Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 59

Such is the benevolence of Amida's great compassion.
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking
    of our bodies;
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavour to repay it, even to our
    bones becoming dust.

Ondokusan!

nyorai daihi no ondoku wa
mi o ko ni shi to mo hozu beshi
shishu chishiki no ondoku mo
hone o kudaki te mo shasu beshi

In Shin Buddhist Temples and meeting-places, these words are often sung together at the conclusion of dharma meetings.

Ondoku, the key word of this verse, means 'blessing'. It is a verse that is based on the writings of Shan-tao:

For kalpas upon kalpas - stacked high and linked together - you should crush your bodies and break your bones to return in gratitude the Buddha's compassion.

Clearly, this is the joyful task of teaching the dharma after becoming Buddhas and returning to the world of birth-and-death. But it also has relevance for the time between attaining shinjin and birth in the Pure Land. This gratitude is spontaneous and there is no doubt that it is expressed as Namu-amida-butsu:

True and real shinjin is unfailingly accompanied by the Name.1

Gratitude abides as a definining characteristic of nembutsu living. In any case, since Shan-tao suggests that an expression of gratitude involves a crushing effort, how can it be the nembutsu of Amida Buddha's shinjin, which requires no effort on our part?

I have heard of many ways that people attempt to impose on others some specfic view of how this gratitude should be expressed. It is easy, for example, to think that the phrases 'crush our bodies' and 'break our bones' may indicate some kind of ascetic practice. However, although it suggests 'effort' of some kind, it is not necessarily cruelty to oneself. Or, is it 'effort' (Sk. virya paramita), one of the six Paramitas? The answer is that Shinran nowhere suggests anything like that.

I have also seen it suggested that gratitude is expressed by taking up the five 'right' practices that were outlined by Shan-tao. These are, reciting Pure Land Sutras, meditation on Amida Buddha and the Pure Land, worshipping Amida, saying the nembutsu and making offerings to the Buddha. While this sounds feasible, it is, again, not suggested by Shinran.

Sometimes, too, it is said that we show our gratitude in ethics or obedience to precepts. But Shinran did not advance a set of precepts either. He did counsel ethical behaviour. But it was usually on the basis of casting off the 'evil of this world'. His strongest admonition in support of ethical behaviour appears in the sixteenth letter of Lamp for the Latter Ages. He summarises his position in this way:

One must seek to cast off the evil of this world and to cease doing wretched deeds; this is what it means to reject the world and to live the nembutsu.2

Truly, the basis of the world is greed, anger and folly. Shinran is actually suggesting that those who live the nembutsu way, naturally lose, over time, any lawless inclinations; any tendencies to act out anti-social impulses. His tone is cautionary and he is careful to remind us in a similar contextthat Amida Buddha embraces us, who are full of evil passions, even though we may wonder how this is possible. However, in the ninteenth letter of Lamp for the Latter Ages he says that after many long years of saying the nembutsu the main 'sign of rejecting the world' is 'the change in the heart that had been bad, and warmth for friends and fellow-practicers'.

In any case, 'signs of rejecting the world' does not address the questions that arise from a concept of the gratitude, which is expressed in terms of 'crushing our bodies' and 'breaking our bones': massive, crushing effort.

Interestingly, it is Eshinni, Shinran's wife, who gives the most unequivocal quote from Shinran that explains how gratitude would express itself in the life of a nembutsu follower, apart from saying the Name itself. In one of her letters, she quotes Shinran as saying:

... the repayment of the Buddha's blessing is to believe the teaching for oneself and then to teach others to believe (ji shin kyo nin shin)... this is the most difficult of all difficulties.3

In addition to this, Eshinni quotes Shinran as also saying that 'the saying of the nembutsu is sufficient in itself.' So, apart from nembutsu, returning gratitude to the Buddha is believing the teaching for oneself and teaching others to believe. Furthermore in this letter, Shinran explicity says that other practices are irrelevant and unnecessary. Eshinni's letter tells us about a time that Shinran recited the Larger Sutra over and over again 'for the benefit of sentient beings', but realised that it was a dreadful mistake.

This, then, lies at the true heart of our response of gratitude for the Buddha's benevolence. Immediately we understand this, we can also understand why our bodies will be crushed and our bones broken. What is there in the universe and in eternity that is more difficult than this? The nembutsu we say is 'the call of the Vow' and gratitude expresses itself, beyond this, when we explain the way of nembutsu to others - the most difficult of all difficulties. This is the crushing debt that we owe to the Buddha and to the dharma masters.


1. CWS, p. 107

2. CWS, p. 547

3. The Life of Eshinni Wife of Shinran Shonin, Yoshiko Ohtani, p. 95f

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