Wholehearted single practice

To entrust oneself wholeheartedly to the Vow of birth through the nembutsu and be single-hearted is called wholehearted single practice. (Lamp for the Latter Ages 21; CWS, p. 555)

Autumn arrives in the Adelaide Hills

There are many passages in the writings of Shinran Shonin that are powerful and memorable. Some provide very brief summaries of the Pure Land way. One of these is a quotation from the T’ang dynasty Master Fa-chao (766-822).

 Nembutsu jobutsu kore Shinshu

‘Attaining Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the Pure Land way.’ (CWS, p. 344)

Fa-chao is seen as heir to the teaching of Shan-tao (613-681) who is the fifth Dharma Master of Jodo Shinshu. This pithy saying is striking for its clarity and depth. But it is probably not enough. It is easy to think that it is telling us that saying the nembutsu day in and day out is the way to nirvana. But none of the seven Dharma Masters of our tradition would agree with that.

Shan-tao himself said

[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realise shinjin and aspire for birth. (CWS, p. 54)

Shinjin is the essential element of the nembutsu way. But as Shinran himself says,

True and real shinjin [entrusting heart] is unfailingly accompanied by [saying] the Name. [Saying] the Name, however, is not necessarily accompanied by shinjin that is the power of the Vow. (The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation III, 50; CWS, p. 107)

Shinran reinforces this in other places, too, including in his letters.

If we were looking for a relatively succinct outline of Jodo Shinshu teaching, we would need shinjin and nembutsu to be included in it as inseparable elements. One would also need an implicit reminder that nembutsu is not necessarily accompanied by the entrusting heart. The working of Amida Buddha initiates one’s entrusting to the nembutsu of the Primal Vow.

These considerations suggest that the twenty-first letter of the Lamp for the Latter Ages is one of many fine summaries of the true Pure Land way bequeathed to us by Shinran. The quotation at the head of this piece comes from that letter. The English translation of the letter is barely fourteen lines and includes all of these facts:

  1. On birth into the Pure Land one realises nirvana
  2. Nirvana is to realise the enlightenment of the Buddha
  3. The Vow of Amida Buddha is the Vow of birth (in the Pure Land) through the nembutsu
  4. To entrust oneself wholeheartedly to this Vow (nembutsu) is the single practice
  5. To entrust oneself is a ‘gift’ of the Buddha. It is the gift of certainty!
  6. Shinjin ‘arises from the working of the honoured ones, Shakyamuni and Amida’.

I really cherish this short letter and have always found it valuable. As I say, there are many places where Shinran’s words are clear, unequivocal and brief like this.

Nevertheless, to know that Amida Buddha ‘gives’ us the gate to the bodhisattva vehicle is truly wonderful. To know that entrusting heart and nembutsu comprise ‘the wholehearted single practice’ is enough. Nothing more is needed – only undying gratitude to Shakyamuni and Amida.