Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 60

As a mark of not apprehending Buddha-wisdom
People doubt the Tathagata's various kinds of wisdom,
Believe in the recompense of good and evil, rely on their
Of the root of good, and hence remain in the borderland.

Evidence of Doubt

We have already explored the way that Shinran Shonin interprets the terms 'borderland', 'castle of doubt', and similar ways of describing the 'provisional' or 'temporary' Pure Lands. These terms orginated in the Pure Land sutras and in the tradition at large. In this next section Shinran continues to elaborate upon these designations, so we will have the opportunity to revisit and explore them further for ourselves. In short, Shinran sees any birth other than the 'inconceivable birth' that arises from the eighteenth Vow of Amida Buddha as a form of captivity, whereby one's final release from the thrall of samsara is held in check.

In the following twenty-three wasans, Shinran introduces his cautions to Pure Land aspirants about the danger of doubt (giwaku). It seems to me that these verses serve a very important purpose. In the initial stages of our quest, it is difficult to understand just exactly what is meant by the antonym of doubt, shinjin. This is not made any easier when, in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran describes shinjin as ineffable:

It is simply shinjin (entrusting1) that is inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable.2

I recognise that the context of this quote is very important but - just to focus on the ineffability of shinjin for a moment - we are challenged to confront this difficulty. If shinjin is ultimately beyond the power of words to describe, the mind to comprehend and reason to explain, then it is obviously extremely important to know what it is not. Of course, this is not to suggest that Amida's mind of shinjin is something that can not be experienced. It most certainly is knowable by the evidence of its presence, just as doubt is known in the same way.

In several places Shinran says that shinjin is experienced as 'entrusting'. In addition, he often alludes to the sense of vibrant joy and gratitude that arises from it. There is also a penetrating insight into the utter inadequacy of one's own nature for the purposes of gaining release from samsara. Nevertheless, understanding the nature of doubt serves as an antidote to any illusion that we may cherish, which holds that we can generate faith by our own efforts.

Another fact about Shinran's understanding of doubt, is that it is not a synonym for 'unbelief'. Its opposite, entrusting, has nothing whatever to do with a set of beliefs, or credal, or doctrinal formulæ. In addition, it stands apart from questions of the existence, or otherwise, of Amida Buddha.

Since pure faith is itself the mind of Amida Buddha, I cannot imagine how a person of shinjin could entertain questions about Amida's reality, whether or not one chooses to articulate an interpretation of this experience in any way. For, Amida Buddha is not an 'object of faith', he is the source of the entrusting heart. In this case, it is a matter, not of belief or unbelief, but of certainty either way. To use Master Genshin's famous analogy: the relationship between Amida Buddha and shinjin is like the relationship between the sun and daylight. A person who is bathed in the sun's light may not know, or care, anything about its history, or how its is constituted, or even be able to look at it, but he would surely be confident about the sun's reality.

It seems to me that Shinran sees doubt in much the same way that the Buddha Dharma sees the 'hindrances' (Sk. nivarana), which block our mental vision and serve as obstructions in gaining the necessary insight that will enable us to progress upon the way. Doubt consists of those beliefs and habits which stop us from accepting Amida Buddha's dharma. It is this that makes me feel that any deliberate imposition of religious practices that are supposed to serve as aids to 'gaining shinjin' are actually an oxymoron. Such activities actually feed - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - the pernicious habits that obstruct the process of awakening to Amida Buddha's shinjin.

As we have already seen, on several occasions, Shinran expects that we will conduct our lives and relationships in an ethical, considerate way. Many fine teachers of Jodo Shinshu, have also been able to demonstrate that Shinran's teaching can serve as a resource for ethical principles and a way of life that respects our responsiblities as engaged members of society. However, no one should claim that such concerns hold the key to the awakening to shinjin. To regard the attempt to 'be good' or 'improve ourselves' as relevant to this most basic concern for us, is to feed those ego-enhancing hungers that obstruct the working of Amida's Primal Vow. If we doubt this, then we need to draw closer to Shinran's teaching and listen to him and his teachers, with greater care.

Indeed, the Shinshu Sangha has always insisted that 'hearing', which involves listening to the dharma and hearing the origin and outcome of the nembutsu, is the only way that we can proceed. Shinran's religion is a path that involves deep reflection, to an extent that is more pronounced than it is in other Buddhist traditions. But, it is lived in the context of daily life and of listening to the dharma, rather than any special disciplines or practices, apart from the nembutsu.

In this hymn, Shinran uses the phrase 'the root of good' (zenpon) and says that trusting in it will not result in a final outcome, which is birth in the fulfilled Buddha land, or nirvana.

Normally 'the root of good' is the term that Shinran uses to refer to practice of the nembutsu as an effort to gain the merit that will result in birth in the Pure Land by one's own efforts. Sometimes he extends this to encompass a belief that our ethical or moral worth will also contribute to our birth in the Pure Land. This is the case in this verse, where the context of the term fundamental good is associated with 'believing in the recompense of good and evil'. Shinran identifies the attitude that belongs with 'relying on the practice of the root of good' as self-power (jiriki), which he defines in Lamp for the Latter Ages, in this way:

Self-power is the effort to attain birth, whether by invoking the names of Buddhas other than Amida and practicing good acts other than the nembutsu, in accordance with your particular circumstances and opportunities; or by endeavoring to make yourself worthy through mending the confusion in your acts, words, and thoughts, confident of your own powers and guided by your own calculation.3

This is a very useful passage because it elucidates just what it is that Shinran means by 'believes in the recompense of good and evil and relies on the root of good'. He gives us a clear definition of the problem of self-power, which is nothing less than tangible and unequivocal evidence of doubt.

1. CWS, p. 94

2. CWS, p. 107

3. CWS, p. 525

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