The Problem of the Practice of the “Nembutsu of the ‘True Gate’”
I will now comment on the third problem. As related in the previous section, the Venerable Master pointed out that the 20th Vow (the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’ based on ‘self-centered effort’”) is very close in thought to the 18th Vow (the “Nembutsu of the ‘broad vow’ based on ‘Buddha-centered power’”).
The criticism implied in the third problem is that the Venerable Master urged practicing the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’ based on ‘self-centered effort’” in order to attain the “Nembutsu of the ‘broad vow 弘願’ based on ‘Buddha-centered power.’” In other words, this point of view holds that the primary purpose of reciting the Nembutsu (putting the Nembutsu into practice) is to attain shinjin. This is the point of view that criticizes “recitation of (the Name) in gratitude.”
In the Takada copy of the Jodo Wasan, in the part where the 20th Vow (the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’”) is discussed, is the wasan (64):
Arouse the “sincere mind,” the “mind to transfer”
And the “desire for birth (in the Pure Land)”
(This is how Amida) opened the “true gate”
Of the Name
To expediently lead sentient beings
In the ten directions
With his “vow that eventually causes
Birth (in the Pure Land).
Next to the passage, “With his ‘vow that eventually causes birth (in the Pure Land),” is the comment, “(Amida) absolutely guaranteed to do so.”
The next wasan is (65):
Through the “vow that eventually causes birth
(In the Pure Land)”
Shakyamuni expressed the root
And the basis of virtue
In the Amida Sutra,
Encouraging those who follow
The Mahayana teaching (to practice it).
Next to the passage, “those who follow the Mahayana teaching” is the comment, “Absolutely lead them to the Pure Land.” The next wasan is (66):
Those who recite the Name with
With “self-centered effort,”
Whether meditatively or non-meditatively,
Will naturally and without effort,
And even without being instructed,
Enter the “gate of true thusness”
If they trust the “vow
that eventually causes birth
(In the Pure Land).”
Next to the term, “vow that eventually causes birth (in the Pure Land),” is the comment, “Even those who recite the Name with ‘self-centered effort’ will eventually be born (in the Pure Land).”
Further, in the Kugan-mon (The Nine Vows), the Venerable Master explains the text of the 20th Vow in the following way: “This vow guarantees that all those who recite the Nembutsu with ‘self-centered effort’ will be born in the Pure Land. It is referred to as the vow in which ‘(Amida Buddha) directs his thoughts towards those who seek to be born in his Pure Land through “self-centered effort” and absolutely guarantees their birth there’.”
All these passages contain hints that we should strive to accomplish the goal of the 20th Vow, that is, to use the “Nembutsu of ‘self-centered effort’” (jiriki Nembutsu) to attain shinjin.
And then in the Chapter on Transformed Land of the Kyogyoshinsho, the Venerable Master wrote: “Monks and lay persons of this corrupt age should promptly enter the ‘true gate’ of the ‘perfectly accomplished utmost virtue’ and aspire for that marvelous birth in the Pure Land which is incapable of being thought of . . . (that is why) Shakyamuni Buddha opened his treasure-house of virtue and urged all those in the ten directions of this corrupt age (to avail themselves of it). Amida Tathagata had previously established his ‘vow that eventually causes birth (in the Pure Land)’ to guide all beings. . .”
This is in the Chapter on Transformed Land, so it is considered a “provisional gate方便門,” but it does recommend the “true gate” of the 20th Vow, which is also referred to as the “vow that eventually causes birth (in the Pure Land).”
The above passages are generally the ones that are used as the basis for asserting that the Venerable Master recommended using “‘self-centered effort’ to enter the ‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (jiriki shinmon真門 nembutsu) before shinjin is determined. As already indicated, there are passages in the Chapter on Transformed Land, which is the chapter on the expedient and the provisional, that seem to urge following the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’ (20th Vow)” but as might be expected, there are also passages that admonish against following it.
