The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Jodo Wasan 2

Those who say the Name while they doubt
The Vow beyond conceptual understanding
Attain birth and abide for five-hundred years
Vainly within a palace; so it is taught.

The Fragrance of Light

Shakyamuni1 lived in times, during which people in his country - Benares, now in India - lived as many still do today: within a caste system in which human beings are graded into classes depending on their birth. People generally believed that by carrying out certain rituals they could amass sufficient virtue to enable them to be born into a higher caste. Shakyamuni criticised this, however, and revealed a new ‘caste’ system, which was religious and ethical in nature. It was not dependent on rituals but on the development of mental faculties and led, over time, through either four or ten stages. In simple terms, at the first stage of enlightenment, a person moves from the status of an ordinary person to the ‘stage of joy’ (Sk. pramudita); but such entry onto the first rung of spiritual maturity is impossible while the three fetters prevail.

These fetters describe a state of addiction to trepidation so strong that it oppresses us. They have an habitual quality and, like a person who is bound by chains, we need to ‘snap out of them’. In fact, the fetters all describe a human tendency to prevarication and a preference for the comfort of the known - a kind of vertigo or even cowardice in the face of the task ahead.

The most overbearing fetter is doubt, or equivocation. In his hymns Shinran uses two Japanese words for doubt: utagai in this verse and - in the third volume of verses - giwaku. A person who enters the first stage of the Buddhist path has unshakeable faith in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Shinran in this wasan laments the fetter of doubt which imprisons us in a glorious world of our own creation. The dharma (the Vow - ultimate, infinte truth) is inconceivable and cannot be structured as a mental object. It liberates us from all fetters and the contivance that keeps us in the thrall of samsara.2

So, what shall we do? If doubt is such a serious obstacle to the Buddhist way, is there some way we can challenge and conquer it?

The Pure Land tradition has discovered, in the teachings handed down through the ages and in the experience of ordinary people, that to entrust oneself to Amida Buddha in the Name (Namo Amida Butsu) is the only way. As the great Australian Buddhist thinker Marie Byles said towards the end of her long life of profound Buddhist practice:

It is not easy to relax and let go, and plunge into the flood with only a simple phrase as your life-belt and the very-nature-of-things-as-they-are. It is not easy but it is a great relief when you do so.3

Thus, Marie Byles describes relinquishing doubt. This sounds like 'blind faith' but it is not so. We will see as we proceed through Shinran's hymns that in fact it is the most profound wisdom and light that informs shinjin; and it is this and only this, which can eliminate our doubt. We cannot do it ourselves.

The Name (Namo Amida Butsu), of which Marie Byles speaks, is actually a tangible manifestation of something that is integral to the existence of all things. It is known as 'the fragrance of light'4: the light of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Inconceivable Light, also known as the Buddha of Unhindered Light Filling the Ten Quarters, or as the Buddha of Immeasurable Light. Indeed, as if to highlight this for us Shinran adds the following statement before moving onto the third verse of the Hymns of the Pure Land (Jodo Wasan):

It is stated in the Gathas in Praise of Amida Buddha by T’an-luan:

Namo Amida Butsu

Interpreting the title, I call this work An Appended Scripture on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. In praising Amida, it also refers to the land of peace.

Since attainment of Buddhahood, ten kalpas have passed;
The Buddha’s life indeed has no measure.
Dharma-body’s wheel of light pervades the dharma-realm,
Shining on the blind and ignorant of the world; hence, I bow in homage.

Further, Amida is called:

1   Immeasurable Light
2   True and Real Light
3   Boundless Light
4   Enlightenment of Nondiscrimination
5   Unhindered Light
6   Beyond Conception
7   Unequaled Light
8   Ultimate Shelter
9   Lord of Blazing Light
10   Great One Worthy of Offerings
11   Light of Purity
12   Light of Joy
13   Great Consolation
14   Light of Wisdom
15   Uninterrupted Light
16   Inconceivable Light
17   Inexpressible Light
18   Light that Surpasses the Sun and Moon
19   One who is without Equal
20   One of the Vast Assembly
21   Oceanlike Great Mind
22   Supremely Honored One
23   Power of Nondiscrimination
24   Power of the Great Mind
25   Inexpressible Buddha
26   Bhagavat
27   One of the Hall
28   Pure One who Broadly Grasps All Beings
29   Honored-one beyond Conceptual Understanding
30   One of the Bodhi-tree
31   Truly Immeasurable One
32   Music of Purity
33   Store of Virtues Fulfilled through the Primal Vow
34   One Imbued with Purity
35   Treasury of Virtues
36   Ultimately Honored One
37   Inconceivable Light

Ten Bodhisattva Stages (by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva) states:

The one freely working
I pay homage

The one of purity
I take refuge

Immeasurable virtue
I offer praise5


1: 'Shakyamuni' is another name for Gautama Buddha (563-483 BCE), and means 'Sage of the Shakya Nation'. Gautama was the principal founder of the cultural, philosophical, speculative and religious system we call 'Buddhism'. It is properly known as Buddha Dharma.

2: samsara: literally 'wandering'; the cycle of birth and death.

3: Buddhism in Australia, Paul Croucher, p. 73.

4: CWS p. 498-9 et. al.

5. CWS p. 122 f.

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