Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 98

Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida's Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

The Ocean of Suffering

'Love and compassion' are terms that are critical to the very heart of what it means to take up the bodhisattva path and to become a buddha. The great tragedy of our times - or so it seems to me, anyway - is that, because there is no way to describe anything more profound than this, 'love' and 'compassion' have become degraded in their meaning.

This problem sits perfectly with Shinran Shonin's meaning here. What we mean - in the every-day, mundane sense - by the phrase 'love and compassion' falls far short of the way that the terms are used in the context of the Buddha Dharma. The depth of the Buddha's love and compassion corresponds in its profundity with the 'ocean of suffering' that calls it forth.

But, as we would expect, this degradation of ideas, concepts and experiences, which are profound and radical in their significance, is a symptom of the last dharma age. When the bodhisattva path began its ascendency, however, the model of discipleship was drawn from the story of Shakyamuni's many births as the bodhisattva. These accounts had their genesis in the words of Shakyamuni himself. They can be found in such great and popular Buddhist texts as The Storehouse of Sundry Treasures, and the Birth Stories (jatakas).

Although these powerful texts are considered to be relatively unimportant in modern Buddhist discourse, I think that they are critical and vital in the formation of the most important characterstics of the Buddha Dharma: its wisdom and compassion. The prajnaparamita, or 'wisdom', literature, which was discovered by Nagarjuna is built upon the central ethical and religious experience of giving.

Giving (perhaps, 'generosity') is the manifestation of the 'non-ego' focus that is central to the Buddha Dharma, and it is also the practice of compassion. Hence, our common use of the word is ridiculous, when compared with the genuine practice of it. When we read the Birth Stories, then, we come to realise that dana begins with compassion, which is the complete identity of bodhisattvas with suffering beings. Following this, dana becomes the gift of oneself for the other, to the extent that there is nothing left of the bodhisattva. In keeping with this, we find that the bodhisattva gives his or her life up for others, endlessly and without any hesitation.

One can be certain that Shinran's understanding of 'love and compassion' identifies with this exalted sensibility. In other words, Shinran is saying that he is unable to follow the bodhisattva path, without the Tathagata's Vow. Although he aspires to follow the bodhisattva way, it is only because of the Primal Vow that he is able to do so.

Having taken in the sublime teachings that are to be found in the the Jatakas, prajnaparamita sutras and especially the A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life by Shantideva, it becomes clear that genuine love and compassion are truly beyond the capacity of an ordinary man or woman. It also becomes painfully evident that any claims that we may have to be compassionate people are rather grotesque delusions.

From this it becomes possible to understand Shinran's conviction that he is without 'even the slightest love and compassion'. Our simple mammalian loves are various forms of attachment - whether to people, things, notions or ideas. Our 'compassion' is usually self-referencing.

On the other hand, our human feelings of sympathy, kindness, pity and concern for the wellbeing of others, ought not be gainsaid. They remain attachments, and are not enlightened, but they are, nevertheless, wonderful aspects of our humanity. This suggests, however, that they are frequently misguided and never thoroughly whole-hearted. Neither do they reach the true depth of the Buddhist meaning of 'love and compassion', which is free of all attachment. It is complete identity with the other and invloves the loss of self in the giving that it calls forth.

Shinran settled for his own reality, and that he was just another human being. Of course, he loved his family and friends but, when it came to the love and compassion of a bodhisattva, he found that there was nothing at all of this in his heart. Nevertheless, Namu-amida-butsu remains the bright and powerful work of compassion in the world and is the way that the 'ocean of suffering is crossed'... and then transformed!

The bodhisattva's task is to exhaust the ocean of suffering. 'Ocean' is a metaphor for something of infinite depth and complexity. Only a fully Enlightened One can even begin this task. As for us, we can hardly begin even to understand the meaning of the love and compassion that is required to bring universal relief. Yet, Shinran also pointed out that people of nembutsu-shinjin 'always practice the Great Compassion'.

For those who accept Amida Buddha's faith, hearing the call of the Vow in his Name, the way of nembutsu establishes the certainty of becoming a Buddha for the benefit of beings. This is the solemn purpose of the Vow. The very fact that those who live in the light of Amida Buddha are aware of their total lack of compassion paradoxically gives priority to the bodhisattva way and the liberation of all. Compassion is the most essential attribute, so one becomes more conscious of its lack.

In the nembutsu, Amida Buddha's compassion is heard - and received - in this realm of birth-and-death, liberating all beings and awakening the mind to attain Enlightenment. Namu-amida-butsu is the great work of the Buddha in the world.

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