Concerning the nembutsu, no working is true working. For it is beyond description, explanation, and conceptual understanding. (CWS p. 666)
This pithy sentence comprises the tenth chapter of The Tanni Sho in its entirety. It has been variously translated, sometimes even in a way that seems to give an unduly sophisticated interpretation. But it simply asserts an axiom that Shinran Shonin repeatedly used to caution nembutsu people from using their own reason or discriminating thought to explain the working of nembutsu.
That is because the work of our deliverance has been completed by Tathagata and is fulfilled when each individual accepts the Name, Namu-amida-butsu. Beings may travel a brief or long path towards a meeting with the Primal Vow:
Encouraging and guiding all sentient beings with various means through this ‘essential’ or provisional gate, the Buddha teaches and encourages them to enter ‘the great treasure ocean of true and real virtue – the Primal Vow, perfect and unhindered, which is the One Vehicle.’ (CWS, p. 486)
Beings discover the Buddha Dharma and strive in it, eventually discovering that it leads to the Primal Vow. All striving is surrendered, and the Name accepted. They become people of nembutsu.
The principal hindrance in our path is the working of the delusion that is inherent in beings; a misinterpretation of events as coherent objective fact, which occurs because of the profound thrall of three roots of evil – desire, aversion and folly. It is only the Enlightened One – the Buddha – who can open our hearts to the truth that transcends birth-and-death.
The touch of the Primal Vow that beings feel is the Name. Like infants responding to one or both of their parents, the first sounds may be tentative and uncertain. But by listening to the Dharma of Amida Buddha deeply, it often happens that the Name is ‘heard’: its origin and fulfilment become clear.
That is to say, one understands simultaneously with utmost clarity that one is a ‘foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good’, (CWS p. 92 et. al.) – the suffering of beings is the underlying cause of the Vow – and the fulfilment: ‘… one truly knows now, without so much as a single thought of doubt, that Amida’s universal Primal Vow enables all to attain birth.’
Then the Name becomes a spontaneous act of thanksgiving. It becomes nembutsu – the Buddha coming to mind and being expressed as ‘Namo Amida Butsu’.
Even to think that we know and understand all this can be a form of delusion. It is all very well to think that we know and understand these profound truths. In fact, all that is required is the entrusting heart. To a Dharma friend who thought he could explain how the Primal Vow works, Shinran wrote,
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. (CWS, p. 537)
And he concludes this letter to Joshin-bo:
If you realise that the wisdom of the Buddhas surpasses conceptual understanding, there should not, in addition, be any calculating. You simply should not fall into doubts over the different things that people say. Simply give yourself up to Tathagata’s Vow; avoid calculating in any way. (CWS, p. 537)
And Shinran’s footnote draws down the curtain on our cleverness and flawed sophistication:
Other Power means to be free of any form of calculation. (CWS, p. 537)
Ultimately, the entrusting heart (shinjin) comes down to its most perfect explanation, which we also find in The Tanni Sho:
As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, ‘Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida’; nothing else is involved. (CWS, p. 662)