Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 65

People who say the Name in self-power
All fail to entrust themselves to the Tathagata's Primal Vow;
Because the offence of doubting is grave,
They are chained in a prison of seven precious materials.

The Burden of Doubt

There can be nothing in the world for one saved except to be thankful for the unthought-of grace with which one is blessed. The Nembutsu is, therefore, the voicing of the inner joy and thankfulness. That is why we sometimes say 'Isami-no-Nembutsu', that is, 'valiant Nembutsu'. It is no seeking for help. It is no cry of supplication, but a brave and forceful call: Shinshu, in this respect, is a religion of beatitude.1

These marvellous words from a dying man remind us of just why it is that we say the nembutsu. We say it in order to gain nothing. It is a spontaneous cry from the heart, which, like the heart of Shinran Shonin, has entrusted itself wholly to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. It is 'valiant nembutsu'; the nembutsu that voices 'inner joy and thankfulness'.

In this verse, the spontaneity of the nembutsu, when it is the expression of shinjin is, once again, contrasted with the 'grave' error that is doubt in the Buddha's Vow. The last time that Shinran reminded us of the gravity of doubt was in the sixty-third verse of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages. On that occasion I sought to amplify Shinran's concept of doublemindedness, and suggested that it is essentially a manifestation of doubt. On this occasion, I would like to consider the way that doubt is burdensome. In this case, we will think about 'grave' in terms of the meaning, 'important or critical; involving serious issues'.2

Why is doubt grave? Could it be that it is simply a matter of consequences? After all, Shinran did not seem to think that doubt closes the door forever. The 'jail of the seven treasures (shippo no goku)' is not the end of the road for the doubting nembutsu follower. It is the same as the 'womb palace' (taigu) - another name for the transformed land (kedo). It is part of the Pure Land. It is a prison because one does not reach the ultimate attainment of becoming a Buddha - the immediate effect of birth in the true Pure Land - until one realises shinjin in that particular environment. Then one becomes free, at last, from the thrall of samsara.

Shinran constantly urges us to completely, wholeheartedly, 'without a moment of misgiving', entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Yet, the history of Jodo Shinshu testifies to the solemn fact that we keep missing the mark, preferring peripheral issues and concerns to the grave matter of doubt. Consider, for example, these words of Rennyo Shonin, who lived some two hundred years after Shinran.

In recent years... , very few followers of our Shinshu have received the determination of True Faith. There are those who come to the memorial services for the sake of appearances, social obligations and prestige. They come bearing gifts and call the fact of their attendance an expression of gratitude. They must understand that those who do not obtain the determination of True Faith through Amida Buddha's total reliance are involved in empty gestures. In truth, this is like taking a bath and emerging unwashed.3

It is worth keeping in mind that doubt (gi) has special significance within the context of the Pure Land teaching. It seems to me, from Shinran's insights, that self-generated faith (shin, Sk. shraddha), is a kind of doubt, since it is not the 'entrusting heart' of Amida Buddha. In Shinran's teaching it is Amida Buddha's shinjin that is the cause of birth in the true Pure Land (the 'inconceivable birth'). Disciples who want to create faith for themselves may be disinclined to hear the dharma of Amida Buddha, and to hear it well. We, human beings, are prone to self-delusion and people of true shinjin are rare. Because they are rare, people of nembutsu-faith are described as 'extremely wonderful people' (myokonin). As we shall see in the next verse, not only Rennyo but Shinran himself certainly recognised the persistent reality of the symptoms of doubt:

Concerning this, we find that even if the multitudes of this defiled world, the sentient beings of corruption and evil, have abandoned the ninety-five wrong paths and entered the various dharma-gates - imperfect or consummate, accommodated or real - those who are authentic [in their practice] are extremely difficult to find, and those who are genuine are exceedingly rare. The false are extremely numerous; the hollow are many.4

Nevertheless, I often think about the context of Rennyo's comments in the Gozoku Sho (above). I think of those Shinshu followers who travelled so far to attend the Ho-onko services at the Hongwanji, only seeking to be admired by others for their efforts. How costly were their expensive gifts? How painful would it be to go to all that trouble: pilgrimage, costly gifts, long services (which include the overnight chanting of the Three Pure Land Sutras) and the cold of January in the northern hemisphere?

