Just say the nembutsu

sturtpeaThe title of this post comes from the Tanni Sho:

‘I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.’ (CWS, p. 662)

I believe that this statement is as close one can get to a perfect description of shinjin in just a few words. Such is the all-embracing wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna) of Amida Buddha that to say the nembutsu is enough.  It is something any human being of any age or circumstance can do.

As Shinran Shonin said in a letter:

‘Thus, it is the person who both deeply entrusts himself to birth through the nembutsu and undertakes to say the Name who is certain to be born in the true fulfilled land.’ (CWS p. 539)

In writing to a disciple by the name of Joshin, Shinran said:

‘In your question about the teaching, you state that at the point of the awakening of the one moment of shinjin we are grasped and protected by the heart of unhindered light, and hence the karmic cause for birth in the Pure Land is established in ordinary times. This is truly splendid. Yet, though what you state is splendid, I am afraid that it has become nothing but your own calculation.’ (CWS, p. 537)

We are very prone to get tied up in complex theory, thus trying to create and control Amida Buddha’s shinjin; to make it in our own image, as it were. But it is not our creation.  There comes a point at which we simply abandon our concepts and give ourselves up to the Vow, the Name, in joy and happiness. The Name lives within our hearts, and all that is left is to surrender to its call.

Let’s listen to some more from Shinran:

‘If you realize that the wisdom of the Buddhas surpasses conceptual understanding, there should not, in addition, be any calculating. You simply should not fall into doubts over the different things that people say. Simply give yourself up to Tathagata’s Vow; avoid calculating in any way.’ (CWS, p. 537)

‘Once you have simply come to realize that Vow and Name surpass conceptual understanding, you should not calculate in this way or that. There must be nothing of your calculation in the act that leads to birth.’ (CWS, p. 536)

‘Birth into the Pure Land has nothing at all to do with the calculation of foolish beings. Since it is completely entrusted to the Primal Vow of the Buddha, it is indeed Other Power. It is ridiculous to try to calculate it in various ways.’ (CWS, p. 548)

‘As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.’ (CWS, p. 662)

The Contemplation Sutra

shantaoShan-tao lived most of his life in Chang-an, where  he spread the teaching of nembutsu. He was born in 613 and attained parinirvana in 681.

Those of us who inherit the tradition of Shinran Shonin, known as Jodo Shinshu, receive a teaching that has descended from Shan-tao. We are heirs of the Shan-tao School. This is the teaching that we receive from Shinran through his teacher Honen Shonin. In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran quotes extensively from Shan-tao.  The passages he uses are elegant, profound and lucent.

Shan-tao eventually came to advocate the practice of saying the nembutsu as the way to Buddhahood, which a later successor in Shan-tao’s lineage, Fa-chao (766-822), characterised as ‘the true essence of the teaching’. Thus he coined the phrase, ‘the true Pure Land teaching’ – Jodo Shinshu -, defining it as ‘The attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu’.

In contrast to the views of many of Shan-tao’s contemporaries, who saw saying the nembutsu (shomyo nembutsu) as an inferior activity, lacking the proper elements of practice, Shan-tao was able to demonstrate that the nembutsu was, indeed, the cause for birth in the Pure Land.  This is because it  comprises the term Namo, which stands for ‘taking refuge’, ‘aspiring  for birth’ and ‘transfer of merit'; and Amida Butsu is itself the practice. According to Shinran, there is no more perfect practice than Amida Buddha’s (CWS, p. 95-6).

Shan-tao’s most important work, the Book of Doctrine, is A Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra (kuan-ching-shu) .  It is regrettable that this great masterpiece of exegesis has never been translated into English. Yet, Shinran quotes some thirty-seven passages from it.

The Contemplation Sutra was the main focus of Pure Land teaching and faith until the time of Shinran’s teacher Honen Shonin. Shinran, however, declared that the ‘true teaching’ was the Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. His choice of this Sutra as the true teaching arises from the fact that it includes the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in the form of forty-eight Vows related in the Sutra, especially, of course, the 18th Vow. (CWS, p. 7)

Shinran says,

‘The central purport of this sutra is that Amida, by establishing the incomparable Vows, has opened wide the dharma-storehouse, and full of compassion for small, foolish beings, selects and bestows the treasure of virtues. [The sutra further reveals that] Sakyamuni appeared in this world and expounded the teachings of the way to enlightenment, seeking to save the multitudes of living beings by blessing them with this benefit that is true and real. Thus, to teach the Tathagata’s Primal Vow is the true intent of this sutra; the Name of the Buddha is its essence.’ (CWS, p. 7)

Even so, Shinran, in his teaching, also highlights aspects of the Contemplation Sutra that disclose the Primal Vow. (CWS, p. 212-3)

Hence, following Shinran’s interpretation, it seems to me that the Contemplation Sutra, the subject of Shan-tao’s vast study, is truly at the heart of the Primal Vow, because it demonstrates its working in practical terms and advocates the nembutsu. The tragic events at the palace in Rajagriha show the light of the Vow working in the context of terrible suffering and human failure.

