Just say the nembutsu

The grounds of Sainenji (temple) Inada, where Shinran Shonin began to write the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho during his stay in the Kanto (Image: Mark Healsmith)

Each of you has come to me, crossing the borders of more than ten provinces at the risk of your life, solely with the intent of asking about the path to birth in the land of bliss. But if you imagine in me some special knowledge of a path to birth other than the nembutsu or of scriptural writings that teach it, you are greatly mistaken. If that is the case, since there are many eminent scholars in the southern capital of Nara or on Mount Hiei to the north, you would do better to meet with them and inquire fully about the essentials for birth.

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)

In about 1234 Shinran Shonin and his family moved to Kyoto from their home of twenty years in the Kanto area, north of Tokyo. In doing that Shinran left behind many of his disciples. Without his continual presence they began to develop misgivings regarding the teachings about birth in the Pure Land.

Eventually, Shinran sent his son, Zenran, to this troubled community. But Zenran only managed to cause more confusion for them. It is, perhaps, because of this situation that many nembutsu followers in that area eventually decided to take the arduous trip on foot or litter, along the Tokai road through eleven provinces to Kyoto. Their intention was primarily to clear up the question of how precisely one could be born in the Pure Land.

To be born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is one of two options for people who travel the bodhisattva path. The first choice is to attain sacred wisdom and become a Buddha in this life. The other alternative is to take up the nembutsu path and become a Buddha upon birth in the Pure Land at the end of this life. As nembutsu followers, the people who travelled all that way to see Shinran were seeking to gain birth in the Pure Land.

We know that Shinran’s teaching is clear on this matter. There are two events of awakening in the Pure Land way. The first is when a nembutsu person receives Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin) and is embraced by Amida Buddha — joining the stage of the truly settled. The second occurs when one realises the enlightenment of a Buddha in the Pure Land.

In these two paragraphs from the second chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences we learn that the disciples who had made the difficult — and even life-threatening — journey to visit Shinran wanted to know if there was more to his teaching of birth in the Pure Land than he had previously disclosed to them. They were nervous about the possibility that he had withheld some information from them.

But, like Shakyamuni Buddha before him, Shinran makes it clear that he has always openhandedly taught them exactly what he knows and experienced for himself. If any other mystical experiences or special scholarly endeavour are necessary, then his visitors will need to go somewhere else to find all of this extra knowledge.

And what Shinran knows is that there is nothing more that is needed for birth in the Pure Land than the straightforward teaching that he has received from his master Honen Shonin: absolute trust in the nembutsu of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow.

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.