In the same Chapter on Transformed Land, is the following passage: “I realize that those who perform the ‘exclusive practice’ with ‘mixed minds’ do not attain the ‘great joy’ (serene faith) . . . How sad that common and ignorant persons who are defiled and hindered, from beginningless past to the present, have not had an opportunity to be saved because of their inclination to indiscriminately perform ‘auxiliary acts’ and perform meditative and nonmeditative good. Reflecting upon our cyclic transmigration, how difficult, even with the passage of kalpas as countless as dust particles, to turn to the Buddha’s Vow-Power for refuge and enter the Ocean of Great Faith. This is something we should lament and deeply deplore. Because sages of the Mahayana and Hinayana teachings, and good men consider recitation of the sacred Name of the Primal Vow to be a good action that they perform, they cannot attain shinjin nor accept the Buddha’s Wisdom. And because they are ignorant of the Buddha’s reason for establishing the cause (for our birth in the Pure Land), they cannot enter the Recompensed Land.”
Here, the Venerable Master severely criticizes the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’” (the 20th Vow), and says that not only will you not attain shinjin, you will not even be born in the Recompensed Land (hodo) as a result of it.
Again, in the “Hymns on Doubt” section of the Shozomatsu Wasan are the following:
(60) Doubting the Tathagata’s wisdom
Is proof of not having received it.
Making distinctions between good and bad,
And believing that doing good (will cause birth in the Pure Land),
Only results in terminating at the border land.
(63) The evil of doubting the Buddha’s wisdom
Stops us at the border land
Of sloth and complacency.
This evil is so grave,
We will be bound there for eons.
(65) Those who recite the Name
With “self-centered effort,”
Doubt the Tathagata’s Primal Vow.
This is so grave an offence,
It results in being imprisoned
In the jail of seven treasures.
In all of these wasan, the Venerable Master severely criticizes the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’ based on ‘self-centered effort’” (jiriki shinmon nembutsu, i. e. , the 20th Vow). There are twenty-three of these “Hymns on Doubt,” at the end of which is the passage: “The above twenty-three verses (were written to) show the gravity of doubting Amida’s ‘marvelously mysterious’ vow.”
All twenty-three verses in the “Hymns on Doubt” section warn against “self-centered effort.” Most of the verses admonish against the “true gate” (20th Vow) but the 67th verse seems to admonish against the “essential gate” (19th Vow) of performing “goods” actions through “self-centered effort”:
(67) Those who perform “good deeds”
Through “self-centered effort”
(In trying to be born in the Pure Land),
Doubt the “marvelously mysterious”
Wisdom of the Buddha.
Because they will “reap as they sow” (jigo jitoku)自業自得
They confine themselves in the prison
Of seven treasures.
The remaining twenty-two verses, and not just the three that I quoted, all admonish against the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’ based on ‘self-centered effort.’” As can be determined, the number of passages that criticize it, is rather large.
There are many theories as to when the Venerable Master’s absolute reliance on the 18th Vow took place, but as I indicated in Part One, I believe it was when he was 29 years of age. I believe that was when he was absolutely sure of his birth in the Pure Land, and that he felt a relief and peace of mind regarding it that did not change in the slightest from then on.
Some scholars, however, believe that the Venerable Master’s shinjin was not completely settled until the age of 42. These scholars point to two indications contained in Letter Five of the Venerable Master’s wife’s letters (collected in a work titled, Eshinni Shosoku) 惠信尼消息.
In this letter, Eshinni-ko records that when the Venerable Master was 42 years of age, he began chanting the Three Pure Land Sutras a thousand times from a feeling that he had to do something for the benefit of all the dead bodies that he saw on the wayside, and the masses of people dying from malnutrition because of famine then stalking the land. After four or five days, however, the Venerable Master realized that he could not transfer the merit in the sutras to sentient beings, and so quit his chanting.
In that same letter, it states that at the age of 57, 17 years after deciding to chant Three Pure Land Sutras a thousand times and then quitting also during a time of great famine the Venerable Master was in sickbed with a high fever when he began chanting the Larger Sutra in delirium, but again quit when he realized there was no merit in doing so.
