The relationship between Shinjin and Nembutsu
I have become convinced that confusion regarding the meaning of, and relationship between shinjin and nembutsu impedes realization of the former and effective engagement of the latter.
In the person of un-settled faith, the nembutsu is performed in self-power with the hope of realizing shinjin. However, in the person of settled faith, the nembutsu is performed (after the initial deep-hearing and response) in gratitude for having been grasped, never to be abandoned.
The question then becomes: what is it that prepares the way for the transition between the two states (that is, between the state of the un-settled and the stage of true settlement). In studying the Dharma, questioning the Sangha, and analyzing my own experience, it became very clear that the key factor was true refuge-taking.
Shinjin as Refuge-Taking
The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (Mahāyāna śraddhotpādaśāstra, Dàshéng Qǐxìn Lùn; Daijō okoshi shin ron), begins with an Invocation:
- I take refuge in [Buddha,] the greatly Compassionate One, the Savior of the world, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, of most excellent deeds in all the ten directions;
- And in Dharma, the manifestation of his Essence, the Reality, the sea of Suchness, the boundless storehouse of excellencies;
- And in the Sangha, whose members truly devote themselves to the practice;
- May all sentient beings be made to discard their doubts, cast aside their evil attachments, and give rise to correct Mahayana faith, that the lineage of the Buddhas may not be broken.
It is important to note, as does Yoshito S. Hakeda, that in the title of the text, the term Mahayana should be understood to refer to Suchness (tathata – the Absolute or Buddha Nature), and should not be taken to refer to Mahayana Buddhism. So, the text is really about awakening faith in the Absolute, which alone could be called absolute faith. It is this absolute faith in the Absolute that can be called ‘great’ or ‘diamond-like’ shinjin. That which makes this faith absolute is that its source and its object is the Absolute.
In Letter 1, of Letters of the Tradition, Shinran writes:
…Śākyamuni, Amida, and the Buddhas of the ten quarters, all with the same mind, are no more apart from sentient beings of the nembutsu than shadows are from things. Hence it is that Śākyamuni rejoices in persons of shinjin, saying, “They are my true companions.” Persons of shinjin are the true disciples of the Buddha; they are the ones who abide in right-mindedness. Since they have been grasped never to be abandoned, they are said to have attained the diamond-like mind. They are called “the best among the best,” “excellent persons” “wondrous, excellent persons,” “the very finest persons,” “rare persons.” Such people have become established in the stage of the truly settled…
Great faith, diamond-like shinjin, the stage of true settlement: these do not arise as the result of the study and resultant intellectual comprehension of dharma as ‘teaching’ (such as the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism), for, as indicated in the second part of the invocation from The Awakening of Faith , the term Dharma, in the triratna (or Triple Jewel), refers to “the manifestation of Essence…Reality…Suchness … the boundless storehouse of excellencies”. Faith in the dharma as teaching is listed (in Part 4 of the aforementioned work) as only the third best form of faith – it is there said to be beneath faith in the “Ultimate Source” (#1 from the invocation), and also beneath faith in the “numberless excellent qualities of the Buddhas” (#2 from the invocation).
Shinjin, then, arises as the result of truly and sincerely taking refuge in Buddha, as Ultimate Source, and in Dharma, as manifestation of the Absolute, with corresponding faith in the numberless excellent qualities of Buddha-Nature.
But why is shinjin said to be given by Amida and not to be the working of self-power calculation (jiriki, hakarai)?
Shinjin as Enlightenment-Prediction
In the previous section it was indicated that:
… Śākyamuni, Amida, and the Buddhas of the ten quarters … are no more apart from sentient beings of the nembutsu than shadows from things. Hence it is that Śākyamuni rejoices in persons of shinjin …
It is precisely this fact, the inseparability of Buddhas and the sentient beings that take refuge in Buddha-Nature, that indicates how and why shinjin can be said to be ‘given’.
Whalen Lai, in Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey, well notes that:
… In the words of The Awakening of Faith … self and world, mind and suchness, are integrally one. Everything is a carrier of that a priori enlightenment; all incipient enlightenment is predicated on it.
