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

Shozomatsu Wasan 62

Practicers who believe in the recompense of good and evil
Doubt the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
And therefore remain in the city of doubt
    or the womb-palace;
Hence, they are separated from the three treasures.

The City of Doubt

This verse is almost identical in content, although different in context, to the sixty-seventh verse of the Hymns of the Pure Land. The particular name (gijo taigu - castle of doubt and the womb-palace) for the 'provisional' Pure Land (kedo) used in this verse is different from the name used there, and it comes from the Larger Sutra. As we have already seen in the sixth book of the The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, Shinran Shonin elaborates on the theme of the 'temporary' or provisional forms of the Pure Land, but they really amount to one thing: failure to attain liberation by means of the entrusting heart, Amida Buddha's shinjin.

In a footnote that is attached to to the sixty-seventh verse of the Hymns of the Pure Land, Shinran defines the provisional Pure Land, which encompasses the 'city of doubt and the womb palace':

Borderland: womblike birth resulting from doubt is called the 'borderland.' After passing five hundred years there, one will go to the fulfilled land. People who seek to attain birth through various practices fall into the realm of indolence and pride. Of these, rarely will there be one who, after immeasurable spans of time, advances to the fulfilled land.

In the next few verses of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran goes on to elaborate the emotional significance of this state of affairs. In doing so, he conveys a powerful sense of the way in which our own creativity in working towards our own transcendence results in a glorious prison. In seeking to build our own conceptions of truth we do not find truth, but, rather, generate our own fanciful forms of habitual slavery. They may bring us a sense of achievement but they do not ultimately free us from the real problem, which is samsara, the round of birth-and-death.

As one might expect, this perspective carries forward the traditional themes of the Buddha Dharma. Right view, which is the primary and fundamental rung of the Noble Eightfold Path, is to 'see things as they are'. It is not to be coloured by our own contrivance. For Shinran, 'wrong view' is the equivalent of calculation: the attempt to impose our own contrivance upon the underlying reality of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. It is not only to 're-invent the wheel', but to elaborate on the wheel to such an extent that it stops turning altogether.

The Primal Vow, from which shinjin arises, is actually the pristine reality waiting for us accede to it. It waits, while we construct elaborate excuses to avoid listening. Shinran was able to show that self-power practices, which, for him, is a synonym for 'doubt', have in fact become the building blocks, with which we raise a structure of self-deception and ego-centricity, upon the foundations of greed, anger and folly.

Next, concerning entrusting, it is the ocean of shinjin, perfect and unhindered, that is the Tathagata's consummately fulfilled great compassion. Hence, there is no mixture of doubt. It is therefore called 'entrusting.' The essence of entrusting is the sincere mind of benefiting others and directing virtues.

However, since the beginningless past, the multitudes of beings have been transmigrating in the ocean of ignorance, sinking aimlessly in the cycle of all forms of existence and bound to the cycle of all forms of pain; accordingly, they lack the entrusting that is pure. In the manner of their existence, they have no entrusting that is true and real. Hence, it is difficult for them to encounter the unexcelled virtues, difficult to realize the supreme, pure shinjin. In all small foolish beings, at all times, thoughts of greed and desire incessantly defile any goodness of heart; thoughts of anger and hatred constantly consume the dharma-treasure. Even if one urgently acts and urgently practices as though sweeping fire from one's head, all these acts must be called 'poisoned and sundry good,' and 'false and deceitful practice.' They cannot be called 'true and real action.' To seek to be born in the land of immeasurable light through such false and poisoned good is completely wrong.1

We can see from this passage that Shinran sees 'doubt', which is the subject of this section of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages that we are considering here, as the ultimate form of futility. Above all, he was conscious of the ramifications of the last Dharma-age and its impact on the human spirit. Hence, his emphasis, when considering the karmic outcome of doubt (gi), is upon bondage. It is an enslavement that, like a womb, may seem pleasant and secure but it is confinement nonetheless.

The important thing in considering Shinran's emphasis on this problem, is that we should not overlook his key objective in reminding us of the ultimate outcome of doubt. It is certainly not his intention to threaten or cajole us into accepting Amida Buddha's shinjin by suggesting that we may have a gloomy and frustrating future if we do not follow his advice. The 'castle of doubt and the womb palace' are fine structures that impact upon us in our present reality.

In his time, Shakyamuni was a critic of the rituals of the Shaivaite religion he inherited. He often reminded his hearers of the vanity and futility of mere empty observances as a way of generating 'good' karma. His famous statement - that if ritual washing could eradicate evil karma, then fish and tortoises would be quickly on their way to nirvana - resounds through time as a reminder of the ways we subtly deceive ourselves.

Shinran, once again, follows in Shakyamuni's footsteps by offering a critique of time-consuming and futile activities that are sustained in pursuit of some desirable future goal. In suggesting that doubt, self-power, will ultimately separate us from the Three Treasures, I do not think that Shinran is merely re-affirming an ancient Buddhist doctrine. It seems to me that he is enhancing this tradition by pointing out that the security and comfort of the 'castle of doubt' is concommitant with complete separation from truth; that it is mis-spent effort; effort that only serves to entwine us in the round of samsara. It is the existential and spiritual significance of doubt that Shinran wants to convey in this and following verses; his concern is not merely with distant outcomes.

More importantly, it is the 'here and now' significance of doubt that Shinran wants to call to our attention. For, if we can abandon the self-constructed views and practices that we so cherish and simply entrust everything to Amida Buddha, we will, at that very moment open ourselves to the true discipleship of the Buddha and draw closer than anyone can to the Three Treasures of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

A life that already tastes liberation from the round of births-and-death, and obsessive bondage to futile activities, awaits us in this very moment if we just turn and face the light of the dharma in Namu-amida-butsu. In doing that we will see things as they really are. We will know ourselves as we really are and a new, free and joyous life will open up before us.

1. CWS p. 98

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