Although the Primal Vow, as recounted in the Larger Sutra, is clearly universal, the Larger Sutra as a whole was delivered to monks and bodhisattvas. The teaching in the Contemplation Sutra is focused upon lay followers.

The Contemplation Sutra affirms that the nembutsu way is especially for the salvation of bombu – foolish beings like us. Finally, it is the Contemplation Sutra that reveals to us that people of shinjin and nembutsu are ‘embraced and not forsaken’ by Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.

I have an abiding affection for the Contemplation Sutra. It was the first Pure Land Sutra that I ever read.

Kosho Yamamoto

yamamotoKosho Yamamoto is another Shin Buddhist teacher who I have never met in person but whose books have always been a true source of inspiration and delight to me.  His tenacity, devotion to the nembutsu and profound understanding of the teaching, which he sought to promote, stand as a model of Buddhist discipleship.

I do not know when he was born or when he died.  While these would be interesting to know, Kosho Yamamoto is one of those people who was able to convey his lively faith through his writing.  The depth and accessibility of his writing, his scholarship and sound doctrine obviate any need to know the details of his biography.

He translated huge works into English when no one before him had made such an attempt.  Notable among these are the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Nirvana Sutra) and the Shinshu Seiten. He was quite a scholar and it seems clear that he could read Classical Chinese and Sanskrit. His career of writing and translation began in 1950 with a book about Shakyamuni Buddha.

I do not know when Yamamoto translated the Nirvana Sutra. It is a priceless treasure. It was lightly edited and re-republished by Dr Tony Page in 2008, making it readily available again. It i s such a large work that the original translator’s passion, enthusiasm and perseverance is plain to see. Yamamoto explains elsewhere that, as the scripture that was most widely quoted by Shinran, it deserves to be better-known in the English-speaking world.

He also wrote small books, including one of the first on Jodo Shinshu that I ever read, published in 1965: The Other Power – The Final Answer Arrived at in Shin Buddhism. Another small book , from 1959 contains anecdotes and stories of faithful Shin Buddhists and others.  It’s title is, The Udumbara – Tales from Buddhist Japan. It suggested the title of this blog to me, although for different reasons.  Yamamoto Sensei’s intention was to highlight exceptional, but otherwise ordinary, people.

I think I am right in saying that the first English translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho was the 1958 edition by Yamamoto. I have owned a copy for a long time. It is now a venerable part of the collection of English translations of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that we have to hand these days.

Of course, I think that the Collected Works of Shinran, published by Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji, which includes a translation of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, is unsurpassed for sheer excellence, but strange to say, it is quite often helpful to consult Yamamoto’s translation for extra clarity.

The reason for this is Yamamoto Sensei’s idiosyncratic and affective style. His English is quite unique, and it takes a while to become comfortable with it.  But once you do become attuned to it, it turns out to be at once lyrical and visceral. It manages to tug at the heart as well as the mind. This is an extraordinary quality and even though it could well be accidental it is powerful for me as a reader.

In 1960 Kosho Yamamoto wrote a comprehensive book, An Introduction to Shin Buddhism, which has come into my possession. Like most of his books, it has long been out of print. It is redolent with the author’s own experience and faith but also reveals an urbane, sophisticated commentator, who has clearly laboured hard to explore the fine detail all of the elements of the teaching that he seeks to explain. Of all  the longer introductions to the Shin teaching, I have found it to be the most accessible and useful that I have read.

If ever I find myself with the time and money, I would dearly love to play a role in re-publishing An Introduction to Shin Buddhism. Because readers would not be accustomed to Yamamoto’s writing style, I would probably have to concede that it could be made more immediately useful to most people by way of some editing.  But such is the strange quality of Yamamoto’s writing that one would always worry that it would lose something important by that kind of interference, and could even, paradoxically, become harder to understand.

Dharma study

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWherein lies the true intention of
Shinran Shonin?
Study the Buddha-Dharma while deeply
contemplating the Shônin’s mind.
(Zuiken, SDP, p. 69.)

Dharma study often gets a bad press in Jodo Shinshu and sometimes with justification. Dharma study can deceive; it can masquerade as faith or we can confuse knowledge with wisdom.

Famously, the twelfth chapter of the Tanni Sho deprecates the notion that ‘for practicers who do not read the sutras and commentaries and engage in study, birth is not settled.’ (CWS, p. 668-9)  In one of Shinran’s letters we also read about a conversation that he had with his teacher, Honen Shonin, who doubted the birth of a man ‘brilliant in letters and debating’. (CWS, p. 531)

In the same letter, Shinran encourages us to ‘simply achieve your birth, firmly avoiding all scholarly debate.’ And this is really the nub of the matter. To use the sutras as material for boosting one’s own standing in debate is not really the point of Dharma study, which ought to be chomon – hearing well the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.

