Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 89

From innumerable kalpas to the present age,
The evidence of his compassion is found
In making us adhere to the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom
Without discriminating between good and evil, pure and

Pure and Defiled

Readers will already know that the 'inconceivable Buddha-wisdom' is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. In the last section of the Shozomatsu Wasan, the Buddha-wisdom was a constant theme of Shinran Shonin's verses. In that context, he warned us that a refusal to accept the Buddha-wisdom was evident in our persistent hope that we can gain Enlightenment by recourse to our own efforts. This is especially so, when we adopt a calculating attitude in regard to our goodness or in our dedication to saying the Nembutsu (shomyo) as a way of accruing merit for ourselves.

This concern seems to have remained in Shinran's mind because he raises it again in this new, and different, context. Here, he suggests that Shotoku Taishi also re-iterated the timeless call of the Primal Vow. Furthermore, Shinran raises again the absolute and unconditional nature of Amida Buddha's compassion. Shinran's identification of this inevitable fact about the absolute reality, makes him one of the world's most astute religious thinkers. The compassion of the Unconditioned is unconditional.

We have also seen, from the earlier verses in the previous section of the Shozomatsu Wasan, that our terrible human tragedy is the difficulty we have in accepting Amida Buddha's unconditional faith: his entrusting heart (shinjin, Sk. prasanna-citta). As we shall see, in the following verses on Shotoku Taishi, we experience this mind of truth as the entrusting heart, which is absolutely single-minded and free of all misgiving.

The point here, however, is that Shinran wants us to look again at our tragedy; our failure to honour the life and inspiration of Shotoku Taishi. We can look in admiration at Shotoku's wonderful public works, his sublime blue-print for a civil society, in the Seventeen Article Constitution, and his commentaries on the Lotus, Vimalakirti and Shrimala Sutras. Yet, we will miss the point of all this, if we do not discern the underlying theme that he revealed,

In making us adhere to the inconceivable
Without discriminating between good and evil, pure
    and defiled.

I have always been deeply impressed by this Wasan because, in the previous section, 'On Doubt', Shinran merely warns us about the tragic consequences of refusing to accept Amida Buddha's entrusting heart. Here, he draws our attention to a Divine, Royal Mandate! For, in Confucian society, the Emperor holds the 'mandate of Heaven', so it is imperative that we obey him unconditionally. Indeed, this same principle is supported in Shotoku's Constitution.

How wonderful, how kind and compassionate Shinran is! He is saying here that all of our excuses have run their course, and that they are all invalid. We have exhausted every effort to resist the Buddha's compassion. Our efforts have been futile. Our attempts to evade the compassionate call of the Vow have failed to impress, and they are worthless. It does not matter at all who we are, there is no avoiding the Divine Command. Indeed, as readers will know, such a command, in Shinran's view, is an explicit aspect of the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu:

From these passages we see that the word Namu means to take refuge. In the term to take refuge (kimyo), ki means to arrive at. Further, it is used in compounds to mean to yield joyfully to (kietsu) and to take shelter in (kisai). Myo means to act, to invite, to command, to teach, path, message, to devise, to summon. Thus, kimyo is the command of the Primal Vow calling to and summoning us. (Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 34; CWS. p. 38.)

There are no specific allusions to the Primal Vow in the three sutras that Shotoku used as the basis for his exposition of the Buddha Dharma. However, it seems quite possible that, perhaps, Shinran's reminder to us that there is no discrimination between 'pure' and 'defiled' in Amida's Primal Vow was, in the main, inspired by the Shrimala Sutra. There are several reasons, which incline me to this point of view.

The full title of this text is The Sutra of Queen Shrimala of the Lion's Roar. I am always deeply moved by the fact that Shotoku's commentary on this sutra was delivered to his aunt, the Empress Suiko. Not only does this sutra reveal the Mahayana's most sublime doctrine, the 'Womb of Tathagata' (tathagatagharba), but it begins with the Queen Shrimala's entry into her bodhisattva career, along with Shakyamuni's prediction that she will eventually become a Buddha.

It is an unpalatable fact about the Buddha Dharma that it is sometimes presented in rather misogynous terms, especially where the tradition is dominated by monastic clergy. Indeed, women are still unable to be ordained into the Sri Lankan order. In many sutras, women are described as inherently 'defiled'. Yet, in the Shrimala Sutra, we discover that the Queen is destined to become a Buddha. The Queen is admired for her intelligence and wisdom, and has attained such profound insight that she can teach us about the Tathagatagharba, which is 'The Inherently Pure'.

Thus, the Queen and all the court embraced the Mahayana. It is interesting that the Mahayana Sutras often give considerable emphasis to the important role of women in the Bodhisattva Path. Indeed, each of the three sutras, for which Shotoku compiled commentaries, give a high place to women. In any case, Shinran was clearly moved by the wonderful teaching of Queen Shrimala. In it, all absurd value-judgements are overturned.

'Pure' and 'defiled' (jo-e) are terms that appear in the compound words jodo (Pure Land) and edo, this defiled world. We live in the world of the Five Defilements, which we have discussed in connection with the Dharma-ending Age. At the existential level, for foolish beings like us, there is an illusory dichotomy between 'pure' and 'defiled', when it comes to the Pure Land and the World of the Five Defilements. This illusion stays with us until our birth in the Pure Land.

Then, in terms of social classification, we bombu, (Sk. prthagjana, ordinary worldlings) are defiled, while monks keep 'pure' precepts. At the margins are the defiled who are 'unclean': people who engage in 'unclean' occupations, or who belong to an 'untouchable' caste. Nevertheless, however we may choose to judge others, the defiled are included, without condition, in Amida Buddha's embrace and are commanded to accept his entrusting heart.

All societies seem to have classes of people who are 'impure' or 'outcaste'. Indeed, it is now widely accepted by sociologists that human communities define themselves in terms of those they exclude. These exclusions change according to fashion or social neccessity: they are mutable. Nevertheless, there are no such classifications in the Primal Vow, which does not discriminate. In point of fact, people who make value judgements, whereby it is suggested that there are people who are outside the scope of the Vow, are likely to be inacapable of realising the entrusting heart until they see things differently.

This is because the wisdom of Amida Buddha, his light, enables us all to realise our own profound defilement and to see and understand the weight of our own karmic evil. Our defilement, our clouded vision, our fog of unknowing, is the reality, which, in truth, burdens us all. In seeing this, and turning to the light, we are freed from the need to judge others because we know the truth of ourselves. It is then that we rejoice in accepting Amida Buddha's faith, in which there is 'no discrimination between good and evil, pure and defiled.'

- February 1, 2006.

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