Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 99

With my mind as deceitful as serpents and scorpions,
I am incapable of accomplishing virtuous deeds of
Unless I rely on the Tathagata's merit-transference,
I will end without shame and repentance.


This verse is the last time that Shinran Shonin uses the term tanomu, which, in four different translations of the Shozomatsu Wasan, is rendered variously as 'entrust', 'trust', or 'rely'. It seems to me that this final use of 'tanomu' is especially apt because the specific context makes its meaning very clear. We must give up, unequivocally, self-power practice of every kind because our minds are not dependable. The Tathagata's merit transference is the only thing that we can trust in the quest for Enlightenment.

After this verse, Shinran moves on to an apparent critique of others. However, in my view, mere criticism cannot be his objective. Apart from the obvious fact that he sees, in everything around him, tangible evidence of the Dharma-ending Age, he also seems to be bringing to light the themes that he had developed in the last section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. There, Shinran warns us to avoid taking refuge in a number of ideas and objects, which may deflect us from the only thing that we can trust: the Nembutsu of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. From this, the entire scope of Shinran's Wasan becomes clear.

In the first volume of the Wasan, Shinran calls upon us to rely exclusively upon Amida Buddha, and in the Koso Wasan he goes on to show how we can gain insight into Amida Buddha and his Dharma from the seven Dharma Masters. Then, in the Shozomatsu Wasan, Shinran systematically closes off all of the alternative possibilities that he has found to be futile in the Way. The route to the fulfilment of the bodhisattva path and to become a Buddha is 'nembutsu jobutsu kore shinshu' - 'to become Buddha through the Nembutsu is the true teaching.' This is the only refuge that is dependable.

So far, in the Shozomatsu Wasan, Shinran has demonstrated that the following choices will lead nowhere:

  • Expedient forms of Pure Land Buddhism, which he finds reflected in the nineteenth and twentieth Vows of Amida Buddha;
  • Our selves, that is, our own hearts and minds;
  • All self-power practice.

In the verses that follow this one, Shinran delineates the following tendencies as signs of the Sangha's degeneration in the Dharma-ending Age:

  • Belief in non-Buddhist forms of religion and philosophy;
  • Belief in gods and spirits; and
  • Ritual, superstition and taboo.

In our survey of these final verses of the Wasan, we will explore the possible perils that are associated with these concerns, as well as the insidious effect of those who deride and revile the Buddha Dharma.

However, we ought not lose sight of Shinran's clear intention, which is to show that, in the matter of entering the Way and eventually becoming a Buddha, all that is left to us is the Nembutsu in the Primal Vow. There is nothing else upon which we can rely. In other matters, which are of every day concern (for example, our civic and family responsibilities, maintenance of our health, business activity and so forth), we must rely upon ourselves. As Rennyo Shonin suggested, with the Dharma of Amida Buddha deep in our hearts, we follow the way of a good and benevolent citizen, receiving the world as one would receive a guest.

Furthermore, Shinran is also talking exclusively about reliance: the entrusting heart. He is not suggesting that we abandon our cultural heritage, or that we should not respect, enjoy and admire the non-Buddhist philosophical and religious traditions of humankind. In short, he is implying that, while we may need to participate in things of this mundane world, when it comes to the matter of the Dharma, the only thing that is dependable; the only thing trustworthy and true - our only refuge - is namu-amida-butsu: the merit-transference of the Primal Vow.

This verse, then, is the last time that Shinran specifically exhorts us to abandon all self-power practices. Yet, as I understand it, there have been occasions in the history of the Pure Land movement, since the time of Shinran, when there have been attempts to blur the kind of clarity that we find in this verse. So far, Shinran's intention in this verse has prevailed. The striking feature about it is the way that it is a powerful instance of the contrasting juxtaposition of tanomu and jiriki shuzen ('self-powered good').

