Only the nembutsu is true

Among the master’s words were:

‘I know nothing at all of good or evil. For if I could know thoroughly, as Amida Tathagata knows, that an act was good, then I would know good. If I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata knows, that an act was evil, then I would know evil. But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world – this burning house – all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.

(Shinran Shonin, A Record in Lament of Divergences, CWS, p. 679.)


As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.
(The Diamond Sutra, Buddhist Wisdom Books, ed. Edward Conze.)

The Buddha said to Ananda and Vaidehi, ‘Listen carefully, listen closely. Consider this very carefully. I, the Buddha, shall discern and explain to you the way to eliminate pain and affliction. You must uphold the Buddha’s words, discern them, and widely proclaim them to the multitude of beings.’

AsĀ  these words were spoken, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life appeared, standing in the air, along with two Mahasattvas, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, attending him on his left and right. Their radiance was so brilliant that it was impossible to see them in detail. It could not be compared even to a hundred thousand times the brilliance of Jambunada gold. (The Contemplation Sutra, tr. Hongwanji, 2003, p . 33)

In his letters, Shinran Shonin gently reprimands people who claim to be nembutsu followers but deliberately behave in unprincipled ways. In doing so he reminds his disciples that one would expect people who have long been followers on the nembutsu way to show signs of ‘rejecting the evil of this world.’ (CWS, p. 553.) For ‘this world’ is the realm of conditioned existence and is grounded in the ‘three poisons’ of greed, anger and folly.

Yes, it is correct to say that ‘Buddha is the wisdom that fills all things’ (CWS, p. 283.) But, generally speaking, we are blind to this until we see things differently. And it is a very different way of seeing things, indeed. For this world, the world of perception and touch, is an illusion. The real world is the world of Amida Buddha.

That is not to say that there is no value in this world and its beauty; in the wonderful developments in technology that we see all around us; in the kindness of others or the joy of living. There is no question that life is wonderful and sacred.

But until something happens to give us an insight into how things really are, these wonderful things are still imbued with the basic motives of the blind passions – greed, anger and delusion. Until we really know this, we are prone to misinterpret what we experience – to see it as an end in itself.

The greatest art, the most beautiful music, the most gorgeous scenes – are usually seen with reference to ourselves and not in terms of their own being.

There is no way for beings like us to transcend the mundane and see truth until we are born in the Pure Land and attain nirvana. That is why Shinran says that ‘only the nembutsu is true.’ But at least nembutsu people know how things are in this world, and rejoice to belong to it, because it is here that they heard the call of the Primal Vow.

When Shinran says, that ‘only the nembutsu is true’, he is speaking of the nembutsu that arises from the heart of Amida Buddha – the entrusting heart – shinjin. Without this compassionate approach and gift of Amida Buddha we would continue as we were – believing that birth-and-death is all there is.


[Photo of the beach at Broome in Western Australia by Mark Healsmith.]