Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 58

Those who realise shinjin, which is Other Power,
'Revere [the dharma] and greatly rejoice in it,
And therefore are my true companions.' Such is the praise
Of the World-honoured one, the master of the teaching.

Buddha's Companions

The last two verses of this section of the Hymns of the Dharma Ages, which is entitled Pure Land Hymns on the Right, Semblance and Last Dharma-Ages, form a contrasting pair. In this verse Shinran Shonin draws on a sentence from the Larger Sutra in order to commemorate the joy in accepting Amida Buddha's shinjin. He celebrates the wondrous sense of relief at complying with the very purpose for which Shakyamuni came into the world. Shakyamuni is 'the Teacher revered by all the world', and complying with his reason for doing so, is to become his good companion.

In the next verse, Shinran is inspired by a passage from Shan-tao's book Kuan-nien-fa-mên (Doctrine of Meditation) to remind us of the debt we owe to the Buddha. This latter verse is the famous song, Ondokusan, which Hongwanji members often sing together at the conclusion of Dharma meetings.

Rennyo Shonin, especially, has a wonderful capacity to capture, in a few well-chosen words, the impact and significance of the joy that flows in the acceptance Amida Buddha's shinjin; that is to say, in agreeing to comply with Amida Buddha's Primal Vow. We find a good example in the very first letter of the Letters of Rennyo.

An old poem says:

                                                    

                         Long ago,
                            joy
                  was wrapped in my sleeves -
                         but, tonight,
                 it's more than I can contain! 

            

'Long ago joy was wrapped in my sleeves' means that in the past, we felt certain - without any clear understanding of the sundry practices and the right practices - that we would be born [in the Pure Land] if we just said the nembutsu. 'But, tonight, it's more than I can contain' means that the joy of saying the nembutsu in grateful return for the Buddha's benevolence is especially great now that, having heard and understood the difference between the right and the sundry [practices], we have become steadfast and single-hearted and thus have undergone a decisive settling of faith. Because of this, we are so over-joyed that we feel like dancing - hence the joy is 'more than I can contain.'1

The 'right' and 'sundry' practices were delineated by Shan-tao (613-681), who also suggested that the most important of the 'right practices' was the nembutsu. Rennyo, of course, has further understood the teaching through the lense of Shinran's understanding, whereby the 'decisive settling of shinjin' is the 'cause of birth' in the Pure Land. The 'substance' of shinjin is the nembutsu and saying it is the natural outcome of the decisive settling of shinjin. But, where does the joy that makes Rennyo 'feel like dancing' come from? It is, surely, the experience of slipping into the natural working of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. It is to comply with the will of the Buddha. It is a 'coming home' to the dharma.

'Revere [the dharma] and greatly rejoice in it' cries Shinran of finding Amida Buddha's shinjin. It seems to me that he is suggesting the first moment of true discipleship in the Buddha. The phrase reminds us of those first mendicants who heard Shakyamuni turn the Wheel of the Dharma for the first time and, in the joy of understanding, took refuge in him as their teacher. Indeed, in this case, Shinran specifically refers to Shakyamuni. At the same time he quotes from the Larger Sutra, which, the sutra tells us, Shakyamuni delivered on Vulture Peak.

What exactly is the catalyst for this upwelling of joy and reverence? Of course, clearly it is the settling of shinjin, but, as Rennyo shows, it is also the clear understanding of the things that are most vital and important in the matter of our ultimate destiny. It is the realisation that nembutsu-faith is all that matters. That we need to strive no more. No more contriving (hakarai), no more trying, no more wasting time on sundry practices. Zuiken Sensei describes it thus:-

Believing does not come after hearing. Peace of mind does not come after believing. Listen carefully to the call of the Original Vow, which has accomplished namuamidabutsu and also accomplished our hearing of it, believing in it and peace of mind. If you have listened well, you will be relieved of the heavy burden on your shoulders.

Look! Throughout the universe Amida's Light is shining unhindered all the time. How deeply inspiring it is! How grateful I am!2

This, it seems to me, is precisely what Shinran is expressing in his Wasan, and what Rennyo is saying in his letter.

Alas! We are fragile, fickle beings. Clouds of care come down upon us, shocks take the wind out of our sails, events disappoint or frighten us, tragedies break our hearts - and sometimes even our minds... and joy does not last. Indeed, should we cling to it, we may only be holding onto a fond memory, a fossil: an empty shell.

'Although I say the nembutsu, the feeling of dancing with joy is faint with me, and I have no thought of wanting to go to the Pure Land quickly. How should it be [for a person of the nembutsu]?'

When I asked the master this, he answered, 'I, too, have had this question, and the same thought occurs to you, Yuien-bo!'

When I reflect deeply on it, by the very fact that I do not rejoice at what should fill me with such joy that I dance in the air and dance on the earth, I realize all the more that my birth is completely settled. What suppresses the heart that that should rejoice and keeps one from rejoicing is the action of blind passions. Nevertheless, the Buddha, knowing this beforehand, called us "foolish beings possessed of blind passions"; thus, becoming aware that the compassionate Vow of Other Power is indeed for the sake of ourselves, who are such beings, we find it all the more trustworthy.'3

Thus, perhaps with a burden of sorrow, too, we hear the compassion of the Vow, and continue on the way with our companion... Namu-amida-butsu.


1. tr. Ann T. Rogers, 1996.

2. On Faith

3.A Record in Lament of Divergences 9; CWS, p. 665.)

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