The easy path

Some engage in rigorous practice and endeavour; others quickly reach the stage of non-retrogression through  the easy practice of entrusting as the means for attaining it.

— Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 15

nagarjuna bodhisattvaWhenever I read this brief passage, I marvel at the way that Nagarjuna Bodhisattva has so succinctly described the nembutsu path as it has thrived until now. He called it ‘easy’ practice in contrast to a long and arduous path of striving to enter the stage of non-retrogression, which is when a person is settled on the way to becoming a Buddha.

As if to reinforce this statement, Nagarjuna says, in verse:

If a person desires quickly to attain
The stage of non-retrogression,
He should, with a reverent heart,
Say the Name, holding steadfast to it.

— Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 15

Here there is a clear equation of ‘entrusting’ and ‘saying the Name’; together signifying that one has entered the stage of the truly settled.  One needs little more than these two passages (above) to fully understand the way of nembutsu.

Shinran also summarises this awakening in the Shoshinge:

[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.

— Shoshinge, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 102

Here we see precisely the teaching of Shinran Shonin, and reinforced by Rennyo Shonin in his letters, in an account of the teaching of Nagarjuna from the first or second century of the Common Era.

Compared with the difficult way of extensive practices over many lifetimes, the ‘easy’ way launches a person immediately into the path of the truly settled by the Power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow. Its significance lies in the fact that, receiving the virtue of Amida Buddha in the Name, yet remaining an ‘ordinary’ being (prthajana, or Japanese, bombu), Amida Buddha’s Vow opens the way to all and sundry. It is no wonder that we would want to ‘respond with gratitude’ to the universal Vow of great compassion.

Having entered the path of the truly settled we can dedicate ourselves to the wondrous task of being human — forming relationships, perhaps a family, working and contributing to society by way of our person and  productivity.

Yet it is an extraordinary privilege, which exceeds the bounds of expression. Shinran describes this way of being as ‘inconceivable, inexplicable, and indescribable’. (Shinran, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho III, 51)

As we have seen in the quotation from the Shoshinge, all that is expected  is to say the Name constantly.

However, what is there to stop us claiming this new heritage as a participant in  the Bodhisattva Vehicle?  Why not, as a mark of  indebtedness, consider taking up — however faltering and small our efforts — the six paramitas of a bodhisattva?

The paramitas can be interpreted as: selfless giving, ethical behaviour, patience and forbearance, enthusiasm for life, and thinking about things.  There is nothing more to be gained because Amida Buddha’s virtue is complete, but attempting to live up to the way of a bodhisattva — no matter how paltry or unsuccessful our attempt may be — is certainly a worthy expression of gratitude.