Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 95

Each of us shows an outward appearance
Of being wise, good, and diligent,
Possessing so much greed, anger, and wrong views,
We are filled with all kinds of deceit.

Rubble Changing into Gold

It seems to me that this verse presents us with a summary of an on-going theme of Shinran Shonin's writing. It is a theme that originally comes from Shan-tao. It may be summed up by saying that those who know the embrace of the Primal Vow - the embrace that does not forsake - are comfortable enough to be able to be honest with themselves and with others.

Shan-tao exhorts us not to be deceitful. He suggests that if we behave as though we are good when we are not, we should recognise the explicit inconsistency that this presents, and behave in a less hypocritical way. Shinran, on the other hand, uses Shan-tao's exhortation to reinforce the knowledge that everything we do is coloured by our blind passions (bonno Sk. kleshas). Shinran conveys the idea that we are, indeed, filled with 'greed, anger and wrong views', and that this reality is unaltered by the fact that we try to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others.

The original passage in question can be found in Shan-tao's San-shan-i. Shinran presents his version of it in at least three places in his writings: the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, the Gutoku-sho (Gutoku's Notes), and the Yuishinsho-mon'i (Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone). Although, in each case, Shinran's reading appears to be identical, it is an edited version of Shan-tao's original. Shinran's full interpretation of the entire passage can be found in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, where he is quoting a lengthy passage from Shan-tao:

We should not express outwardly signs of wisdom, goodness, or diligence, for inwardly we are possessed of falsity. We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. They cannot be called true, real and sincere action. Firmly setting our minds and undertaking practice in this way - even if we strive to the utmost with body and mind through the twelve periods of the day and night, urgently seeking and urgently acting as though sweeping fire from our heads - must all be called poisoned good acts. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, III, 13; CWS. p. 84)

This passage clearly had a profound effect on Shinran, and it was not just towards the end of his life that it gave him pause. Although, in reading this penultimate section of the Shozomatsu Wasan, we may gain the impression that Shinran was feeling rather lachrymose in his declining years, such an interpretation would be completely wrong. In the first place, Shinran's deep awareness of the reality of our inward nature is not really a source of ultimate lament or sorrow. Although one might say that he was contemplating a sad fact, the truth is that he found joy in the realisation that Amida Buddha's Primal Vow would lift us beyond this seemingly intractable and hopeless state to Nirvana.

The passage also appears in the same volume of Shan-tao's writing that defines the expression 'ki-no-jinshin', which is one of the two aspects of deep faith (nishu-no-jinshin). This suggests that these verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan, and the quotations of the passage from Shan-tao - on the three occasions that we find it in Shinran's writing -, are nothing more, nor less, than yet another reiteration of the experience of shinjin.

It is very easy to use this passage in superficial ways, which overlook its true significance. It lends itself to superficiality, when it is taken out of context. I am sure that most readers will have seen it used merely to critique the infinite human capacity for hypocrisy. But it would be very sad to think that it could serve such a shallow interpretation well. Neither can it be used to justify bad behaviour, in which people act out the evil in their hearts through some misguided impulse to behave as they think.

Shakyamuni warned us clearly of the risks that are inherent in shallow interpretations of the Dharma:

Foolish persons, learning the teachings of the Buddha, do not understand their meanings and therefore are not able to discern the truth. They study the teachings so that they can quote authoritative passages when they argue with others. These persons do not understand the meanings, although they study the teachings.(Matangi Sutra; Buddha Dharma, Numata, p. 146.)

The fact that the two aspects of deep faith point us to the depth and tenacity of our human limitations, and compare them with the power and light of the Primal Vow, has a long history of abuse in Jodo Shinshu. The abuse began in Shinran's own time, and his own son, Zenran, was implicated. The fact that we are 'filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning' does not serve as an invitation to behave that way. We have already seen that Shinran stresses this in his letters. Indeed, the presence of these admonitions serves to alert us to the fact that, when Shinran demonstrates his abiding appreciation of this passage from Shan-tao, he was not merely condemning hypocrisy.