This leaves me, at any rate, in no doubt whatever about the fact that Shinran clearly intends, in all that he wrote and in all that he taught, to encourage us to give up - as one would try to abandon the use of a harmful drug or a destructive habit -, all self-powered efforts. Surrendering all matters concerning our ultimate liberation, he invites us to accept the Tathagata's merit transference in namu-amida-butsu. Later in the Wasan we will encounter a few paragraphs from the collection of Shinran's letters (jinen-honi sho), which were interpolated into the Shozomatsu Wasan by Rennyo, clearly with a view to driving home the central significance of this proposition.

This is a truly joyous and exhilarating discovery, which is again apparent in this verse. For, from Shinran's perspective, self-power practice is not merely dangerous: it is lethal. I cannot imagine a stronger way to describe its venal nature than to suggest that it is based on a mind that is as 'deceitful as serpents and scorpions'. It seems to me that this is a common experience for all those who stand before the all-penetrating wisdom that is the Tathagata of Inconceivable Light. In other words letting go of self-power is as urgent and as emotionally charged as sweeping a scorpion from one's arm or killing a snake that is about to strike.

These scorpions and snakes have the habit of creeping back, and, so, Rennyo reminded us always to 'constantly dredge the channel of faith, and let the water of Amida Buddha's Dharma flow freely.' Our way that we follow, as friends of Shinran, is the life of hearing the Dharma and relying exclusively - and wholeheartledly - on the Tathagata's merit transference: namu-amida-butsu.

The scorpions and snakes also sneak back within the community (kyodan) of Nembutsu people, but, in the Shoshinge, Shinran describes those who entrust themselves to the Vow, and those who insist upon self-power practice, in this way:

All foolish beings, whether good or evil,
When they hear and entrust to Amida's universal Vow,
Are praised by the Buddha as people of vast and excellent understanding;
Such a person is called a pure white lotus.
For evil sentient beings of wrong views and arrogance,
The nembutsu that embodies Amida's Primal Vow
Is hard to accept in shinjin;
This most difficult of difficulties, nothing surpasses.
(CWS, p. 70)

This seems like strong language but it is appropriate, when it is remembered that, for Shinran, any insistence or practice that is based on one's own effort as the vehicle to Enlightenment, is perilous in the extreme - like harbouring a poinonous snake in one's clothing. As I pointed out some time ago, Shinran builds to this point from less strident chidings, when he was describing the undesirable karmic outcome of self-power practices in terms of birth in the border of the Pure Land.

Now, however, all escape routes have been barred and total reliance on the Primal Vow is all that remains: we cannot even rely on our own thought and intentions, since they are lethal obstacles on the Way.

Finally, let us admit that Shinran's admonitions are stern and, frankly, that they have reached a crescendo, which is quite strident and forceful. Yet, he is only reiterating an injunction that was at the heart of the Mahayana, and especially the Madhyamika system. It was, after all, the great father of the Mahayana, Nagarjuna who said,

There are innumerable modes of entry into the Buddha's teaching. Just as there are in the world difficult and easy paths - travelling on foot by land is full of hardship and travelling in a boat by sea is pleasant - so it is among the paths of the bodhisattvas. Some exert themselves diligently, while others quickly enter non-retrogression by the easy practice of faith. Inagaki, Ryukoku Literature Servies V, 1998, p. 139)

The path of 'easy practice' is paradoxically difficult because we are habitually inclined to trust the untrustworthy and unstable construct that is our selves. It is possibly as much a pre-determined karmic outcome, which enables us to turn to the Other Power, as it is to take up an arduous monastic way of life. I am sure that we tend to take up the easy way, when times are hard; the hard way, when times are easy.

Needless to say, Shinran lived in very hard times indeed and found that, yes, instead of drowning in it, he could be carried over the ocean of samsara to Enlightenment. He realised this probably as much because of his context, than for any other reason. So it is, that 'tanomu' (total reliance) is the way for those of us who are drowning. Only when you are drowning do you know what it means to be saved.


- April 14, 2006.

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