These scholars believe the Venerable Master’s shinjin was not completely settled until after he quit chanting the Three Pure Land Sutras a thousand times for the benefit of others at the age of 42. I believe, however, that the reason the Venerable Master began his chanting was due to the sympathy he felt for the people and from a desire to do something to help them, but that this chanting had nothing to do with his own birth in the Pure Land, which had been settled long ago. In other words, I believe it had nothing to do with the Venerable Master’s own shinjin.
I believe the Venerable Master’s shinjin was settled at the age of 29. That does not, however, mean there were no changes in his thought after that. As might be expected, his thought deepened and changed as he got on in years. In this regard, I believe his treatment of the “Nembutsu of the ‘true gate’” in his later years should be carefully considered.
The Jodo Wasan previously quoted, contains wasan in which the Venerable Master seems to urge reciting the Nembutsu with “self-centered effort” in order to receive shinjin. At the end of the Takada copy of the Jodo-Wasan, is the inscription: “Completed on the 1st day of the last 10-day period of the 1st month during the zodiac year of tsuchi-no-eno-saru (2nd year of Hogen, 1248 AD), when I Gutoku Shinran, was 76 years of age.” 宝治第二戊申歳初月下旬第一日釈親鸞七十六歳書之畢From this, we know that the Venerable Master was 76 years of age when that work was completed.
There are many theories regarding when the Kyogyoshinsho was compiled, and it is very difficult to determine exact dates. From the fact that it was during 1247 AD (5th year of Kangen寛元) that the Venerable Master allowed his disciple Sonren尊蓮 to make a copy, the Kyogyoshinsho is considered to have been in some state of completion when he was 75 years of age. The Kyugan-mon is considered to have been written before the Kyogyoshinsho.
For the above reasons, we see that the texts that are considered to urge reliance on the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (the 20th Vow)—i. e. , the texts of the Jodo Wasan, the Kyugan-mon, and the statement on the “true gate” in the Kyogyoshinsho, namely, “should promptly enter the ‘true Gate’ of the perfectly accomplished Utmost Virtues”—were written before the Jodo Wasan was compiled, when the Venerable Master was 76 years of age.
As already mentioned, the “Hymns on Doubt” section of the Shozomatsu Wasan severely criticized entering the “true gate” by reciting the Nembutsu through “self-centered effort.” There is absolutely no encouragement in that direction.
The Takada copy of the Shozomatsu Wasan contains the inscription: “Written on the 1st day of the 3rd month during the zodiac year of hi-no-to-no-mi (1st year of Shoka正嘉, 1257 AD) when I, Gutoku Shinran was 85 years of age.” 正嘉元年丁丑三月一日書写之愚禿親鸞八十五歳
Further, the same work copied by Takada Kenchi contains the indication: The original indicates: “24th day of the 9th month during the 2nd year of Shoka (1248 AD). Shinran, 86 years of age.” 正嘉二歳九月二十四日親鸞八十六歳
From these indications, we can determine that the Shozomatsu Wasan was written during the Venerable Master’s 85th to 86th years.
Clearly, there was a change in the Venerable Master’s thought regarding entering the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu through ‘self-centered effort’” as expressed in his Kyogyoshinsho and the Jodo Wasan which were written before the age of 76, and the thought expressed in his Shozomatsu Wasan that he wrote after the age of 85. I believe a big influence in this change was the “self-centered effort” recitation of the Nembutsu that his son Zenran probably taught when the Venerable Master was 84 years of age, and which caused the Venerable Master to disown Zenran.
