Concerning the nembutsu, no working is true working. For it is beyond description, explanation, and conceptual understanding.
Thus the Master stated.
(A Record in Lament of Divergences, 10; CWS, p. 666)
This statement concludes the collection of Yuien’s quotations, which he heard directly from his Master, Shinran. It is probably the most significant passage in A Record in Lament of Divergences, because it tells us, in very succinct terms, how to understand the teaching of Other Power that Yuien set out to affirm in writing this book.
Let us remind ourselves of Shinran’s clear understanding of ‘Other Power’, which he received from his teacher, Honen Shonin, and ratified in his own experience:
Other Power is none other than the power of the Tathagata’s Primal Vow. (The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, II; CWS, p. 57)
Shinran expands on this brief statement in a letter to his disciples:
Other Power is the entrusting of yourself to the Eighteenth among Amida Tathagata’s Vows, the Primal Vow of birth through the nembutsu, which Amida selected and adopted from among all other practices. Since this is the Vow of Tathagata, Honen said: ‘In Other Power, no working is true working.’ ‘Working’ [that is negated] is a term connoting calculation. Since the calculation of the person seeking birth is self-power, it is ‘working.’ Other Power is entrusting ourselves to the Primal Vow and our birth becoming firmly settled; hence it is altogether without one’s own working. Thus, on the one hand, you should not be anxious that Tathagata will not receive you because you do wrong. A foolish being is by nature possessed of blind passions, so you must recognize yourself as a being of karmic evil. On the other hand, you should not think that you deserve to attain birth because you are good. You cannot be born into the true and real fulfilled land through such self-power calculation.(CWS, p. 525)
This quotation from Shinran’s letter aligns with the statement at the beginning of this post. The nembutsu is the active expression of the Name (Name Amida Butsu). The nembutsu is the working of the Primal Vow. It truly comes to life in beings when they completely abandon all attempts to deliver themselves, or even try to understand the working of the Vow; when beings simply accept the Name, without any equivocation, or prevarication.
In the passage that begins this post, ‘nembutsu’ describes the Name that is said (or even just thought); it describes the Name – the Primal Vow – as it manifests itself in beings. That is one reason why the Name is also the honzon, or principal image in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. It is first and last the working of the Vow and its manifestation in the hearts and minds of beings.
Beings who accept the Name, enter a new life. Because of Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (‘true working’) they enter the ‘stage of the truly settled’.
This is how Shinran explains the new life of nembutsu:
Concerning the entrusting of oneself to the Primal Vow, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] ‘in the preceding moment, life ends…’
This means that ‘one immediately enters the group of the truly settled’ [T’an-luan].
Concerning immediately attaining birth, [to borrow the words of Shan-tao,] ‘in the next moment, you are immediately born.’
This means that ‘one immediately enters the stage of
The definitely settled’ [Nagarjuna].
Further, ‘One is termed a definitely-settled bodhisattva.’
(CWS, p. 594)
There is an irreversible shift from the life of struggle, seeking, striving, and intellectual conceit to a free life of abiding joy, and an an infinite sense of gratitude and indebtedness to the Buddhas.
Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion,
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies;
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavour to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust. (CWS, p. 412)