Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 72

They are born in a palace made of seven precious materials,
And there pass five hundred years;
Being unable to see or hear the three treasures,
They are wholly incapable of benefiting sentient beings.

Benefiting Others

It often seems necessary to stress that the objective of the Pure Land way is not the ultimate acquisition of a somnolent and blissful peace, but enlightenment and a return to samsara for the benefit of beings.

The Pure Land is commonly seen as a goal or an objective. Instead, for people of shinjin, it is the moment of final transformation, as when a butterfly emerges from its cocoon. Or, the cocoon is the transformed Pure Land for those who follow the way of self-power, since, for them, true shinjin has been deferred. It is difficult to understand how these features of the way tend to be forgotten, since they are so prominent in the teaching of the Larger Sutra, the Dharma Masters and of Shinran Shonin himself.

Perhaps it is because the entire ethos of the Buddha Dharma is poorly understood in the popular mind. It is also forgotten that, while Shakyamuni's enlightenment is pivotal, we would not know anything of it unless he had stood up from the place of his awakening under the bodhi tree and re-entered this world of suffering for the benefit of all.

This moment of returning in Shakyamuni's life is the moment, at which the entire scope of the Mahayana was revealed in a single gesture. The ethos of the way of the bodhisattva is that esnlightenment is ultimately for the benefit of others. It is no different for the Pure Land way. That is the reason for Shinran's lament that those who do not entrust themselves to the power of the Primal Vow, whereby they spontaneously (jinen) attain enlightenment, will be 'incapable of benefiting sentient beings'.

Taking our model from the life of Shakyamuni again, we find ourselves located at the time of his home life, before he went forth upon the Great Renunciation. Just as the gods conspired to arrange events so that Shakyamuni would gain an ever-deepening insight into suffering and the need for release from the bondage of ignorance (mumyo), so the light of Amida Buddha, enables us to grow ever more profoundly aware of our desperate need for his Primal Vow. In any case, for us, and for Shakyamuni, the dawning of awareness is by the 'power of another'.

In living the life of householders we are like Shakyamuni. We thus fulfil the spirit of the bodhisattva vocation, but until we are enlightened we do not have wisdom and insight to benefit others. Like Shakyamuni, we live according to conventional morality: on the principal of restraint and of kindness - respect for ourselves and respect for others. Without enlightenment, we do not have the wisdom that will enable us to benefit others by skilful means (hoben) - and spontaneous action that is free from the bonds of secular morality. We are dependent upon the wisdom of the Buddha, which illuminates our inner reality and shows us the way to accept his shinjin.

Shinran was able to demonstrate that those who awaken to Amida Buddha's shinjin enter the stream of the dharma. They spontaneously come to terms with the Fourfold Noble Truth, and stand at the very cusp of enlightenment. But we cannot fulfil our true bodhisattva vocation until we 'return' (genso) to benefit others, just as Shakyamuni did. 'Return', in turn, is meaningless without enlightenment, which depends upon Amida Buddha's shinjin. Shinran was convinced, from his reading of the Larger Sutra and the Dharma Masters, that any attempt to reach the fulfilment of the bodhisattva vocation to benefit others by our own effort would actually thwart and deflect it. Indeed, attempts to 'benefit' others may only prove to be detrimental. Unless we are enlightened, our ego-centric motives are sure to infect our good intentions:

Good sons, there are four acts that bring evil results. What are these four? The first is to recite the sutras in order to surpass others. The second is to observe the precepts in order to gain profit and esteem. The third is to practice charity in order to make others one's followers. The fourth is to fix and concentrate one's mind in order to reach the realm of neither thought nor no-thought. These four good acts bring evil results. Those who practice these four good acts are termed 'people who sink, then emerge again; emerge, then sink again.' Why is it said that they sink? Because they aspire to the three realms of existence. Why is said that they emerge? Because they see brightness. To see brightness is to hear of precepts, charity, and meditation. Why do they sink again? Because their wrong views increase and they give rise to arrogance. For this reason, I teach in two verses in the sutra:

There are sentient beings who aspire to the various
    states of existence;
They commit good and evil acts out of attachment
   to existence;
Such people lose the path of nirvana.
This is called emerging briefly, and sinking again.

There are people who, although they practice in
    the dark oceanof birth-and-death
And attain emancipation, still have blind passions;
Such people receive again the recompense of evil.
This is called briefly emerging, and sinking again.1

'Emerging because' they 'see brightness' suggests the error of believing that the light is calling upon us to become light, when we are not light. Instead, it is almost inevitable that we will interpret events according to our own expectations and not according to reality - such is the nature of ignorance.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
2

This famous poem, which so succinctly describes the ignorance and pain that lies at the heart of existence, always reminds me of our astonishing tendency to hubris and to misinterpret signs, events and experience. In the darkness that is the truth of this world of endurance, most of us are driven, through necessity and humankindness, to help where and when we can. Blindly seeking to benefit others wisely, we constantly mistake their real needs; we are hindered by our own inveterate prejudices and expectations. It is almost beyond the power of expression to explain the vital need for all of us to seek enlightenment so that we can act for the benefit of others with true acumen and for their genuine benefit.

That is why it seems certain to me that Rennyo Shonin was correct to say that awakening to Amida Buddha's shinjin for birth in the Pure Land is the matter of supreme importance. Nothing is more important, for ourselves or for the world, than just this fact.


1. CWS, p. 235

2. Stevie Smith, Collected Poems, Penguin Books, 1975, p. 303

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