Of course, pure scholarly or academic research and discourse is a perfectly legitimate activity that has been sanctioned in European society since the time of Aristotle (384-322BC). It does increase knowledge and understanding of the things that are important for human welfare. This tradition has resulted in the remarkable capacity of technology and medicine in our own time.

When it comes the the Dharma, of course, pure research and academic study is vitally important, too.  I especially appreciate the work of historians of the Buddha Dharma like Hajime Nakamura.  They help me to reconcile the contextual facts with the deep truths of the Dharma. Information from scholars like Nakamura bring clarity to our relationship with the Dharma and help to keep us grounded.

It was, indeed, Zuiken who first brought the importance of Dharma study home to me. This, after all, is the implicit value of his wonderful introduction to the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In his other writing he also encourages us to delve deeply for our entire lives into the teaching of Shakyamuni and the writings of Shinran Shonin and the Dharma Masters.

In modern times there is good reason for this commendation of Dharma study. Listening to Dharma talks is very important but we also need to move out of the pastoral setting to behold the wondrous depth, beauty and light of the Dharma in all its power and strength.

Zuiken is right, I believe, to suggest that, when we study Shinran’s writing we ought to ‘deeply contemplate the Shonin’s mind.’ We look beyond the mere technical meaning of the language and build an inner store of understanding from the whole. This is, in fact, in keeping with the twelfth chapter of the Tanno Sho. If we study merely to score points by mouthing selected sentences in defence of our own preferences, or to silence someone who thinks differently to us;  …  is this not, perhaps, abuse of the Dharma?

Shinran encourages us to be aware of the ‘four reliances’ (CWS, p. 241) and not to settle for isolated words or sentences, but to be imbued with the Dharma through becoming at home with the whole. When we study Shinran, whom I consider to be the finest exponent of the Pure Land Dharma, we need to do so in such away as to accept seeming contradictions, for example, as contributing to  the beauty and truth of the whole.

Setting aside time each day to spend with Shakyamuni Buddha and Shinran Shonin is one of life’s greatest privileges. We do not ask ourselves what its value might be, or whether it would be more productive to spend time in other pursuits. It is not long before we realise we do it for love; that is, a manifestation of Dharma hunger (Skt.: dharma-trshna), the only thirst that is wholesome and will lead us to eternal life.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf I was asked to give a succinct summary of Shinran’s teaching, I would quote the fifteenth verse of the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu.  This is the second verse on the first Pure Land Master, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who lived from the middle of the second century to the early third century of the Common Era.

This is the verse in question:

‘[Nagarjuna] teaches that the moment one thinks on Amida’s Primal Vow,
One is naturally brought to enter the stage of the definitely settled;
Solely saying the Tathagata’s Name constantly,
One should respond with gratitude to the universal Vow of great compassion.’ (CWS, p. 71.)

This, indeed, is Shinran’s rendering of Nagajuna’s original verse in The Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages (CWS, p. 18.). In his own rendering of this verse in the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, Shinran elucidates its actual meaning in the light of his own research and lived experience.

The moment one thinks on the Primal Vow.

For Shinran, the statement ‘the moment one thinks on Amida’s Primal Vow’  means shinjin or entrusting heart, which is the moment that we enter the ‘stage of the definitely settled’, when we are ‘embraced and not forsaken’ by Amida Buddha’s compassion.

It is also ‘hearing the Name’. Shinjin and hearing the Name are both key themes in the second and third parts of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho.

This short statement alludes to the working of the Vow through the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, and the light of Amida Buddha, to awaken shinjin.

Solely saying the Tathagata’s Name constantly.’

In the third section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran further develops the meaning of ‘shinjin’ by exploring the threefold mind of the eighteenth Vow in the Larger Sutra.  He then returns to the Name  but this time not as the active agent in  the awakening of shinjin but as the manifestation of settled shinjin – the act of praise that it draws forth.

So to re-phrase the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post:

The person who has ‘heard the Primal Vow’ (the Name) and entrusts himself to it, ‘enters the stage of the definitely settled’, is assured of salvation, and from then on says the Name in joyful thanksgiving.

This, the second verse on Nagarjuna from the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, is, in fact, a succinct statement about the second section, and the first part of third section of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. In these sections, Shinran demonstrates how Other Power works to reach out to and awaken shinjin in us through the working of the light and Name, Namo Amida Butsu.

This active ‘calling’ to us attracts our attention and causes our minds to turn to Amida Buddha – to think of him. As Professor Hisao Inagaki has written:

‘One who trusts in Amida thinks of him, and he who thinks of him says his Name.’