Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 64

They are like the prince of the cakravartin king
Who, for offences committed against the king,
Is placed in a prison,
Fettered in chains of gold.

Golden Chains

In this section of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages that deals with doubt (gi), we have, so far, discovered that Shinran Shonin means self-power and the mind that is plural or 'not single'. In the next three verses, Shinran is inspired by a passage from the Larger Sutra. This passage enabled Shinran to see that doubt is, in fact, a deliberate self-obstruction that hides and smothers our natural condition. It is to create a limiting structure that serves to chain us to a self-creation. Although the outcome of doubt for those who practice the nembutsu in self-power is not punishment, it is an obfuscation that blocks the realisation of the inconceivable destiny that is nirvana.

This has wide significance, not just for the ultimate outcome of our practice as disciples of the Buddha but in its impact upon our current everyday living. The person who abandons doubt is the person of singleminded entrusting, who does not rely on his or her own efforts in pursuit of the dharma. Such a man or woman is described in Notes on 'Essentials of Faith Alone' as one, who has freely abandoned cramping attitudes in relation to the vicissitudes of life. This is a remarkable, counter-intuitive aspect of the single-minded, adamantine shinjin that is concommitant with the life of nembutsu. It needs further explanation.

'To abandon the mind of self-power' admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people - masters of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil - to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one's evil heart, and further to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.1

People of nembutsu, despite the on-going reality of their afflicting passions (bonno), adopt an equanimity in dealing with people and events. In other words, it is, in fact, self-power that builds a discriminatory set of illusions that are associated with rigidity and value-judgements - and limit our capacity to learn and grow. In self-power there is a constriction of our inner life; one that chokes our freedom and keeps us from truth and reality. By contrast, the entrusting heart opens us up to life. (In this passage, we can also see another re-iteration of Shinran's preference for apophasis in matters of faith - the proscription of the things that are not consistent with the great natural way of the nembutsu.)

These considerations, however, were not Shinran's own idea. He drew them from the Larger Sutra. Here is the passage, which inspired this and the subsequent two verses.

The Buddha said to Maitreya, 'Let us suppose that a wheel-turning monarch has a special chamber which is adorned with seen jewels and provided with curtained couches and silken banners hanging from the ceiling. If princes have committed offense against the king, they are taken to that chamber and fettered with gold chains. There they are served with food and drink, provided with clothes, couches and cushions, flowers and incense, and can enjoy music. Being treated just like the wheel-turning monarch himself, they have no wants. Do you think that those princes would enjoy living there?' 'No they do not,' replied Maitreya. 'They would seek various means of approach to ask a man of power to help them escape.' The Buddha said to Maitreya, 'Those beings born within the lotus-buds are like that.'2

The Buddha's allegory about the princes, who were bound in golden chains, suggests that our real longing is for freedom, rather than security. While, self-power, which is associated with greed or acquisitiveness, may give us some kind of reassurance and comfort, its effect is to keep us from full realisation of the dharma. The spiritual significance of this is truly profound and is again reflected in our everyday experience. People who 'live to the full' tend to take risks and love freedom; whereas there is a kind of oppressive deadenning of the spirit in those who build for themselves secure prisons of mind and place. In any case, it is worth considering the possibility that the allusion to the palace of the 'wheel-turning monarch' is clearly related to Shakyamuni's own experience.

We all know the account of the 'Great Renunciation' that is told in the Buddhacarita of Ashvagosa. When Shakyamuni was a prince, his father, the king, kept him cosseted within the palace, where all suffering and misery could be kept out of sight. Eventually the gods arranged events so that the prince was able to venture out of the palace compound. In this journey, the prince encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a mendicant. The mendicant explained that old age, sickness and death were unavoidable facts of existence. It was only because of these encounters that Shakyamuni was profoundly inspired to seek the way that resulted in his discovery of the dharma and the liberation of all suffering beings.

In these happenings we can see the relationship between self-power and the way of the entrusting heart. It is self-power that constructs boundaries to the discovery of truth. The palace that confined Shakyamuni is a mark of this. However, in his openness to truth Shakyamuni did not deliberately conjure the old man, the sick man and the corpse: they presented themselves to him, a manifestation of Other Power. These distressed human beings were his teachers. He did not go looking for them but he understood their significance by laying himself open to the truth that they revealed.

Without this openness, without the three indicators of old age, sickness and death, the Great Renunciation would never have occurred and there would have been no Buddha in this saha world. Until he went forth from the palace, Shakyamuni was restless and unfulfilled. The price of his freedom began with a bitter encounter and culminated in the bliss of nirvana. Without seeing old age, sickness and death, he would never have seen the dharma. In the way of nembutsu, likewise, we abandon the constrictions of our self-constructed walls of security and venture out to find the true exigencies of life - and in so doing, ultimately find the freedom of the dharma. We cannot create the dharma for ourselves, any more than Shakyamuni created the old man, the sick man and the corpse.

The openness that is free of self-power is the process of listening (chomon). We listen with the focus, intensity, single-mindedness and the pressing urgency that we see in Shakyamuni as he sought to understand the harsh reality that was presented in the presence of the old man, the sick man, the corpse and the mendicant, who explained these realities to him. Of course, the mendicant, who comes to us now, comprises Shakyamuni and the seven Pure Land masters. We hear the mendicant speak, explaining the mysteries of life and the way out of samsara, every time we lend an ear to the words of Shinran and Rennyo Shonin, and their sincere followers.

As it was for Shakyamuni, so it is for us. Our listening may begin in bitterness, sorrow and pain but culminates in freedom and bliss.


1. Notes on 'Essentials of Faith Alone'; CWS, p. 459

2. Inagaki & Stewart, 2000, p. 309

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