In your question about the teaching, you state that at the point of the awakening of the one moment of shinjin we are grasped and protected by the heart of unhindered light, and hence the karmic cause for birth in the Pure Land is established in ordinary times. This is truly splendid. Yet, though what you state is splendid, I am afraid that it has become nothing but your own calculation. Once you have come simply to believe that it surpasses conceptual understanding, there should be no struggle to reason it out. (Lamp for Latter Ages 10, CWS p. 537)
In this paragraph from a letter that Shinran Shonin wrote to his disciple Joshin-bo, the phrase ‘karmic cause for birth in the Pure Land established in ordinary times’ underlines an important aspect of Jodo Shinshu teaching. Birth in the Pure Land–nirvana, or the attainment of buddhahood–is determined in the midst of an ordinary householder’s life. No special conditions, location, practices or status are required. All that is needed is to accept the working of Other Power–the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha–Namo Amida Butsu.
I have often wondered how Joshin-bo would have reacted when he received Shinran’s response. He had sent a letter to his Dharma Master, Shinran, stating some interesting and clever facts that he had heard from someone else about ‘the moment of shinjin’–entrusting heart. Shinran responds in a way that could have been quite hurtful, shocking or disappointing. After all, here was Joshin-bo showing Shinran that he knew all about shinjin. But he did not!
Joshin’s comments were ‘splendid’, brilliant even, but simply served to show that he was not a person of entrusting heart. He was too clever by half.
What does Shinran’s response mean? How are we to understand such a harsh riposte to a loyal follower?
In fact, Shinran was simply being a thoroughgoing Buddhist teacher. Doctrine is vitally important in Buddhism to lead us along a safe, secure and proven path. And, for Shakyamuni Buddha, the seven Pure Land Dharma Masters and Shinran, teaching is also drawn from lived, actual experience; it is not just mere theory.
There is a wonderful passage in Shinran’s great anthology, The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation, part three, where he provides teachings based on scripture relevant to the subject True Disciple of the Buddha. In one quotation we learn that a person who teaches the Dharma is ‘king among physicians’ and that the Dharma that he teaches is
… sweet nectar (amrta) or milk of the finest taste (manda).
The person who listens to the Dharma should think that excellent understanding … increases and grows and that his sickness is being cured. (CWS, p. 118)
Here we see clearly that the Dharma is not just a repository of books and ideas. Each of us must take it up, put it into practice, test it, savour it and ‘taste’ it.
The symptom of the illness that needs to be cured is spiritual unease, suffering. It is caused by the disease of ignorance–darkness of the mind. The Buddha, our teacher, cures us of this, with the sweet nectar of the Dharma. We should let him do so.
The trouble for Joshin-bo, in the quote from Shinran’s letter above, is that he had been given the medicine (the call of Amida Buddha’s Vow) but would not take it.
Imagine if we went to the doctor about an illness and she prescribed some medicine to cure us. We went to the dispensary, had the prescription made out, and took the medicine home. Then, we opened up the packet and took out the sheet of paper that tells us all about the purpose of the medicine, along with the benefits and side-effects.
After reading the information sheet a few times, we go back to the doctor and tell her all about the medicine. How silly would that be?
This can serve as a metaphor for Joshin-bo’s comments. Knowing about the medicine is not enough. It is whether or not we actually use and take it that is vital.
Joshin-bo had heard all about the Primal Vow but he simply had not accepted it. After all (returning again to my analogy about a visit to the doctor) I am not qualified to know whether or not the prescribed medicine will work until I take it. Knowing all about the benefits and side-effects will achieve nothing.
To truly know the Primal Vow we must actually ‘take the medicine’. We need to abandon ourselves to the working of the Primal Vow in Namo Amida Butsu. That is why Shinran concludes his letter to Joshin-bo by saying
If you realise that the wisdom of the Buddhas surpasses conceptual understanding, there should not, in addition, be any attempt to work it out. (CWS, p. 537)
Other-power means to be free of any form of calculation.
When Joshin-bo received Shinran’s reply, I believe that he would have taken the sweet nectar of Namo Amida Butsu, which is the Dharma medicine. From then on that truly foolish being would have savoured the nembutsu of thankfulness and joy.