Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 57

Eminent Pure Land teachers of India, China, and Japan!
Out of pity and compassion, embrace us,
And guiding us to realisation of true and real shinjin,
Bring us to enter the stage of the truly settled.

Sangha

At first glance this Wasan seems to be a prayer to the Pure Land Masters, calling upon them to endow upon us Amida Buddha's 'true and real shinjin' (shinjitsu shinjin), which is the assurance of enlightenment. 'True and real shinjin', as we have already seen, is the 'stage of the truly settled'. It is the 'joyful faith' that is endowed by the Power of the Primal Vow. Because it is the 'stage of the truly settled', but not yet enlightenment itself, Shinran adds a marginal note that says,

l.4: please bring us to enter the stage of unfailing attainment of Buddhahood.

Shinran calls not only upon the Pure Land Masters, but upon others to whom he turns as sources for his writings. Shinran made it his task throughout the last three decades of his life (the time, during which he lived in Kyoto) to listen closely to the Pure Land philosophers who had lived throughout the two millennia of the Buddhist dispensation. From them he drew all of his inspiration, which he interpreted in the light of the understanding that he had received from Honen Shonin. Obviously, the principal outcome of this endevour was The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, his compendium of the Pure Land teaching, which not only reiterates Honen's teaching but refines and elucidates it as well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that it is to these great thinkers that Shinran should turn at the conclusion of his fifty verses on the right, semblance and last dharma-ages. For, these great masters lived during the semblance and last dharma ages. Of course, the Larger Sutra was no doubt originally transmitted orally by teachers, who lived during the five hundred year period that immediately followed Shakyamuni. However, the Indian Masters (Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu) lived during the semblance dharma age and, by one of Shinran's calculations, the Chinese Masters (T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao) and the Japanese Masters (Genshin and Honen) all lived in the last dharma age. This was the time, during which the Pure Land way gained ascendency, largely on the basis of its capacity to meet human need during the last dharma age.

Shinran's plea that the eminent Pure Land teachers of the ages should guide us to 'realisation of true and real shinjin' is surely not a request for some sort of supernatural or magical intervention; neither does it invoke a mystic transference of grace from them. The nurturing (or guidance) comes by way of their writings. We can be quite certain that the eminent Pure Land teachers, whom Shinran so revered, enlighten posterity and nurture true faith by this means, and this means alone. Their commentaries and inspired works have the capacity to awaken true shinjin in us because they did so for Shinran.

The writings of the great Dharma Masters provide everything that is needed for a full realisation of the shinjin that 'brings us to enter the stage of the truly settled'. It is these scriptures and texts that form the foundation of the Pure Land way. Therefore, it can truly be said that any 'practice' in Jodo Shinshu is to listen to Shakyamuni and the eminent Pure Land teachers. The role of any later teacher, like Shinran, is simply to convey, albeit in more contemporary terms, the contents of the thought of these self-same dharma masters. All that really remains for us, is to listen to these men, and allow them to nuture true shinjin in us - the true shinjin that is the cause for becoming a Buddha.

Birth does not become settled, however, by virtue of mere study of the dharma masters. If their writings do not nurture true shinjin in us, then they serve no purpose at all. Our 'listening' to them is consonant with nembutsu - indeed, it is nembutsu - in the sense that it helps beyond calculation if we are on the same path as they are, and seeking answers in our common contemplation - as finite beings - of the Infinite. Neither is the written legacy of the eminent Pure Land teachers intended to serve as material for disputation, scholarly or otherwise. There is, in their words, no mystical power to transform us; it seems to me that they ought to be heard in a context of a process, whereby we listen also to our own hearts.

The end result of any study is, in Shinran's words:

... more and more [to realise] Amida's fundamental intent and [grow] in awareness of the immensity of the compassionate Vow, so that one can explain, to those who anxiously wonder how birth is possible for wretched people like themselves, that the Primal Vow does not discriminate as to whether one's mind is good or evil, pure or defiled.1

Listening to the Dharma Masters is identical to the traditional process - in other Buddhist schools of thought - of visiting a temple and attending to the instruction of a resident mendicant. For the Dharma Masters are our Sangha - our community of wise monks. These are holy men, of profound wisdom and insight, whose life was dedicated to study and dhyana practice. Many of them, like Shan-tao, had direct and personal encounters with Amida Buddha; they saw into the heart of the infinite reality and returned, like Shakyamuni, to expound what they had seen, and heard, to those of us who hunger for more news of the Dharma.

As the Pure Land Way begins to settle into the hearts of people in strange lands - environments, which have no traditional Buddhist background - it is imperative that we make a special effort, even though it may sometimes be arduous, to sit at the feet of our founding Sanhga, the Dharma Masters. There is some evidence already that the central insight of Shinran, which is summarised in the quotation above, is being hidden from view due to a lack of grounding in the profound and pellucid wisdom of the third tier of the Triple Gem in our Pure Land Way.

Some of us, at least, should take up the call of these wonderful teachers, and travel together in our hearts to their temples, so that we may sit at their feet and listen to their gentle, kind and wise words, in love and awe. The wonder is: that we will discover with Shinran, that, yes, they still live, and their compassion still embraces us, even now.


1. A Record in Lament of Divergences 12; CWS, p. 670.

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