Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 55

Those who follow the Path of Sages
All take the mind of self-power as essential;
On entering the inconceivable working of Other Power,
They truly realise that no working is true working.

The Mind of Self Power

'The mind of self-power' as this term is used here serves as a powerful reminder of the significance of the nembutsu way in the experience of those, who are followers of authentic Buddha Dharma; who earnestly yearn to transcend birth-and-death and gain liberation for themselves and all others. The 'mind of self-power' is a tangible mind, it can be calibrated, it can be touched and it is empirical. 'The mind of Other Power', is 'inconceivable'. By this Shinran Shonin intends the sense that it can neither be captured, encapsulated nor described adequately. In the last line of this verse, Shinran states the situation clearly, using a phrase that he seems to have repeated often in his teaching in later life: gi naki o gi to su, 'no working is true working'.

'No working is true working' is a concept of such importance in Shinran's insight into the dharma that it is utterly impossible to do justice to it. Suffice it to say that much debate within Shinshu history has essentially revovled around an understanding of this phrase. It seems to me, however, that Shinran's perspective is rather unequivocal, and it is in this verse of Shinran's Hymns that we meet his most concise exposition.

There is an inexorable - and habitual - current of delusion that draws our minds away from the clear significance of 'no working is true working'. This is because the structure of our human organism demands tangibles: things that are capable of calibration and discernment. Essentially, historical debates within the Shinshu community are, only in part, of academic interest. They also touch us in a profound way because they serve to demonstrate precisely the way that each of us must traverse in hearing the dharma, as point-by-point, we each, individually, repeat the same common mistakes.

Most prominent among our mistakes is to adhere to the belief that there is 'something we have to do'. To this end, we may take up the 'auxiliary' practices of the Pure Land way. It is for this reason that Shinran saw that Amida Buddha's compassion includes those who are dependent on 'self-power practices' and altogether unable to relinquish them. In the last section of the The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation he elucidates the significance of the 'essential' and the 'true' gates. The 'essential' gate is made available by Amida Buddha's nineteenth Vow and it embraces those whose faith and practice includes meditation and precepts. The twentieth Vow, embraces those whose faith and practice involves dedicated practice of nembutsu.

Despite this realistic insight into human nature, Shinran saw both of these sets of faith and practice as a trap. Because of our delusions, we are inclined towards a sense that we ought to ask the Buddha to impart something to us or that we can somehow build up merit for ourselves by saying the nembutsu or by making ourselves worthy recipients of the virtues of the dharma. However, our perspective becomes very different when we realise that everything we need has already been accomplished for us. Indeed, in much of the remainder of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran strives to highlight the ultimate futility - in the last Dharma Age - of all self-power practices at every level of our spiritual development. As we mature in the dharma, we gain daily insights into this truth; insights that are striking and incontrovertible to the thoughtful and forthright heart.

Even if we finally turn to the 'gate of true suchness', the gate of the eighteenth Vow, which is Amida Buddha's shinjin and practice, our approach can be thwarted by ego-delusions. One example of this is to become fixated on the question, 'what is shinjin'? Because we feel such a strong need to maintain a tangible relationship with shinjin, truthful answers to this question always seem like prevarication, although they need not be. That is why phrase 'no working is true working' is so good. Shinran explained it in his essay On Jinen-honi, which is number five in the collection of his letters entitled Lamp for the Latter Ages1. It also appears at the end of the Hymns of the Dharma Ages.

In sum, Shinran sets reality before us: 'True working' is the reasoning and design of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; 'no working' represents our side of the equation.

In another place, he writes:

Truly we know that without the virtuous Name, our compassionate father, we would lack the direct cause for birth. Without the light, our compassionate mother, we would stand apart from the indirect cause of birth. Although direct and indirect causes may come together, if the karmic-consciousness of shinjin is lacking, one will not reach the land of light. The karmic-consciousness of true and real shinjin is the inner cause. The Name and light - our father and mother - are the outer cause. When the inner and outer causes merge, one realizes the true body in the fulfilled land. Therefore master [Shan-tao] states:

[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realize shinjin and aspire for birth.

Further, [Fa-chao] states:

Attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu: this is the true essence of the Pure Land way.

Further, [Shan-tao states:]

Difficult to encounter is the true essence of the Pure Land way.

Let this be known.2

The extraordinary depth of the Wisdom of the Buddha is far beyond our comprehension. We are imbued with the idea that we must struggle to gain outcomes, even though we know perfectly well that we did nothing to accomplish an outcome at the time of our conception and birth. The same principle applies to the birth in the Pure Land and the resultant attainment of Enlightenment and becoming a Buddha.

At our birth, our first cry signified the successful accomplishment of that crossing into another world, and at the awakening to the necessary attainment of Nirvana that is to come, people of shinjin recognise their compassionate father, and mother of light, and cry Namu-amida-butsu.


1. CWS, pp. 523-555

2. The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation II, 72; [CWS, pp. 54-55.]

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