Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 97

How shameless and unrepentant a person am I
And without a heart of truth and sincerity;
But because the Name is transferred by Amida,
Its virtue pervades the ten directions.

Without Shame

There are two good means by which sentient beings can be saved: one is shame and the other is self-reproach. Shame means not committing further evil oneself; self-reproach means not leading others to commit evil. Shame is to be abased within oneself, self-reproach is to express this outwardly, toward others. Shame means to feel humility before others, self-reproach means to feel humility before heaven. This is shame and self-reproach. To be without shame and self-reproach is not to be human; it is to be a beast. (Nirvana Sutra, quoted in Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III, 115; CWS. p. 131.)

This passage from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho immediately comes to mind when one encounters Shinran Shonin's lament in this - and the next two - verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan. They are laments that form contrasting couplets. Shinran firstly describes his own view of his inner disposition, and then owns his utter dependence on Amida Buddha, who is the source of all good. It is another instance of the two aspects of deep faith (nishu no jinshin). Also important is the fact that Shinran does not prevaricate. He speaks plainly and honestly about the human condition, which is his condition. As we shall see, he applies the same standard to himself as to others. He sees himself as just another ordinary human being, who is beset by the debilitating influence of the Dharma-ending Age.

In each of these three verses we also encounter another important feature of Shinran's heart: that having thoroughly understood his inner reality, and the sheer futility in enlisting his own defiled resources to gain liberation, he must turn away from himself to the virtue of Amida Buddha. He must accept Amida Buddha's call in his Name. In this way, Shinran gives living expression to the frequently quoted summary of shinjin that is to be found in Notes on the 'Essentials of Faith Alone':

'To abandon the mind of self-power' admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people - master of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil - to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one's evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad. (CWS p. 459.)

To my mind, this is, indeed, a key and important passage. It is, again, a manifestation of the two aspects of deep faith. It has been quoted often by Shinshu scholars since the time of Shinran. It describes the natural (jinen) way that shinjin develops in people who follow the Nembutsu Way. The significant fact here, as far as I can see, is that - in these verses of the Wasan - Shinran gives substance to the principle of the 'Two Aspects of Deep Faith', which is shinjin.

However, instead of letting things stay at the level of theory or doctrine, Shinran demonstrates just exactly what it means to have 'the aspect of deep faith that is awareness self' (ki no jinshin). Using himself as an example, he lets us know that his viciousness is so profound and so intractable that he does not even deserve to be described as a human being - he is as shameless and unrepentant as a wild beast. Shinran absolutely indentifies with the basest forms of life; he sinks into the earth; he is a tree, or a shrub, or a monster: a shrew, a hissing spitting viper - even broken tiles and discarded rubbish, like the people with whom he shared his life. Such turning of the mind (eshin) from the common deceptions of the ego, is the substance of utter liberation and joy.

It was at some previous and precise moment of his life, that the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha found its absolute fulfilment in Shinran. He was emanicpated from his self, in a moment that passes all calculation. Shinran assessed this emancipation to have dawned at the time of his encounter with Honen Shonin in 1201. The resulting mind, which is so characteristic of Amida Buddha's shinjin, stayed with Shinran, a true disciple of the Buddha, until his birth in the Pure Land. Turning to Amida Buddha, all that remained to him was the life of thanksgiving.

Shakyamuni Buddha's Enlightenment was also a profound awkening to the sources of suffering, whereby he saw the cause of karmic evil and the way to liberation from sorrow and the thraldom of samsara. It seems to me, however, that, in his own case, Shinran is not talking about any kind of Enlightenment but a realisation, which has the sole outcome of total reliance (kimyo) on the Buddha. We are disciples, who are absolutely dependent on the Buddha, having nothing of ourselves to contribute.

There is more to it, in fact. For, in saying that he is without shame and self-reproach (repentance) Shinran is saying nothing less than that he is an issendai: a word derived from the transliteration of the Sanskrit word icchantika. Indeed, it is from the section of the Book on Faith in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that Shinran cites passages from the sacred texts - especially the Nirvana Sutra - that proclaim that even icchantikas can attain enlightenment by accepting the mind of the Buddha in namu-amida-butsu, which is the substance of shinjin. It is for those who have cut the roots of goodness altogether, and lack the seed of Buddhahood, that Amida Buddha's Primal Vow was made.

The Sanskrit word 'icchantika' originally meant 'one who has evil desire' but in the process of transmission, it came to be interpreted as 'one who has cut the roots of good'. It is such a person with whom Shinran now identifies. Did we not take note of the opening passages of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, when Shinran proclaims the purpose of the way of Nembutsu?

[The Buddha], the great hero, sought indeed to bless those committing the five grave offenses, those slandering the dharma, and those lacking the seed of Buddhahood. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Preface; CWS. p. 3.)

In this passage, the word in the original Japanese for the English phrase 'those lacking the seed of Buddhahood' is sendai, an abbreviation of issendai, icchantika.

An awareness of oneself as 'one who has cut the seed of Buddhahood' is profound, truly radical, and involves a complete overturning of the way we prefer to think of ourselves. Indeed, it is so radical that it surely cannot be induced artificially. Hence, shinjin cannot arise by means of 'calculation' (hakarai) but only by 'hearing the Dharma' (chomon), whereby we open ourselves to the light of the truth that is not within us and that cannot be conjured at will.

Yet, it seems to me that, when we do see ourselves as Shinran did, and know with certainty just what it is to be shameless and without roots of goodness, then the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, and the depth of his wisdom and compassion, shines forth in all its glory. It is just so: that all the bodhisattva vows of numberless holy sages, through timeless ages, and all the deep aspirations of the eternal and limitless Mahayana, reach their decisive, true and complete fulfilment.

- March 31, 2006.

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