Then it becomes obvious why doubt it so grave. It is this: because religious practice, especially when it is without the 'inner joy of thankfulness', when it is not the 'valiant nembutsu' is onerous; that is why it is a weighty matter. It is a grave matter, not only because of the tragic way that our focus is deflected - and our energies directed away - from things of real significance for us, but because what ought to be natural, spontaneous and joyous becomes harsh and even a source of resentment.

Indeed, as we shall see in the next verse, Shinran counsels us to see the nembutsu as an expression of gratitude even if we have not realised Amida Buddha's true shinjin. So, we can safely say that Shinran considers the nembutsu that is undertaken as a 'religious practice' to be a matter of grave concern. To understand this, we really only need to go back to the story of Shinran's own life and consider his own experience. In the final part of the The True Teaching Practice and Realisation, Shinran recounts the wondrous relief and joy that he discovered in his meeting with Honen Shonin, which was the time that Shinran finally gave up all self-power practices and took refuge in the Primal Vow.

How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata's immense compassion, and I sincerely revere the benevolent care behind the master' teaching activity. My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling.5

Witness the lightness of Shinran's demeanour, his joyful spirit and the way that his gratitude flows freely, without any effort. It is not a matter of 'religion' for him any more; it is a matter of his very being, his deepest reality, coming to the fore and becoming the governing principle of his life.

Then we can just think back to Shinran before he entrusted himself to the Primal Vow. His nembutsu and auxilliary practices were a burden and an effort that were undertaken to gain some results; seeking some goal. Yet, much of this kind of onerous and pointless effort is described as religion. Most religion takes the form of 'a cry of help' and a 'cry of supplication'. Such structure is more like an accounting process than a source of liberation.

Worse still, in many modern interpretations of the Buddha Dharma, people are somehow encouraged to use religion as a self-improvement strategy, seeking to change the karmic effects of æons - in other words, using a pop-gun to sink a battleship. I cannot think of anything so demanding and inappropriate; religion as a source of self enhancement, rather than as the way to truth and deep, lasting inner realisation that is a source of joy and relief.

A sense of the necessity of religious practices is not only debilitating but it is eventually disappointing. The self-power nembutsu, the nembutsu of doubt, is just such a thing. As Shinran found, unless there is entrusting heart, it mostly leads nowhere. Certainly, the burdensome nature of religious practice is not only mistaken but it is also incapacitating. That is another reason why doubt is such a grave matter.

So, why not allow Amida Buddha to carry the burden for us? Why not let him lift us up, instead of trying to lift ourselves, bearers of the unsinkable battleship that is ancient karmic evil? Why not just cling to the sleeve of Amida Buddha? Why not let the burden that so worries us simply slip away?

For those who wish to understand thoroughly the meaning of Anjin-Faith of our Jodo Shinshu, there is no necessity to possess intelligence or learning. Just become aware that, at best, you are deeply evil-prone, shameful beings, and believe that the Buddha who delivers such beings regardless is Amida Buddha only. If they cling tightly to the sleeve of this Amida Tathagata's Benevolence with feelings of complete trust and without any doubt and place Faith in Him for the life to come, this Amida Tathagata will be deeply joyed ... and envelop them forever in this Light.6


1. The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Kosho Yamamoto, p. 350

2. Macquarie Dictionary Third Edition, 1997

3. Gozoku Sho, tr. Elson B Snow, 1978

4. The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation VI, 2; CWS p.209)

5. CWS, p. 291

6. Letters of Rennyo V-12, tr. Elson B. Snow 1978

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