These concerns also raise the question about our capacity to interpret the Dharma at all. If we are 'filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning', is it not inevitable that we will distort things, in any case? It seems to me that this is not the case for Shinran, because he experiences the Dharma as coming from a pure source - the Primal Vow - and not from his conscious mind. Knowledge of the Primal Vow derives from Shakyamuni and the witness of the enlightened Dharma Masters throughout the ages, and not from Shinran himself. The ordinary 'self' of day-to-day consciousness is ultimately evanescent but the Dharma sees mental defilements as true blockages, because we are 'conditioned' (Sk. samskrta) beings.

Indeed, as we will see later, far from seeing human nature as preternaturally corrupt, Shinran accepts the Mahayana proposition that all things in the beginning are pure, implying that our true nature is Buddha-nature. To hear the Dharma is to hear at a level that is deeper than our ordinary consciousness. Because of the hindrances of our blind passions (bonno), we cannot penetrate to our Buddha-nature until the time of our birth in the Pure Land.

Shinran was clearly struck by this reality - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - when he quotes that famous passage from the Mahaprajnaparamita-shastra of Nagarjuna, in which we are reminded that 'the meaning is not in the words'. In the context of the Nembutsu life, we encounter paradox and nuance that point to the deepest reality. So it is that the light of Amida Buddha's mind - his shinjin - itself works in our lives in namu-amida-butsu. In this way, even the most unpalatable and difficult realities become self-evident to such a profound extent that acceptance of the Primal Vow becomes irresistible. And this is not a source of gloom or despair, but a cause for rejoicing and an ease of being.

Those who choose to situate themselves outside the Nembutsu Way and prefer to shut the doors and windows against the light of Amida Buddha, mistaking it - not for the compassionate hue that it is - but for something that is threatening, will probably never know nor understand the path that centres on the 'two aspects of deep faith': the 'two aspects of deep faith', which Shinran never ceases to contemplate and celebrate in his writing. Those who reject the Nembutsu Way do not realise that they are shutting out of their lives the most important thing, the very reason for existence: 'seeing things as they are'. Such seeing is not a matter of ratiocination but of deep understanding. The trouble is that glimpsing something often occurs at a sub-verbal level and it is only upon reflection on it that we have the time to frame a description, which is usually inadequate due to the lapse of time.

Finally, I would like to draw out the full significance of the things we have been thinking about in this verse. While Shinran's appreciation of this verse is not principally an exhortation to avoid hypocrisy, I do not think that its significance as a description of ko-no-jinshin, the faith that is aware of self, is all there is to it, either. For, it is hardly possible to relax into the compassion of the Primal Vow in namu-amida-butsu, and understanding of self, without a concomitant self-acceptance. Shinjin is so profound that we can accept ourselves in the knowledge that Amida Buddha does. It is only in the embracing Light of Amida Buddha, and with his support that we can find the strength and courage to truly understand and accept our genuine limitations.

So we come to the nub of it all - Shinran's comment on the phrase from the Essentials of Faith Alone, 'I can make bits of rubble into gold.'

This is a metaphor. When we entrust ourselves to the Tathagata's Primal Vow, we, who are like bits of tile and pebbles, are turned into gold. Peddlers and hunters, who are like stones and tiles and pebbles, are grasped and never abandoned by the Tathagata's light. Know that this comes about solely through true shinjin. We speak of the light that grasps because we are taken into the heart of the Buddha of unhindered light; thus, shinjin is said to be diamondlike. (CWS. p. 460.)

Shinran understands this metaphor to represent his own condition, so his commentary is not limited to people who engage in certain 'impure' livelihoods. Shinran identifies himself as someone who is beyond the pale, like peddlers or hunters. It is to know our selves, true self-awareness, that places us into the embrace of Amida Buddha, and a new life altogether. A life of equality, whereby, by becoming our true selves, our foolish selves, we are brought to the cusp of Nirvana.

- March 17, 2006.

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