The Nembutsu is the Unimpeded Single Path

The nembutsu is the single path free of hindrances. Why is this? To practicers who have realized shinjin, the gods of the heavens and earth bow in homage, and maras and nonbuddhists present no obstruction. No evil act can bring about karmic results, nor can any good act equal the nembutsu. (The Tanni Sho, 7; CWS, p. 665)

I have twelve different English translations of The Tanni Sho on my bookshelves. Five of them translate the Japanese phrase nembutsusha wa in ways that are consistent with the quote that I have used for the title of this post. Seven of them differ in a way that conveys the idea that it is the person of nembutsu that is the ‘unimpeded single path’.

These two ways of translating the phrase concerned have very different emphases. Is it the nembutsu itself that is the ‘unimpeded single path’ or is it the person who says the nembutsu that has that status? I resolve this question in two ways.

The first is the source of the translation. I have the view that translation work is best done by a group of scholarly, well-qualified people working collaboratively to come to the most reliable result. This is because a group of that kind has a range of personal insights derived from their individual experience of life, along with a set of different educational backgrounds and skills. A collaborative effort is, indeed, a time-honoured practice within the Buddha Dharma.

For example, one teacher, Gotama Buddha, spent forty-five years teaching a vast number of people in groups, and in private exchanges with individuals who later reported what he said to them. Nevertheless, the canon of scripture derived from his teachings was decided by five-hundred enlightened followers. Later Buddhist councils, right up to the twentieth century in Burma, reviewed these teachings and simultaneously settled doctrinal disputes.

Shinran Shonin recorded his teaching himself, for posterity. But, when it comes to interpreting his teaching for ordinary people like us, I think it is still important for this work to be done by learned people in small or larger groups. Usually, the group is led by an editor of some kind. In the case of the first Buddhist council it was Gotama’s disciple Ananda.

Language is not necessarily as reliable as it seems. Shinran cherished a passage from Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, which includes these words:

Hence, words may indeed have meaning, but the meaning is not the words. (CWS, p. 241)

That is one of the reasons why I think that sacred texts need to be interpreted and rendered in ways that reflect careful collaborative processes. It is important to translate sacred texts and interpret the related doctrines in that way because they are drawn from collective experience. Shinran’s teaching was derived from a vast tradition handed down through enlightened teachers for about 1,500 years from the time of Gotama Buddha.

Consistent with my perspective on this matter is my conclusion that one of the most trustworthy translations of The Tanni Sho is that produced by the Ryukoku Translation Centre in 1962 and in several later editions. In this translation the opening sentence of The Tanni Sho, Chapter 7 (Nembutsusha wa muge no Ichido nari), reads

The Nembutsu is the unimpeded Single Path.

A footnote adds:

Nembutsusha, literally, ‘those who practice the nembutsu’. However, ‘sha’ in Chinese does not have a literal meaning except to show that the antecedent (Nembutsu) is the subject. IN Shinran’s time, this form was used even in Japanese. Therefore, ‘Nembutsusha’ in this case is to be translated as ‘The Nembutsu is …’ (p. 30)

Whether we take the modern literal interpretation, or the more accurate historical original has significance for us because it influences how we understand the working of Other Power, which is the Primal Vow (CWS, p. 57). Because I think it is also in keeping with the full range of Shinran’s own writings, I prefer the translation ‘The nembutsu is the single path free of hindrances.’

In following weeks, I will expand on the significance these words and take the opportunity to express my admiration for some notable people who took this opening sentence of the seventh chapter of The Tanni Sho as the basic principle of their lives.

 

The remaining four translations in my possession, which follow the same translation as the Ryukoku Translation Centre, are:

The Shinshu Seiten, The Holy Scripture of Shinshu, The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, 1955

Tanni Sho: Passages Deploring Deviations of Faith, tr. Shojun Bando and Harlod Stewart, ETS, 105, II

A Record in Lament of Divergences, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha

Great Living, Kemmyo Taira Sato, Three Wheels Temple, London, England.