Reciting the Nembutsu through “self-centered effort,” is calculating to do “good,” which is completely contrary to the heart of the Nembutsu. Further, in Jodo Sangyo Ojo Monrui浄土三経往生文類(Passages on “Birth in the Pure Land” through the Three Pure Land Sutras) which was written after the Venerable Master was 85 years of age, he wrote (12):
“Those who rely upon the sacred vow that urges ‘recitation of the “name of the Buddha” as the source of virtue’ to enter the ‘true gate’ . . . try to be born in the Pure Land by transferring the merit gained from reciting the sacred name. In other words, (those who rely on the 20th Vow, i. e. ,) those who, while reciting the “‘marvelously mysterious’ Name of the Buddha” that cannot be expressed in words nor thought of in the mind, attempt to be born in the Pure Land while harboring doubt regarding the efficacy of the sacred vow of Great Compassion. The result of this great evil, which is absolutely unpardonable, is imprisonment in the seven-jeweled jail which they cannot leave for five-hundred years.”
As already mentioned, the Venerable Master in his Jodo Wasan seems to recommend birth in the Pure Land through the "true gate of the Nembutsu” (20th Vow), but it is clear that here he adamantly warns against such a position.
Further, in his Jodo Sangyo Ojo Mon-rui浄土三経往生文類, the Venerable Master quotes the “text showing completion” (jojumon成就文) of the 20th Vow (“true gate”) which does not appear in the discussion of the 20th Vow in his Kyogyoshinsho. What is referred to as the “paragraph on ‘womb-like birth’ and ‘transformative birth’” (taikedan) in the Larger Sutra is quoted in the Kyogyoshinsho as being the “text showing completion” of the 19th Vow (“essential gate”). That same text is quoted in the Jodo Sangyo Ojo Monrui as being the “text showing completion” of the 20th Vow, and is used to criticize the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (20th Vow).
The change in the Venerable Master’s position regarding the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (20th Vow) as he got on in age can be seen from the above.
In the Chapter on Transformed Land of his Kyogyoshinsho, the Venerable Master wrote: “I, Gutoku shuku Shinran, abandoned the sundry Acts and took refuge in the Primal Vow during the 1st year of Kennin (1201 AD).”
As can be determined from the above, the Venerable Master met Master Honen and “took refuge in the Primal Vow (the 18th Vow)” in the year 1201. That was when he was 29 years of age.
Master Honen abandoned up all religious practices and followed the single path of the Nembutsu. In Volume Two of the Wago Toroku 黑谷上人語燈錄 (A Record of the Light) is the following:
Question: Will all who recite the Nembutsu be born in the Pure Land?
Answer: Those who recite the Nembutsu with “Buddha-centered power” will but those who do so with “self-centered effort” absolutely will not.
As can be determined by the above, Master Honen also made a distinction between reciting the Nembutsu with “self-centered effort” and with “Buddha-centered power.”
Further, in the document that is said to be the last that Master Honen wrote before leaving this world, the Ichimai Kishomon一枚起請文 (The One Page Document), it states: “I believe there is no way to be born in the Pure Land of Ultimate Joy other than by reciting Namo Amida Butsu without doubt. You can speak about the ‘three minds’ and the ‘four practices,’ but these things are contained within faith in Namo Amida Butsu. Wanting to know more about this goes against the compassion of the two sacred beings (Shakyamuni Buddha and Amida Buddha) and is not within the spirit of the Primal Vow.”
From this, it appears that the Venerable Master also considered shinjin while reciting the Nembutsu to be important. In Shui Gotoroku拾遺黑谷上人語燈錄(Sacred Words, Picked and Collected), however, is the passage: “In the ‘three minds’ there are the ‘wisdom of the three minds’ (sanshin no chigu) and the ‘practice of the three minds’ (sanshin no gyo-gu) . . . The reason we single-heartedly recite the Nembutsu and are born in the Pure Land without doubt is because of this ‘practice of the three minds’.”
Further, in the Saiho Shinan-sho西方指南鈔 (Notes that Guide towards the West), it states: “Recite the myogo single-mindedly with faith in the commentary on the phrase, ‘That Buddha is presently becoming a Buddha.’ When you recite the myogo, the three minds automatically accompany the recitation.”
