Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Mark Healsmith

The following Dharma message was given
on the occasion of Gotan-e on 12 May 2013

Thank all for attending and thank you Rev Shig for the invitation to speak. I am always flattered and humbled to be asked to speak at an HBMA service – I do not think that I am very learned in the Dharma and I think I always end up saying much the same thing, but I go ahead and speak anyway because I have been asked, and because although my talks may not be very original or profound, they are sincere, and sincerely speaking of and listening to the Dharma is an important part of our practice. I’d like start by quoting Shinran Shonin’s ‘Hymns of the Pure Land’ (Jodo Wasan) number 66.

'‘Those who say the Name in self-power, whether meditative or nonmeditative- Having indeed taken refuge in the Vow that beings ultimately attain birth- Will spontaneously, even without being taught, Turn about and enter the gate of suchness.’

(Collected Works of Shinran Vol. 1 p343)

A few weeks ago I was talking with the daughter of some old friends. The young woman is a junior doctor who wants to specialise, and she was asking me about my path to becoming a medical specialist and whether things had gone according to my plans. I found myself telling her that in fact at almost every step along the way I was obliged to do things I didn’t want to do - that nothing had gone as I had planned - but that each of the chief things that happened against my will – working in England for almost four years, coming back to Australia and having to work in Newcastle rather than Sydney, and failing my final exams the first time around – all led me to enormously valuable experiences that were essential to my eventual success, and were fulfilling and enjoyable in their own right and in many ways for the best.

We just invent or assume motivations for most of our thoughts, words and deeds. In life we think we know what we want, we think we know why we want it and we think we know how to get it. We think we understand the motivations behind our thoughts and actions. We are usually wrong in all of this.

We are deeply ignorant, and deeply ignorant of the depth of our ignorance. This is as true of our emotional and spiritual lives as of the practicalities of our existence. Causes and conditions from the beginingless past act on us and make us what we are and we act accordingly. Does this mean we do not have free will? Not at all, but our freedom of will is conditioned and constrained, and if you look at it clearly, a joke.

Causes and conditions though – roots of past good – lead us to the Pure Land teachings. Even before I discovered the writings of our great teacher Shinran Shonin and even before I had read any of the three Pure Land Sutras I had been struggling since my youth to find a way to follow the Buddhist teachings. I had read that there was such a thing as Pure Land Buddhism and that there was such a thing as the Nembutsu but I had never been interested in either until adversity – again, things happening against my will – made me realise that my previous Buddhist practice had not enabled me to become a better person who could rise above his problems. I began saying the Nembutsu although I knew nothing of what it is really was or what saying it might mean. I said it because I wanted to feel better and nothing else was working.

There is a point to this rambling and too personal background, and it relates to the Wasan I quoted at the start. In the Wasan Shinran Shonin is telling us that those who practice self-power Nembutsu – that is those who say the Nembutsu without shinjin, who say the Nembutsu believing that it is their recitation that produces salvific merit rather than the mind of shinjin that Amida gives – will still be saved. Such is the power of the Nembutsu that self-power practitioners will ‘spontaneously turn about’. How infinitely understanding is the compassion of Amida Buddha! He understands the pridefulness and ignorance of each of us and so gave us the Nembutsu.

The Wasan is a concise summary of Shinran Shonin’s teachings on the true meaning of the 20th Vow of Amida Tathagata. He interpreted the 19th Vow as referring to meditative and non-meditative practices other than the Nembutsu, and the 20th Vow as relating to self-power Nembutsu. Those who follow these practices will be reborn in the ‘transformed lands’ and not in the Pure Land. Crucially though, in his major work – ‘Teaching, Practice and Realization’ – Shinran Shonin describes his process of religious awakening as being guided from the various good acts, to endeavour at Nembutsu practice and then to true entrusting. It is that last step to which, I think, the Wasan is referring. Of course, not everyone’s spiritual journey will take the same form as Shinran Shonin’s, nor need it, as long as the end point is the same – true entrusting

Even if we start saying the Nembutsu as a self-power practice and even if we do not understand it and have no faith in it something made us say it in the first place, and saying it will make us want to know more and to say it more. And so it goes. It doesn’t matter how or why we say the Nembutsu because if we say it we will come to take refuge in the Vow and ‘even without being taught’ we will ‘enter the gate of suchness’, that is, we will be given true entrusting, or shinjin.

Shinran Shonin’s teacher Honen Shonin wrote:

‘I would say one should recite the Nembutsu in whatever the natural state one was born into………..the compassionate should recite the Nembutsu with compassion: the one with aberrant views should recite the Nembutsu as a person with aberrant views’

(The Promise of Amida Buddha Honen’s Path to Bliss p253)

e should not wait until we are better people before saying the Nembutsu, and we should not wait until we think we know enough about the Buddhist teachings. The salvific power of the Nembutsu transcends all worldly distinctions. Saying the Nembutsu will lead us to take refuge in Amida Tathagata’s 18th Vow and true entrusting will be given.

And further Honen Shonin wrote:

‘If you cannot stay in one spot and do it (say the Nembutsu), then do it when you are walking. If you cannot do it as a monastic, then do it as a layperson. If you cannot do it alone, then do it in company with others…’

(Traversing the Pure Land Path: A Lifetime of Encounters with Honen Shonin p 67)

gain and again, in their compassionate teachings both Shinran Shonin and Honen Shonin told all who would listen that the Nembutsu is the means by which Amida Buddha calls to us and that by saying the Nembutsu we answer the Buddha’s call. Honen Shonin’s central work –‘Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu’ (Passages on the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow) – is built on his wide and deep knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures, but all of the Master’s learning is focused on his straightforward and constantly re-iterated teaching – that Shakyamuni Buddha taught many things, but the only teaching that we wilful and ignorant people, we bonbu, need to take to heart is that we should say the Nembutsu. Shinran Shonin was one of the few permitted to copy this work, and he took Honen Shonin’s teaching fully to heart. In his major work – ‘The True Teaching, Practice and Realization’, Shinran Shonin takes the reader by the hand and makes it even easier for us to understand and accept the straightforward Pure Land teachings. Accordingly we should say the Nembutsu without hesitation and we should let nothing stop us whether or not we feel we are worthy, whether or not we understand it.

So, in the context of what I have been trying to convey in this talk, that saying the Nembutsu - whatever our current state of belief or understanding or of moral or spiritual sense of worth - is the precious and vital teaching passed down to us, from Shakyamuni Buddha, via the Pure Land Patriarchs up to Honen Shonin, then on to Shinran Shonin and from his compassionate teaching down the generations to each of us.

I would like to end with the verse from the ‘Garland Sutra” with which Shinran Shonin ends ‘The True Teaching, Practice and Realization’ – a verse which I take to heart always.

‘On seeing a bodhisattva Perform various practices, Some give rise to a good mind and others a mind of evil, But the bodhisattva embraces them all.’

(Collected Works of Shinran Vol. 1 p 292)

So – just say the Nembutsu and be saved by Amida.

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