Attaining the single way

Photo: Mark Healsmith, 2011

Now, however, guided by the compassion of the two honoured ones, we have no intention of performing sundry practices and disciplines or any thought of self-power and doubt. All due to the compassion of the Tathagata of unhindered light, grasping never to abandon us, we rejoice completely free of doubt and our attainment of birth is settled {in the nembutsu down to one utterance}. Now that I have realised this to be the inconceivable working of the Vow, I see that everything is for myself alone – the sacred Pure Land scriptures, which I never tire of reading and listening to, the constant desire to meet true teachers, grasping never to abandon, shinjin, nembutsu. (CWS, p. 542)

During the last few weeks we have been exploring the eighth chapter of The Tanni Sho, which opens with the words, ‘The nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act.’ (CWS, p. 665) This week I would like to share my thoughts about just what this sentence means in practical terms.

I have always tried to relate the lessons of The Tanni Sho directly to Shinran Shonin’s actual teaching. In this case, however, the quote is taken from a letter addressed to Shinran by his Dharma friend Kyoshin.

Kyoshin wrote to Shinran to test his understanding of the Dharma by outlining his own experience, requesting that Shinran return the letter corrected where necessary. The words in curly brackets (‘in the nembutsu down to one utterance’) are Shinran’s emendation of Kyoshin’s phrase ‘by saying the nembutsu once’.

We should remember that the great importance and significance of entrusting heart (shinjin) came to the fore among Honen Shonin’s disciples in the context of a controversy about how much zeal and dedication was needed to practice the nembutsu. Shinran upheld the orthodox view, originally propounded by Honen himself, that the fundamental requirement for birth in the Pure Land, and attainment of the path, was shinjin, which is Other Power.

Shinjin and nembutsu are one, and there can be no shinjin without nembutsu, but nembutsu without shinjin is not yet Amida Buddha’s fulfilled practice. Through it, beings may begin to hear the call of the Vow, but the Vow is not fulfilled until shinjin (entrusting heart free of any doubt) awakens in each person, when Other Power shinjin of the Primal Vow arises and the nembutsu becomes its natural expression.

Now let’s turn to the detail of this quote from Shinran’s Letters.

The ‘two honoured ones’ are Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha, who collaborate to save beings from the thrall of birth-and-death (samsara). Shakyamuni Buddha is, of course, the Buddha who came into this world to proclaim the Primal Vow. At the heart of this purpose is his delivery of the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. This sutra directs us to reliance upon Amida Buddha. He is the Buddha who took the form of Dharmakara Bodhisattva to proclaim and accomplish the Primal Vow.

In the remainder of this quote from Shinran’s Letters we come to the practical aspect of shinjin and how to live out the fulfilment of the Primal Vow. We see that Kyoshin knows that he is embraced in the compassion of the Buddha of Unhindered Light, that he is free of any doubt or prevarication and that the consequence of this is a natural inclination to say the nembutsu, when this reality comes to mind. He understands that  the Vow was made for ‘him alone’ meaning that the Primal Vow is fulfilled when each unique individual accepts shinjin and says the Name.

Finally, Kyoshin has a natural, uncomplicated and comfortable affection for the sacred Pure Land scriptures and always loves to come into contact with them and the people who expound them. He feels no need whatever for religious training or exercises. He knows that he is embraced just as he is, with all his natural, individual characteristics and can get on with living life to the full.