Embraced by the Buddha

Hollyhock, 11 December 2017

‘Although I say the nembutsu, the feeling of dancing with joy is faint with me, and I have no thought of wanting to go to the Pure Land quickly. How should it be [for a person of the nembutsu]?’

When I asked the master this, he answered, ‘I, too, have had this question, and the same thought occurs to you, Yuien-bo!’ (A Record in Lament of Divergences, CWS, p. 665)

These are the opening words of the ninth chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences. It is the penultimate section of the main part of this small book. This chapter rounds out a full and deep understanding of the meaning of nembutsu, of the entrusting heart of Other Power, in the face of the problems that confront us throughout our lives.

This chapter is also one place that Shinran Shonin addresses the author by his name, Yuien-bo. In it, Shinran goes on to share his own realisation that foolish beings are often overwhelmed by the  intractable nature of their desires and fears, which cause them to worry, rather than rejoice in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Further, having no thought of wanting to go to the Pure Land, quickly, we think forlornly that we may die even when we become slightly ill. (CWS, p. 665-6)

But the entrusting heart is not something that we create; it is not mere belief in a set of propositions, and nor is it a self-induced conviction. It endures by itself, in spite of the profound ignorance and self-attachment of beings.

In his own writings, Shinran frequently attests to his unbounded joy, in having accepted the nembutsu of the Primal Vow, and the salvation that comes from a decided response to its call. Of particular significance is the irrepressible happiness at the moment that entrusting heart arises, when beings first awaken to the impulse to say the Name.

‘Gladness’ is to rejoice upon attaining what one shall attain and ‘delight’ is happiness. Attaining the stage of the truly settled expresses itself in these terms. (CWS, p. 480-1)

Having entered the stage of the truly settled through the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, life goes on – with all its vicissitudes and difficulties. But attainment of the stage of the truly settled endures. Another way that we describe this is ‘being embraced and not abandoned’ by the Buddha. Whatever happens to us, this fact never changes.

As our life progresses we are subject to all sorts of disruptive events. We experience the loss of loved ones, failure in our work and vocation, disappointment – and, of course, the wonderful things that counter-balance these unpleasant events. We can also fall into emotional problems – for example, the slough of depression – or times of terrible pain and suffering. And they are all on the way to the natural process, which no one can avoid, of old age, sickness and death.

But the entrusting heart and the embrace of the Buddha endures nonetheless. That is why Shinran could say:

When I reflect deeply on it, by the very fact that I do not rejoice at what should fill me with such joy that I dance in the air and dance on the earth, I realize all the more that my birth is completely settled. What suppresses the heart that should rejoice and keeps one from rejoicing is the action of blind passions. Nevertheless, the Buddha, knowing this beforehand, called us ‘foolish beings possessed of blind passions’; thus, becoming aware that the compassionate Vow of Other Power is indeed for the sake of ourselves, who are such beings, we find it all the more trustworthy. (CWS, p. 665)