Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 101

Lamentable is it that people, whether of the Way or of the
Choose auspicious times and lucky dates,
Worship heavenly gods and earthly deities,
And are absorbed in divinations and rituals.

Darkness to Darkness

One of the most remarkable features of Shinran Shonin's thought and outlook is his unequivocal commitment to the Buddha Dharma, to the exclusion of all other religious intrusions. Shinran was clearly not interested in eclecticism. Although he recognised the existence of the tenjin chigi, heavenly gods and earthly deities, and aligned himself with the traditional Buddhist view that these deities were guardians of the Dharma, he had no room for servility in relation to them.

It seems to me, indeed, that worship of gods of any kind is inimical to the Buddha Dharma because such service usually seeks to alter the course of karmic outcomes (Sk. vipaka). Such a thing is impossible without an internal transformation and, in any case, the outcomes of our previous actions can ultimately only be transcended. We cannot amend the course of the chain of effects that result from our previous actions by appealing to another person to change them. The flow of the karmic stream is inexorable.

Deities are sentient beings who belong to the field of existence, which is described in the Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam as (Sankrit) 'kama dhatu', the realm of desire. They may, on the whole, be happier - and longer lived - than we are, but in other ways they are our equals, and certainly not enlightened. Apart from their adoption of the role of protecting the Dharma, we have no business with them; although, surely, we would be kind to them, and not speak ill of them, as we ought to do to all sentient beings. Indeed, it seems to me, that for a person who has found the single Way of the Nembutsu, such worship is not only meaningless but distasteful. What more do we need than 'the embrace that does not forsake'?

The last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho addresses the problem of double-mindedness. It is concerned with a sense of dissatisfaction with just the entrusting heart and the Name, which is its substance, and its expression as namu-amida-butsu. It seems to me that, for Shinran, this is evident in sundry practices, self-power Nembutsu, allegiance to other religious traditions, petitionary prayer, the worship of deities and various mantic practices.

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran devotes a lot of time and effort to deprecating all religious activities that are incidental to the Nembutsu Way. Obviously, this is consistent with his sense of the core significance of 'the mind that is single'. One only needs to read T'an-luan's Commentary on Vasubandhu's Discourse on the Pure Land (ojoronchu), and to contemplate Shan-tao's Allegory of the Two Rivers and the White Way, to discover the extent to which Shinran is faithful to the tradition. Double-mindedness is truly incompatible with the Pure Land Way.

As we have seen before, Shinran's single-mindedness does not suggest montheism. It is just that anything other than the entrusting heart, Nembutsu and listening to the Dharma (chomon), is irrelevant to our needs. The decay of the Dharma, he suggests, is evident in the way that people, who profess to be Buddhist, inwardly revere something that is not compatible with it.

Yet, here is a paradox. Remarkably enough, Shinran also sees that these same poisons have similarly sullied his own heart. When we consider the final verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan and, for example, his statement at the beginning of the second fascicle of Gutokusho (CWS, p. 600) that

the heart of Gutoku (Shinran) is such that I am inwardly foolish, outwardly wise,

we realise that he includes himself in his critique of the Sangha. Later in the Gutokusho, Shinran discusses the distinction between inward disposition and outward appearances. It seems to me that the passages, which I have cited here, demonstrate that, when he says (CWS, p. 618)

Inwardly nonbuddhist teachings; outwardly Buddhist teachings,

he means to make us aware of his own duplicity in these matters.

This insight is so striking and unusual that it deserves our close attention. It means that attempts to characterise the person of shinjin as having attained some kind of purified enlightenment cannot be in line with Shinran's perspective. We do well to remember that these expressions of Shinran's inner life were made only a few years before his death. Even at that stage of his life, Shinran was acutely aware of the distinction between his own inner reality and the pure, unsullied and luminous shinjin of the Primal Vow that flooded his heart.

The corruptions of the Dharma-ending Age are in full flight and are endemic, even in those of the true, settled, entrusting heart (shinjitsu shinjin). As we saw in the previous verse, signs of the corruption of the Dharma in its dying phase is evident, not just in others, but in ourselves as well. Hence it is simply incontrovertible that we can have no recourse to our own power as the way to Enlightenment.

If we think carefully about Shinran's insights here, we will realise just how unusual he is as a religious thinker. For what other religious leader would have been prepared to countenance an admission that he shared the same damning faults as others? How many of those who set themselves up as judges of the morality of their fellow-citizens, ever acknowledge that they habitually make the same mistakes? If they were to do so, they would surely lose all authority in the eyes of the populace. Yet, when Shinran does this very same thing, his authority is enhanced and strengthened.

The reason for this is surely that Shinran's objective is not to belittle and demean everyone with a view to making himself look good. He is pointing to an endemic problem, rather in the way that Vimalakirti said, 'Because others are ill, I am ill, too.' He is also obliquely speaking from the perspective of a man who had accepted Amida Buddha's shinjin, knowing full well that it in no way had arisen from himself.

I am no psychologist but I have often observed, both in myself and in others, the strange phenomenon that is sometimes called 'projection'. It is that we are prone to dislike in others the things that we despise in ourselves. The darkness we see in others is that very same darkness that dwells in us. While I think that the easy diagnosis of projection can be overwrought, one does often hear people criticising others for faults that are abundantly evident in themselves. What is remarkable about Shinran, and makes him so much a man of our times, is the acuity of his awareness that what is wrong with the world in general, is also wrong with him. The suffering of all is also his suffering. Therefore none of us have any option but to accept the call of the Vow in namu-amida-butsu.

As we shall see, Shinran developed the view that there was nothing intrinsically consistent with the Buddha Dharma, which could be discerned within the core of his being. Kleshas (bonno) comprised his true reality. This is the critical discovery that many of us make as we strive to gain transcendence by means of our own resources. But, then, we discover that such efforts are, Oh! vanity, entirely. Like Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharma-kosha-bhasyam, some people discover that only with the cessation of their bonno will any truth arise. These people come to realise that their only option is single-minded reliance on Amida Buddha.

Whether we are inherently imbued with Buddha Nature fades into the background as a matter of theoretical concern in the face of our existential reality. Indeed, it may no longer be a feasible concept, in practical terms. In point of fact, the references to Buddha Nature, which most interested Shinran, were from the Nirvana Sutra. These passages remind us that Buddha Nature is hidden from prthagjananas (bombu, ordinary men and women), and that it is endowed upon us as shinjin, to become manifest in all its fulness upon birth in the Pure Land.

- April 28, 2006.

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