Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 71

Those who have been born in the womb-palace
Because of their doubt of the Buddha-wisdom
Lack wisdom; to be destined for birth in the womb-palace
Is likened to being in a prison.

Outwardly Wise

As we have already seen, Shinran did not consider himself to be wise. He thought of wisdom as other than himself, the inconceivable light that is Amida Buddha. At first glance it would seem appropriate to interpret his meaning to be that his external demeanour belied his inner reality. However, elsewhere in his writings, he describes such duplicity as undesirable:

We should not express outwardly signs of wisdom, goodness, or diligence, for inwardly we are possessed of falsity. We are filled with all manner of greed, anger, perversity, deceit, wickedness, and cunning, and it is difficult to put an end to our evil nature. In this we are like poisonous snakes or scorpions. Though we perform practices in the three modes of action, they must be called poisoned good acts or false practices. They cannot be called true, real and sincere action.1

This passage from Shan-tao has profound resonances for Shinran and, as we shall see, he draws on this fact later in the Hymns of the Dharma-Ages. However, it seems to me that Shinran's choice to adopt the life-style of an ordinary - or foolish, 'non-wise' - person, by becoming a householder, was inspired by his desire to live in accord with his inner reality. But the 'outward wisdom' is rather, I believe, an expression of his certainty that the only true wisdom was that of Amida Buddha.

Modern Buddhism has been strongly influenced by Theosophy, and associated mystical interpretations. However, unlike the esoteric and Zen traditions, Shinshu is 'mainstream' or exoteric. Amida Buddha is an objective entity, who is not integral to our core reality. Shinran accepted the idea that Amida Buddha dwells in his Pure Land, which transcends samsara. The gulf between our reality and that of Amida Buddha is bridged by shinjin and the nembutsu; by the fact that Amida Buddha is 'light (wisdom), which fills the ten directions'. The 'wisdom that fills all things' has its source in the Pure Land, not in us.

The nembutsu is Amida Buddha's self-disclosure. Those who live the nembutsu way are bathed in the universal compassionate light, which reveals the seething darkness of their inner life as a passing shadow. Any wisdom (light) is external to Shinran, who saw himself (as I do of myself) as being entirely devoid of the Buddha-wisdom until the time that the divide between samsara and nirvana is ultimately merged in shinjin. In any case, the Pure Land way is, perforce, exoteric in focus, because the esoteric tradition is not only incomprehensible to ordinary minds but also requires a level of training and discipline, which only very few people can endure. The Pure Land way stands at the centre, between the extreme left of the mystical Mahayana Buddhist schools and the thoroughly formalistic Hinayana traditions on the right.

Although Shinran says that 'great shinjin is Buddha-nature', it is clear that he did not see shinjin as arising from within himself. Shinjin originates in the Buddha of unhindered light that fills the ten quarters. In the final section of the intertwined second and third books of The True Teaching, Practice and Enlgightenment, Shinran quotes with alacrity, the cry of Ajatashatru that 'shinjin... has no root in my heart'. Such a perspective is consistent with mainstream, traditional Buddhist thinking. Good teachers of the Buddha Dharma are aware of the correct Buddhist understanding of the 'inner' and 'outer' life. For example, the four dhyanas are objective cosmic locations, which one can reach by means of mental training. They are not intrinsic to our being.

So, the outward wisdom of Shinran is not only his demeanour, which belies his inner self, but the light of the Buddha of infinite life, which originates from elsewhere.

In view of these considerations, it becomes clear that the depiction of those who are born in the 'womb-palace' (taisho) - and not in the true Pure Land - as people who 'lack wisdom', signifies our failure to accept the light of Amida Buddha. Those who 'lack wisdom' are, paradoxically, those who consider themselves to be wise. Those who truly have wisdom are those who have turned their backs upon themselves and turned to face the light - the wisdom of Amida Buddha.

Like many other verses in the secton on doubt, Shinran again warns us against a misdirected destiny. However, he is not seeking to frighten us by means of this gloomy prognosis. Rather, the theme of the Hymns on Doubt is to call upon us to think deeply about our inner disposition during the span of this present life, before it is too late; before we find ourselves falling short of our aspiration for enlightenment and our return to samsara to help others (genso), which is the fulfilment of the bodhisattva vocation.

From the overall context, it seems that Shinran's purpose in warning us about the risk of birth in the womb-palace is to call upon us to reflect upon the true source of wisdom. As we shall see, when we come to the last verse of the section on doubt, Shinran is imploring us to explore the true nature of our relationship with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. He wants us to ask ourselves if we rely on self-power and to abandon it if necessary.

Let us be clear about this: the true shinjin that results in birth in the True Pure Land, and all that follows from it, is not possible by means of our paltry wisdom but in relying utterly upon the wisdom of the Buddha. As far as I can see, Shinran nowhere calls upon us to undertake any 'sundry practices' or any self-power religious activities, in order to be born. Neither will such activities lead to the awakening of shinjin; only the abandoning of them will have that effect. People are inspired to say the nembutsu and may take up other spiritual activities because of their faith, but self-power practices and self-power nembutsu will not generate shinjin.

In the sixth book of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran relates his own pilgrimage through the 'essential' and 'true' gates, which he identifies with the nineteenth and twentieth Vows of Amida Buddha. As we have already seen, this process is called 'turning through three Vows' (sangan tennyu). The nineteenth Vow, as you will remember, is associated with the practices that are outlined in the Contemplation Sutra - the sundry practices, like keeping precepts, meditative and non-meditative good, and so forth. The nineteenth Vow is associated with the exclusive practice of the nembutsu. However, Shinran made it clear that it is not these practices that awaken shinjin but the complete abandonment of them.

Shinran recounts his experience of these two Vows but he does not prescribe them as some kind of educative or preparatory process for the awakening of shinjin, and Rennyo Shonin ignores them altogether. Certainly, Shinran sees these two Vows as evidence of the compassionate Vow. But this is because the nineteenth Vow, with its practices that resemble the full repertoire of the Path of Sages, is for the purpose of enticing those who are addicted to self-power practices - to self - into the 'essential' gate of the Pure Land way. Ultimately, however, this gate needs to be abandoned. Similarly, the 'true' gate of the twentieth Vow, which involves the exclusive practice of the nembutsu, is 'true' because it involves only the nembutsu, but, says Shinran, those who practice it belong to the way of self-power.

It is important to remember that Shinran views the practices and faiths of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows in a positive light. They are specifically designed for those who are unable to entrust themselves in the first instance to the embrace of the Primal Vow. His purpose in these hymns is not to denigrate the practice and faith that is accomplished by these Vows but to encourage us to explore the possibility of a true outcome by way of ultimate entry into the One Vehicle of the Primal Vow. If we can, we ought to abandon false religion and enter the temporary paths that these two subordinate Vows provide. But, ultimately, it still remains for us to abandon the way of these Vows, as well. If possible, it would be best if we did not consider them as a viable option in the first place.

As we have seen more than once, the way to examine our relationship with the Primal Vow and to test whether or not we entrust our destiny entirely to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha is by listening to the dharma. In hearing the Name in a moment that is completely free of any misgiving or calculation, we are finally set free.


1. CWS, p. 84

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