This author further asserts:
The mystery of existence is, then, not, “How may we overcome alienation?” The challenge is, rather, “Why do we think we are lost in the first place?
It is our conclusion that “we think that we are lost” because, in reifying the duality of sentient being and Buddha-Nature and forming an attachment to our selfhood, we have lost contact with, and consequently seem to have lost faith in, the Absolute. But this is not quite right. We have not actually lost faith in the Absolute, how could we, the Absolute has never failed us. Rather we have lost faith in ourselves: that is, we have lost faith in our powers of perception, conception and action; powers which consistently fail us. It is in realising what we have actually lost faith in, and why, and in coming to terms with this, that can lead to the return (yes, return) of shinjin.
In the Lotus Sutra, Chapter III – ‘A Parable’, Śākyamuni declares to Śariputra:
Of yore I caused you to resolve on the Buddha-Way. But now you have entirely forgotten it and consider that you have attained extinction. Now again [I desire] to cause you to recollect the Way which you originally resolved to follow…
After making this declaration, Śākyamuni further predicts the eventual enlightenment of Śariputra.
We are thus taught that not only is Buddha-Nature the source of the impetus to resolve, recollect and follow the way, but also, and because of this, one’s eventual enlightenment is assured because Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are One.
In KyoGyoShinSho, Shinran Shonin quotes the Mahayana PariNirvana Sutra:
… all conditioned things are impermanent … Buddha-Nature is un-conditioned, and so [it] is eternal … eternal is Dharma; Dharma is Sangha; Sangha is un-conditioned; the un-conditioned is eternal …
So, the Sangha is dependent on Dharma and is one with it and flows therefrom. Dharma is dependent upon Buddha-Nature and is one with It and flows therefrom. Whereas Buddha-Nature, as Ultimate Source, is not dependent upon anything (being un-conditioned), rather Buddha-Nature is that from which, and on which, all things depend.
In both The Awakening of Faith and the Lotus Sutra the fundamental principle of the teaching is the incipient enlightenment of all sentient beings, which is a central Mahayana / Ekayana teaching. Faith or shinjin, once lost, can only arise when we once again give heed to the Call of Amida, who:
Of yore … caused [us] to resolve on the Buddha-Way. But [though we] have entirely forgotten it … [Amida] again [desires] to cause [us] to recollect the Way …
In Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran Shonin quotes Yuan-Chao:
… Amida grasps beings with his Name. Thus, as we hear it with our ears, and say it with our lips, exalted virtues without limit grasp and pervade hearts and minds. It becomes, ever after, the seed of our Buddha-hood …
Shinjin as Nembutsu
So, we have now come to the crux of the matter: if we practice nembutsu in self-power, as most of us do (at least initially), when, how and why does this change so that shinjin arises and we enter into the stage of the truly settled and become the equals of Maitreya?
Since we have become so attached to our reified sense of self that we are heedless of Reality, this turnabout occurs only when we have fully accepted the very real limitations of that sense of self and open ourselves to others, including especially that Ultimate Other: Amida.
The Original Enlightenment of Buddha-Nature (as Absolute, Ultimate Source) calls to us just as a powerful electromagnet calls to iron filings. We come to forget our attachment to self-nature in response to the greater attraction of Amida’s call – which reminds us of our incipient enlightenment. Everytime we say the nembutsu, even in self-power, it is just as if another coil was wrapped around the core of that electromagnet allowing more current to pass around it thus creating even more attraction. Eventually, when the attractive power of Buddha-Nature becomes too great to resist we are drawn away from attachment to the self and the world of sense objects, and realize shinjin.
Shinjin as Change of State
This change of state from attraction to the self and the world to attraction to Amida and the Pure Land is possible only because we are not separate from Buddha-Nature which is both our source and solution.
Enlightenment is not something to be attained, nor is it something super-added to the unenlightened state. Rather, incipient enlightenment has never been absent. True, it is not ‘ours’, because the self that would claim it is less real than the state being claimed. Nevertheless we may participate in the Original Enlightenment of Buddha-Nature even while we continue to live out our unresolved karma in the world.
Namu Amida Butsu