Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 94

Although I have taken refuge in the true teaching,
The mind of truth hardly exists in me;
Moreover, I am so falsehearted and untrue
That there cannot be any mind of purity.

Religion and Life

The Buddha Dharma offers resolution
  to the fundamental problems
    of the universe and human life.
(Zuiken, Shinshu Dharma-pada, p. 90.)
Shinjin can be obtained
   through a good teacher's words;
How could you obtain shinjin
   without accepting 
      the words of the Founding Master?
(ibid., p. 85.)
Wherein lies the true intention
   of Shinran Shonin?
Study the Buddha Dharma while deeply
   contemplating the Shonin's mind.
(ibid., p. 69.)

'Mind' in this Wasan is the same character as the 'heart' of 'the entrusting heart' (shinjin). Shinran Shonin is telling us that his heart (Sk. citta) is not entrusting, but false. In the second line, true mind is shinjitsu no shin; the true entrusting heart is shinjitsu no shinjin. In other words, Shinran's heart, or mind, is entirely antithetical to true shinjin.

So begins a series of sixteen penetrating and moving verses, in which Shinran smashes to pieces any deluded ideas that are based on self-generated faith. Shinran completely demolishes any idea that the entrusting heart comes from anywhere other than the Buddha, conveyed to us in namu-amida-butsu. As we shall see, for Shinran, in the final analysis, the call of the Vow in namu-amida-butsu is everything; it is all there is; it is at the heart of life. In accepting it, we accept the Buddha's call.

These verses always remind me of that old koan, 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!' Shinran was aware of the falsity of human delusions and the power of our self-centeredness, our 'ego', to make us believe in easy half-truths that only work in the service of our self-aggrandisement: people claiming to be the guardians of virtue, putting on airs of piety, self-righteouseness and arrogant superiority. For he knew that the real core of human nature is a seething pit of vipers. Standing in the radiance of the Light that Shines Unhindered in the Ten Quarters, he knew that the human heart beats with greed, anger and delusion, rotten and deceitful to the core; that there is absolutely nothing that is not tainted and mired in its own rapacious self-adoration.

Although I have read commentators who compare Shinran's insight with doctrines like the Augustinian concept of 'original sin', Shinran is not talking about anything that can be redeemed or transformed; nothing can wash away the false mind, that is our inner reality. Instead, it must be apprehended, and seen and understood for what it is. In my view, Shinran is only talking about something that must be abandoned as useless, at the least, and as illusory - and utterly dangerous - at the most. He tells us in the Yuishinsho Mon'i that people of faith 'cease looking knowingly on their evil heart (ashiki kokoro)'. Shinran, whose shinjin was settled, sees the only light, the only truth, in namu-amida-butsu - all the rest is vacuity.

Although these Wasan were composed towards the end of Shinran's life, we should remember, as Zuiken says, above, that we need to 'contemplate the Shonin's mind'. Hence, although the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho was written earlier in Shinran's life, it is relplete with similar deep and honest self-awareness. Never has there been a religious leader, or thinker, of such extraordinary personal honesty. Shinran is the most marvellous person.

Because of his self-awareness, Shinran killed the delusions that make people believe that they are capable of comprehending the Dharma as an innate internal reality. As the Nirvana Sutras tells us, it might be true that all beings have Buddha Nature but it is only revealed in the final stages of Enlightenment. In the Preface to the Book on Shinjin, Shinran takes to task the pomposity of those who think otherwise:

Priests and laymen of the Declining Age, and masters of these days, sunken in the idea 'that one's true nature is Buddha' and 'that the Buddha's Pure Land exists in one's mind', degrade (the belief in) the True Enlightenment in the Pure Land; or, being deluded by the mind of self-power to practice meditative and non-meditative good deeds, they are blind to the adamantine True Faith (kongo no shinshin). (Ryukoku University Translation Center, Vol. 5, p. 84.)

Shinran is here making us aware that self-centered power ought, for obvious reasons, to be completely abandoned for the true and only reality - Buddha-centered power. We will not find truth in the mind that we can see but only lies and illusion, we must instead turn away from ourselves and turn to the light that fills the universe.

In my view, all people of true Nembutsu are such because they know that they need to turn from the seething snake-pit within, to the true, the unconditioned. As they grow in this way, and find the power that uplifts them and illumines their lives, they begin to find the extraordinary courage to look within and face the horrors that are there. In doing so, they grow to accept the reality of their dark side and are strong and courageous in the face of its terrors. Such deep knowledge in the light of Amida Buddha's wisdom leads to a paradox - complete self-acceptance. This is to find 'peace and comfort in body and mind'; to become a 'true disciple of the Buddha'.(Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, III, 86; CWS p. 117.)

It is like this. Inside our house there is an unknown room, full of dismal, un-nerving and threatening movements. A primordial swamp of disease, rapacity and viciousness. It is beyond bearing, and we run to the outside window and see the fresh green fields, and the golden sunlight. Drawing from it strength and joy, we, in due course, find ourselves imbued with something of its strength. Although, in turning inwards, we lose some sense of its immediacy ('the light is dimmed by clouds, but beneath them, there is light' - Genshin), we find that a glowing courage has come to roost.

Then, one day, the time comes to look, unflichingly, into that treacherous and dark room, where there are unseen things and echocing footsteps. The hair rises on the back of our necks, breathless Nembutsu burst forth. Flinging the door open, the Light floods in... and the darkness... dissipates, and all those nameless things that thrive upon being unrevealed are seen for what they are... 'falsehearted and untrue'.

These verses of Shinran's convey us to the very core of true religion (shinshu). They remind us that true religion thrives in the face of even the most appalling features of living; they remind us that 'problems' like injustice, cruelty, greed, and self-aggrandisement, are not someone else's problem - they are ours, they are sitting on our laps and dwelling in our hearts. It is not for us to preach sanctimonius and pious platitudes to benighted fools, thinking that they are lesser beings than we are, for we are, ourselves, the very same benighted fools, for whom the entire structure of the glorious Buddha Dharma was built.

It is tempting to take refuge in saccharine sentiments and painless shibboleths, but I do not believe that religion is of any value unless it takes us to the door-handle of that darkened, unvisited room: yes, terrified but joyous at once. In the endless journey with the Buddha we go; the journey that Shinran has mapped for us; the journey of Everyman and Everywoman: Nembutsu on their lips, and the gleam of the Buddha's light and compassion to show the way onwards, through the jungle of afflicting passions (bonno).

- Revised, March 10, 2006.

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