always understood that the objective of its teaching is entry into the bodhisattva stream. Luckily for me, the first commentary on Jodo Shinshu that I read had this same focus. It stated clearly from the outset that Jodo Shinshu was 'the Way of going and returning by the Power of the Primal Vow'. Perhaps it was also because, at the time of my initial encounter, I had been studying the Abhidharma. In the Abhidharma schools the main concern for ordinary men and women is 'entry into the stream' of the Buddha Dharma (the stage of shrotapanna).

One of the reasons, or so it seems to me, at any rate, for the strain that the Buddha Dharma is undergoing in these times, derives from a modern tendency to see the value of the Dharma only for the person practicing it, with little conscious recognition of the benefit for others. Many people have told me that they have become Buddhists for personal empowerment, or 'peace of mind', and so forth. However, from the Dharma's perspective, 'self-benefit' and 'the benefit of others' are two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable concepts. Reciprocity is the only ethical and cosmic dynamic for both the Theravada and the Mahayana. The Dharma is altruistic; self-benefit alone is not real or feasible from the perspective of the Bodhisattvayana.

The Pure Land, then, is not a goal but a means to a higher end. As Shinran points out, in several places, the Pure Land Way is a school of the Bodhisattva Vehicle (Skt. bodhisattvayana). The problem for us is encapsulated in the question 'How do we, ordinary people, become Buddhas and participate in the noble work?' Shinran develops this central theme with wonderful skill and takes it to its highest level. Indeed, we learn in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, that those who see the Pure Land, itself, as the goal will be frustrated in their efforts because they cannot be born there. According to Shinran, the Pure Land is the realm of light, in which we see our Buddha-nature and are transformed into Buddhas.

It is very significant that Shinran speaks, in this final verse on Shotoku Taishi, of the purpose of Shotoku's timeless nurture, and that it is the 'twofold merit transference'. Jodo Shinshu certainly exists as a resource for people seeking eternal happiness; it is an eternal happiness that finds the source of its joy entirely in benefitting others! There is a clear resonance between the motherly care of Amida Buddha in the form of Shotoku Taishi and the happiness that is our benefit when we, in turn, take up the task of nurturing others.

In this present life we are not yet Buddhas but our vocation is no less joyous and significant. We certainly do not have the insight, or anything like the wisdom that would make it possible for us to truly benefit others, but, in the meantime, there is much that we can do. Our principal undertaking is to 'practice the Great Compassion': to say the Nembutsu. In this way we enable others to hear the call of the Vow. Then, they too will eventually awaken to shinjin, and accept the work of the Primal Vow for their benefit and the benefit of all suffering beings.

- March 3, 2006.

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