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

Shozomatsu Wasan 78

For the offence of doubting Buddha-wisdom,
They are chained fast
In a prison for five hundred years;
This is taught as womb-like birth.

The Shackled Heart

These verses on doubt grow ever more strident. Indeed this and the final section of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages reveal a side of Shinran Shonin that we do not find anywhere else in his writings, except in some of his letters to his son, Zenran. One wonders why Shinran has such a strong sense of urgency in addressing the problem of doubt. Is he behaving like a pedantic inquisitor who is bent on maintaning some kind of putative orthodoxy? Or, is there another motive that lies at the heart of his warnings?

Shinran has been my friend and guide for over forty years now. The power and depth of his teaching is so compelling that one finds oneself feeling at home with it even though one is surrounded by people who are unaware of it. Yet those who do begin to listen to Shinran, going beyond the opinions of those who interpret him, and listening to him on his terms, will find themselves entering into the ineffable liberation that he, himself, found in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. They will do so with growing joy and exhilaration, becoming ever lighter at heart.

So, Shinran is not a stern guardian of a mere formal orthodoxy. He is the exponent of the path of true liberation; a path that requires repeated listening until one becomes saturated with it. This is because, ultimately, it cannot be fully heard in the rational realm, but beyond and more deeply than that. Shinran's teaching requires not only ratiocination but emotional intelligence as well - something that we all possess. His teaching is not just 'spiritual', it is tangible, too; it will pervade every aspect of our being because it is imbued with the 'light that shines unhindered through the ten quarters'. In any case, reason alone can lead to good or evil outcomes and has been employed in the deployment of both kindness and cruelty. Reason has its role but Shinran also reveals his inner depths and gives us the courage to venture into the same levels of personal honesty that he does.

The imagery that Shinran uses indicates his alarm at the way the joyful teaching that he proclaimed was being turned into an oppressive regime by those who asserted their authority in order to abuse it. Those who assert that self-power practices of any kind have a place in the way of the Primal Vow are imparting to others only the legacy of a shackled heart: one imprisoned heart and mind seeking to imprison others.

This is another verse in which Shinran identifies doubt with self-power practices. If we are to be faithful to him - or, if we have an inkling of the joy and liberation that is the gift of the Primal Vow - then we will heed his vehement warning about the dangers of this kind of doubt.

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Jodo Wasan

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