Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 70

Doubting Amida's various kinds of wisdom,
They do not entrust themselves to the Buddha,
And yet they deeply believe in the recompense of
    good and evil,
And the diligently practice the root of good.

Various Kinds of Wisdom

The Buddha said to Maitreya, 'Suppose there are sentient beings who, with minds full of doubts, aspire to be born in that land through the practice of various meritorious acts; unable to realize Buddha-wisdom, the inconceivable wisdom, the ineffable wisdom, the all-encompassing wisdom of the great vehicle, the unequaled, peerless, and supremely excellent wisdom, they doubt these wisdoms and do not entrust themselves. And yet, believing in [the recompense of] evil and good, they aspire to be born in that land through cultivating the root of good. Such sentient beings will be born in the palace of that land, where for five hundred years they will never see the Buddha, hear the dharma of the sutras, or see the sacred host of bodhisattvas and sravakas. Hence, in that land this is known as womblike birth... Know, Maitreya, that those of transformative birth are superior in wisdom; those of womblike birth lack wisdom.'1

In this section of the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages, Shinran draws on the Larger Sutra itself and also upon the writings of Shan-tao. His interpretation of the karmic result of self-effort in relation to attainment of birth in the Pure Land is not his own creation. He is only attesting to clear evidence from the teachings of the Buddha. It is also important to remember the depth of Shinran's self-awareness, which comes from 'hearing the dharma'. Bathing in the light (wisdom) of the Buddha in this way, lends an empirical force to his understanding. As Shan-tao pointed out, shinjin includes an awareness of our own utter inadequacy alongside an awakening to the reality of the power of the Buddha to embrace and not forsake us. For those who accept the transfer of Amida's virtue, their own entrance into the life of a Buddha upon birth in the Pure Land is made a reality, whereby they can then return to save others. This is how Shinran knew and experienced the nembutsu way.

A belief in the efficacy of our own karma (actions) in bringing about nirvana and release from suffering would seem to be inimical to the experience of shinjin. Shinran often points out in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation and his other writings that no matter how good our behaviour may be, we remain subject to greed, wrath and folly. The creator of the world is greed, wrath and folly. It is simply not possible, from the perspective of the nembutsu way, for unenlightened people to transcend the very core of their existence. Good actions are still redolent with the afflicting passions that sustain samsara. It is shinjin itself, which brings with it an awareness of the underlying meaning of our own good actions:

The shinjin of the wise is such that they are inwardly wise,
    outwardly foolish.
The heart of Gutoku is such that I am inwardly foolish,
    outwardly wise.2

Rejecting the wisdom of the Buddha involves calculating the value of our actions as acruing merit that we can use to generate our own transcendence. Once again, this is a completely oxymoronic perspective. Shinran's view is sound and logical. He often points out that true birth in the Pure Land is inconceivable, therefore how can one's own contrivance contribute to it? How can we calculate or assess the value of something which has an inconcevable or inestimable result? How can self be transcended by virtue of self? It is, surely, an impossible notion. So we have two ways that we fundamentally reject the Buddha's wisdom if we reject his shinjin: We do not realise our own essential incapacity, and we use calculation to attain the incalculable.

Shinran's nembutsu is free of calculation since it is simply the expression of his shinjin, of which the Name is the substance. In this way, it is nembutsu that comes from the wisdom of the Buddha. To a person of Shinran's consciousness, the nembutsu would not have been burdensome in the way it had been in his experience of the desperate search for truth, which preceeded the moment that he took unequivocal refuge in the Primal Vow. From that moment onwards, everything was turned on its head as he realised that he no longer needed to strive - that, in any case, he was endowed with no native and enduring virtue that would shore up and validate any striving on his part.

The fundamental good assumes the value of one's own effort. It is shomyo nembutsu that seeks to assess the worth of input on one's own part. It is to treat the problem of salvation and transcendence as an investment and it is essentially redolent with greed, a kind of spiritual parsimony. It is a most unpleasant thing to inflict upon oneself and yet it is a common feature of human behaviour. Furthermore, the effect of abandoning this 'root of good' is extremely difficult describe. That is why Shinran seems to navigate a circuitous course in The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation. But he nevertheless provided in his writings - and especially the hymns - a perfect vehicle, which is derived from his deepest reality, for hearing the dharma.

The process of hearing the dharma is described by Rennyo Shonin as being comparable to water wearing away rock 3. The famous Ch'an writer Charles Lu'k also says something similar when he discusses the process that is involved in reading Buddhist Sutras. He suggests that Sutras are intended to be read over and over again. In following this course one eventually finds that one has reached a point of understanding that is so profound that it defies description and logic.

In a similar vein, Rennyo and Shinran both quote this verse from the Garland Sutra:

If one constantly entrusts to and reveres the precious dharma,
One never tires of listening to the Buddha's teaching.
If one never tires of listening to the Buddha's teaching,
One entrusts to the inconceivable working of the dharma.4

This tireless listening to the dharma is a perfect description of the way of life that is Shinran's understanding of the nembutsu way. The water of the dharma drips on the hard rock that is our hearts. Yet, although the water, as Rennyo says, is soft and pliable, it eventually wears away the rock, nonetheless. This is for the most part a pleasing and joyous process, even when uncomfortable realities are discovered. Because it is essentially a conversation, its attraction is irresistible. It seems to me that the entire body of Shinran's writing is a reflection of this conversational process. That is why his writing is punctuated by confessions born of inward reflection and declarations of gratitude and joy.

Here is the difference between the person who 'practices the root of good' and the person who has found spiritual release in an unequivocal acceptance of the Primal Vow: For the former, the dharma is a confusing chore, like walking in a beautiful landscape blindfolded and without a guide - a claustrophobic experience. For the latter, the dharma is known to be an ever-renewing discovery of light after an eternity of darkness. It is the happy and wholehearted acceptance of the Buddha's inconceivable Wisdom.


1. CWS, p. 209

2. CWS, p. 600

3. Thus Have I Heard from Rennyo Shonin, 193

4. CWS, p. 101; Thus Have I Heard from Rennyo Shonin, 224

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