(The phrase, “That Buddha is presently becoming a Buddha,” seems to be a contradiction, but it points to the fact that a Buddha has lowered itself from the Absolutely Enlightened State in order to engage in the process of “saving” all sentient beings, after which it will revert to its Absolute Enlightened State. )
As can be determined from the above, Master Honen’s Nembutsu makes a distinction between “self-centered effort” and “Buddha-centered power,” and emphasizes faith. In passages such as, “the ‘three minds’ are fulfilled in reciting the ‘name of the Buddha’ (myogo),” however, he shows some aspects of the practice of “three minds.”
I believe that although the Venerable Master strongly denied the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (the 20th Vow), as a 29-year-old he still accepted the thought of, “the ‘three minds’ are fulfilled in reciting the ‘name of the Buddha,’”—at least to some extent—until about the time he felt he had to disown his son Zenran.
As discussed previously, the Venerable Master’s position on this matter clearly changed as he got on in years. His final position regarding the “‘true gate’ of the Nembutsu” (20th Vow) was expressed in his Shozomatsu Wasan and Jodo Sangyo Ojo Monrui淨土三經往生文類, which were written after disowning Zenran. This position can be considered to caution against the 20th Vow. Since he considers the 20th Vow to be an “expedient, provisional gate” (hoben kemon方便權門) even in his Kyogyoshinsho (in the Chapter on Transformed Land), he cannot be considered to recommend it.
This is an extremely important point, so I will repeat it. At the age of 29, the Venerable Master met Master Honen and entered the world of the 18th Vow. That was when he had the conviction that his birth in the Pure Land was absolutely determined. This is referred to as ketsujo ojo-shin決定往生心. There was absolutely no wavering in his conviction from that time on. Although you can take the position that there were differences in how the Venerable Master treated the “‘self-centered effort’ of the ‘true gate’” (20th Vow) even after he attained the conviction that his birth in the Pure Land was absolutely determined, this does not mean that he wavered between the positions expressed by the 20th Vow and the “‘Buddha-centered power’ of the ‘broad vow 弘願’” (18th Vow). Further, the result of the Venerable Master’s treatment of the 20th Vow can be considered to be an admonition, and absolutely not recommended for everyone. Using personal effort in building up to “‘Buddha-centered power’ shinjin” must therefore be considered contrary to the Venerable Master’s intent.
The doctrinal way in which the above is expressed is, “Shinjin is the true cause; (the response is) ‘reciting the Name’ in gratitude” (shinjin sho-in信心正因, shomyo ho-on稱名報恩). The problem probably arises because of not making a distinction between “reciting the Nembutsu with ‘self-centered effort’” (before receiving shinjin) and “reciting it with ‘Buddha-centered power’” (after receiving shinjin). I believe the reason for not making this distinction is the lack of spiritual experience, namely, the lack of conviction regarding the fact that our birth in the Pure Land is already determined. Another way of saying it is that this misunderstanding arises because those making such assertions do not feel they are among the “rightly established group (of those assured of birth in the Pure Land) in the present” (gensho shojoju現生正定聚).
In the Shozomatsu Wasan is the wasan (34):
Through the compassion
Of Shakyamuni and Amida.
Our determination to be enlightened
Only after receiving the transcendent wisdom
Can we become vessels
To return the Buddha’s benevolence.
When our shinjin is determined and we are blessed with its transcendent wisdom, we naturally and without effort feel indebted to the Buddha. That is when we experience what it means to recite the Nembutsu in true gratitude, which is completely different from reciting the Nembutsu before receiving shinjin.
When we are blessed with the conviction that we will be born in the Pure Land, therefore, we know the difference between reciting the Nembutsu before receiving shinjin and after receiving it, and also what the Nembutsu that is recited in gratitude is.
Asserting the value of reciting the Nembutsu with “self-centered effort” arises when we have not experienced the Nembutsu that comes after receiving shinjin, as does the desire to criticize “reciting the Nembutsu in gratitude.”