Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 67

People who perform various good acts in self-power
All doubt the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom;
Hence, by the law of receiving the results of one's acts,
They enter the prison made of the seven precious materials

Karmic Inevitability

This is an especially wonderful verse because it captures a profoundly orthodox aspect of the Buddha Dharma: that good actions may lead to better outcomes but they do not lead to liberation. Good actions may contribute to liberation but they are not its cause. As often happens, we find, here, another instance of Shinran Shonin's impeccable Buddhist orthodoxy. In insisting that it is the awakening to Amida Buddha's entrusting heart (shinjin, Sanskrit: prasanna citta) that is the cause of liberation - birth in the Pure Land -, Shinran is, in my view, supporting the traditional Buddhist doctrine. The attempt to create good karma by the action that is 'self-power nembutsu' or virtuous behaviour may bring good results but not final release.

Shinran is here alluding to the 'practice and faith' of the 'essential gate', which is expressed in Amida Buddha's nineteenth Vow. In the preceeding verses, he has been pointing out the deficiencies of the 'true gate', which is the expression of Amida Buddha's twentieth Vow. In either case, the aspirant is trying to attain birth by mere good actions, instead of by the decisive awakening to the entrusting heart of Amida Buddha. Such an awakening is equivalent to bodhicitta (bodaishin). Bodhicitta, it will be remembered, is the initial awakening that effects entry into the bodhisattva path. Shinjin is even more decisive than this. Because it is the Buddha's entrusting heart, it is entry into the stage of non-retrogression in this very life and final liberation at the moment of the 'inconceivable birth', when we pass from the contraints of this life.

The practice and faith of the nineteenth Vow, which Shinran calls the 'essential gate' is, like the practice and faith of the twentieth Vow - the 'true gate' of exclusive recitation of the nembutsu - unable to deliver aspirants into the ultimate deliverance of nirvana. Only the 'gate of suchness', which is the practice and shinjin of the eighteenth Vow - the effort of Amida Buddha -, can do that.

Readers will already be aware that Shinran describes the practice and faith of the nineteenth and the twentieth Vows as provisional, or temporary. However, although, in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, he traces his own experience in passing through these gates (sangan tennyu) to reach 'the gate of suchness' that leads to nirvana, he does not suggest that this is any kind of pattern for self-cultivation that can lead to Amida Buddha's entrusting heart. In view of this, it seems clear to me that Shinran composed the 'verses on doubt' in Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, specifically with a view to correcting any mistaken impression that others may have had in that regard.

During my time in listening to the dharma of Amida Buddha, I have often been distracted by the discovery that there are teachers of Jodo Shinshu who suggest that aspirants should take up the practice and faith of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows as some kind of training and personal development that will result in an awakening to true shinjin. However, it is clear from these hymns - on the subject of doubt - that Shinran is quite clear in stating that such practice will not lead to true shinjin, but, rather, will end in frustration. This frustration he identifies as 'being confined in the prison of the seven treasures'. Where, then, does the practice of virtue belong, in the scheme of things?

In Jodo Shinshu, as in all other schools of the Buddha Dharma, the law of karma is the mechanism that determines all outcomes. The dharma completely rejects the idea that our lives are goverened by some kind of superior power, by fate or by accident. As we have already seen, the law of karma cannot be overthrown and it is the law that drives all events. However, good actions can become a trap. From the traditional point of view, for example, an impeccable adherence to the ten good actions or the various five precepts, which are said to epitomise good human behaviour, will result in a human birth - all things being equal. Nevertheless, if we do not take the opportunity that a human life offers, to develop the mind and to gain a measure of an awakening, by which we see truth, there is no chance of ultimate release from the round of births and deaths.

An interesting illustration of the way that karma works can be seen in the life-story of Shakyamuni Buddha. As everyone knows, Shakyamuni spent six years engaging in extreme ascetic practices; mortifying his body almost to the point of death. Yet, one of his great moments of awakening was the realisation that this asceticism was not getting him anywhere. The parallel to this can easily be found in this verse of Shinran's hymns. Our virtuous actions are not going lead to enlightenment - and the other shore of nirvana - but simply to a 'favourable birth'. In Shakyamuni's case, it was his seemingly endless career as a bodhisattva through countless births, and æons of cycling though this saha world - and the other kinds of birth in the realm of desire (Sk. kama dhatu) - that nutured him through deepening levels of awareness. It was his good karma that led to his human birth; it was his mental purification the brought him to enlightenment.

The best-known work in the Buddha Dharma that gives an outline of this process is the vast Yogacara classic called the Path of Purification (Pali, visudhi-magga). The author, Buddhagosa, who was a sixth century Sri Lankan mendicant, outlines a path that based on the teaching of all the Buddhas:

Abstain from all evil;
Do only good;
Purify the mind.

Buddhagosa's work was based upon an earlier work by another sage, Upatissa, but, like the Contemplation Sutra of our Pure Land school, it only survives in a Chinese version: the original Pali has been lost. In any case, the Path of Purification involves discipline of both conduct and thought. Indeed, the most decisive factor in eventual enlightenment is the mental training, for which the virtuous behaviour serves essentially as support.

Rennyo Shonin carried this sensibility along from Shinran when he proclaimed the 'Five Conditional Steps' (goju gi) that lead to liberation. The first of these is the ripening of past karma that leads to the conditions that enable beings to hear the dharma. This is principally comprised of past good actions that result in human birth. However, release from samsara and ultimate Nirvana do not arise without the inner awakening of shinjin. In full, the five steps are:

  1. The culmination of related past conditions and circumstances leading one to the dharma
  2. A good teacher of the dharma
  3. The light of Amida Buddha
  4. Shinjin
  5. Amida's Name

Although virtuous deeds undoubtedly contribute to the result that comprises the first two of these five steps, Rennyo - following Shinran - now suggests that we need to move on to an inner awakening, whereby we finally entrust ourselves to the Buddha's wisdom, his inconceivable light. It is this decisive encounter with ultimate truth and reality, of which the substance is Amida's Name, Namu-amida-butsu, that projects us into the ranks of those whose attainment is assured. It is the entrusting heart that is crucial. To think that we can accomplish anything so profound and momentous as this by means of our puny virtue is yet another example of the doubt that defiles the true dharma of Amida Buddha.

Current image

Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

Home

Back | HOME | Next