The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Shozomatsu Wasan 27

The person who attains the stage equal to perfect enlightenment
By the working of the Vow of birth through the nembutsu,
Being the same as Maitreya,
Will realise great, complete nirvana.


The idea that people of settled faith are 'equal to perfect enlightenment' sparked considerable interest among those who corresponded with Shinran Shonin after he had moved back to Kyoto. It is possible that this heightened concern with the subject had emerged because some people were, perhaps, interpreting the idea that people of shinjin are 'like Maitreya' in an inflated and hubristic way. Shinran seems to have been eager to mollify any arrogant assumptions emerging from this important concept.

Claims of special status on the part of followers have always been suspect within the context of the Buddha Dharma. This seems paradoxical, when it is remembered that the dharma makes much of the idea that spiritual development is comprised of incremental stages (Sk. bhumi). Nevertheless, it is unseemly to make claims for oneself. Indeed, the prajnaparamita literature tackles the problem by asking whether or not a person who has entered one of the bhumis thinks 'I have reached such and such a stage'. It is difficult to reconcile a path, which is effective in removing an illusion of self, with ego-centric claims.

The relationship that other people have with the dharma is not our concern; it is impossible to know other people's motives and circumstances in full detail. Certainly, it is widely understood within the Jodo Shinshu tradition that it is unwise to allow ourselves to overawed by people who make a great show of their supposed erudition and piety. Although, on the face of it, the cult of myokonin would perhaps challenge this, it is not so much the pre-occupation of myokonin with the dharma that matters. They are held in high esteem because they are unlettered men and women who manifest a measure of wisdom that far exceeds any formal learning.

Shakyamuni's bold assertion that he was 'neither a god nor a man but a Buddha' may seem hubristic but the very term 'Buddha' implies non-ego. Instead of exalting a man or woman, enlightenment, in fact, implies a burden of service and an obligation to teach and guide others. It is the opposite of hubris since the excessive pride that lies behind hubris has the potential to be expressed in emotional or even physical violence against others.

It is impossible to imagine either shinjin or enlightenment inspiring 'holiness'; that is to say, the habit of seeing oneself as having been set apart from others. Both Shinran and Rennyo Shonin said that it is better to be thought of as a rogue (literally, a 'cattle thief') than as someone special. Quoting from Shan-tao, Shinran also suggests that our inner reality is not virtuous but seething with afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas) so it is disingenuous to pretend that we are in a position to tell others how to live or to behave.

What, then, does it feel like to be in 'the stage equal to perfect enlightenment'? Does one feel exalted or proud?

In Mattosho (Lamp of the Latter Age) Shinran cites, especially, the origin of the phrase 'equal to perfect enlightenment' in the Garland Sutra. It is striking, however, that a sense of being 'equal to perfect enlightenment' is a celebration of fellowship, joy in receiving the merit transference of Other Power and a definite sense of spiritual security, which - in the Pure Land school - is known 'being grasped and not forsaken' (sesshu-fusha). It has nothing to do with hubris or sanctity. It is, rather, a lucent sense of indebtedness and feeling comfortable and at home with the dharma - as though one does not need to dress oneself up for it. It is not the person of shinjin who makes the claim to be equal to Tathagatas; it is the Buddhas themselves who make that claim!

Being 'equal to perfect enlightenment' is an honour that is conferred not by the subject but from another source. The designation is, in fact, not ours to make.

In answer to your question: at the moment persons encounter Amida's Vow - which is Other Power giving itself to us - and the heart that receives true shinjin and rejoices becomes settled in them, they are grasped, never to be abandoned. Hence, the moment they realize the diamondlike mind, they are said to abide in the stage of the truly settled and to attain the same stage as Bodhisattva Maitreya.

Since persons of true and real shinjin are of the same stage as Maitreya, they are equal to Buddhas. Moreover, all Buddhas feel great joy when such a person rejoices in the realization of true shinjin, and they proclaim, 'This person is our equal.' Sakyamuni's words of rejoicing are found in the Larger Sutra: 'The one who sees, reveres, and attains [the dharma] and greatly rejoices - that person is my excellent, close companion'; thus he teaches that the person who has attained shinjin is equal to Buddhas.1

1. CWS p. 549

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