Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 66

No less than people of shinjin,
Practicers of doubt who cling to self-power should
Awaken to the benevolence of Amida's great compassion
And endeavour in saying the nembutsu.

Even So

In this verse Shinran Shonin says that saying the nembutsu as an act of appreciation and gratitude is accessible even to those who have not realised the entrusting heart of Amida's Vow. He also makes clear in this section of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages that any practice of nembutsu as an aid for attaining any kind of personal benefit - appropriating the supposed virtue of our practice - is misguided, futile and wrong. Even so, it seems that nembustu, which is said as an act of appreciation can be expressed by those who have accepted Amida Buddha's shinjin and those who have not. Shinran speaks of this interesting anomaly in two places in his writings - once in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation.

Yet, in spite of this, the nembutsu remains at the centre of our quest and our life. It is not am empty gesture, or a token act. As the Name it is an objective fact, generated by the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. It is not only recitation: merely grateful eruption or a throw-away phrase. The only way shinjin can emerge for us, ordinary people, is by 'hearing and entrusting ourselves to the Name'. There is no entrusting heart, no shinjin, without the Name. The hearing and entrusting is the substance of the Name, and the vehicle that carries us to birth in the Pure Land and immediate enlightenment there.

... it is completely mistaken to look down upon people who believe in birth through the nembutsu, saying that they are destined for birth in the borderland. For Amida vowed to take into the land of bliss those who say the Name, and thus to entrust oneself deeply and say the Name is to be in perfect accord with the Primal Vow. Though a person may have shinjin, if he or she does not say the Name it is of no avail.1

The hymns on doubt remind us that those who use the nembutsu as a catalyst for some kind of objective, no matter how noble it may seem, should 'repent' ('turn their minds', (eshin) and abandon all self-power. Even so, Shinran nowhere suggests that the nembutsu is not, root and branch, the substance of the Pure Land way.

We see, in this and associated verses - those that make up the latter part of Shinran's writing - a full understanding of the nembutsu way as primarily a religion of love and deep devotion: a love and devotion that draws upon ultimate true transcendence. That is why we are encouraged to take a grateful, generous and benevolent view of nembutsu practice, even if we do not have any intimations of shinjin. It seems implicit, here, that such people are, in fact, entrusting themselves to the Primal Vow. Is it, perhaps, that such entrusting is incrutable and deep; inevitably beyond our comprehension? I do not think so.

In the last book of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran describes the way that Amida Buddha's ultimate saving power is working, even to guide those who have not found true faith. Whatever form it takes, Amida Buddha's Primal Vow is irresistible and constantly works to lead us out of samsara by devising many avenues that assist us in realising this process. In these pages of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran explains the import of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows, whereby even self-power nembutsu and shinjin can lead us into the domain of Amida Buddha, although not to ultimate transcendence. The point of this is that it is not the precise nature of one's 'belief' that is important, but whether or not one entrusts oneself in the Name. Such entrusting is the antithesis of self-power, and of doubt. The nature of 'doubt' is self-centeredness, rather than Buddha-centredness.

That is why nembutsu practice, when it is an expression of love and appreciation, turns our gaze away from our self and towards the true other that is the wisdom that fills all things. In that way - and only in that way - can we begin to open our hearts and minds to the call of the Vow. Once we change our focus in this way, our religious life ceases to be for the purpose of fulfilling our desires - or, so it seems to me at any rate. We are ready to hear the call of the Vow. Our desires may seem noble - for example, we may hope to become better people so improve the stock of human merit, but even this is to act and strive in a way that is concerned with the self; it is determined by our own delusions. These fundamental principles of Jodo Shinshu mean that, as a religious teaching, it is unique.

There is, then, an apparent self-power nembutsu that in fact awakens to shinjin. It is the nembutsu of love and devotion; it is nembutsu that asks and seeks nothing but to praise and adore the Buddha.

Even so, hearing and entrusting ourselves to the Name is essentially not a difficult thing. Why, then, would we choose to avoid awakening to - and accepting - Amida Buddha's shinjin? Although this question is complicated by the fact that much that is said lends turbidity to the simple trust in the Name, which is the faith that results in birth in the Pure Land, it is a pity to let ourselves be baffled by such obfuscation.

You have been explaining to people that one attains birth through the Tathagata's working; it is in no way otherwise. What I have been saying to all of you from many years past has not changed. Simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate. I recall hearing the late Master Honen say, 'Persons of the Pure Land tradition attain birth in the Pure Land by becoming their foolish selves.' Moreover, I remember him smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, 'Without doubt their birth is settled.' And I heard him say after a visit by a man brilliant in letters and debating, 'I really wonder about his birth.' To this day these things come to mind.2

At least it can be said that our Hongwanji has kept its focus on the accesibility of Shinran's teaching.

According to the Jodo Shinshu teaching established by Shinran Shonin, through the working of Amida Tathagata's Primal Vow, all people can be born in the Pure Land where they immediately attain Buddhahood, then return to this world where they endeavour to guide to the Nembutsu others who are still wandering in delusion. Our birth in the Pure Land is decisively settled the moment we hear and entrust ourselves to the Name, namu-amida-butsu. Then, with the awareness of our indebtedness and gratitude, we lead our daily lives praising the virtue of the Tathagata by intoning the Nembutsu.2 (On the Seven hundred and fiftieth Memorial for Shinran Shonin, Shaku Sokunyo Otani Koshin, Monshu Emeritus of the Hongwanji)

This verse, then, allows us to cover all bases and to contemplate the way that Amida Buddha's Primal Vow leaves no stone unturned in leading us all to the Land of Bliss. We do not need to worry about whether or not we 'have shinjin', since it is manifested in the entrusting heart. Even so, say the Nembutsu in love, adoration and gratitude and allow Amida Buddha to take care of everything else.


1. CWS, p.539

2. CWS, p. 531

3. On the Seven hundred and fiftieth Memorial for Shinran Shonin, Shaku Sokunyo Otani Koshin, Monshu Emeritus of the Hongwanji

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