The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Koso Wasan 48

Master T'an-luan explains
That failing to practice in accord with reality
Means first, that shinjin is not genuine in that person,
For it appears to exist at times, and not to exist in others.


This verse is the first in a series of five verses which bring the section of Shinran Shonin's wasan about T'an-luan to a close. In them Shinran draws on a passage in the Ron Chu that has been an important guide to nembutsu practice ever since it was written. Shinran was able to bring to light an important shift of emphasis in the traditional understanding of this passage of T'an-luan's commentary. We shall discuss it later, as we make our way through these last verses.

Needless to say, it is important to pause at this verse and consider the question, 'What does T'an-luan mean by "sincerity"?'

In broad, the idea of sincerity in relation to the spiritual life does raise questions about plurality and tolerance. Sincerity is not fanaticism but when it is coupled - as in the passage from T'an-luan's commentary that Shinran is celebrating in this verse - with the developing theme of singlemindedness, it does lend itself to a feeling that the nembutsu way ought to exclude all other religious practices and ideas. Indeed, for us as individuals that is how it ought to be.

In much of the Buddhist world the nembutsu is just an optional addition to other teaching and practice. Shinran, however, took the latent meaning of sincerity and singlemindedness to its logical conclusion and, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, he goes to great lengths to encourage us to abandon all other religious ideas and practices.

Shinran is quite unequivocal and relentless in the matter of exclusive commitment to the nembutsu way. In later generations, his followers came to be known as adherents of the Ikkoshu - the Singleminded School. It is well-known, too, that some Shinshu followers were over-zealous and negative in their attitude to other religions, thus causing Rennyo Shonin to castigate such behaviour and to rule that sincerity must be combined with religious tolerance.

I rather like the tenor of Rennyo's teaching in this regard. He exhorts us in his letters - the Gobunsho - to nurture the shinjin of Amida Buddha deep in our hearts and at the centre of our lives, while remaining respectful to other gods and buddhas. This suggests a wonderful harmony between the vocation of sincerity and singlemindedness, to which the nembutsu way calls us, alongside the reality of life in a pluralist society.

Japan of Rennyo's time was very like our own in that it was home to many spiritual paths, fashions and religions. The way to live is to be respectful and deferential to the religious sensibilities of others, while not compromising our own inclination to remain focussed exclusively on the nembutsu.

We ought also to be clear about the meaning of the phrase 'practice in accord with reality'.

In his commentary T'an-luan explains that 'practicing in accord with reality' is to know 'that the Tathagata is the body of true reality and, further, the body for the sake of beings'.1 In other words, to practice according to true reality is the know that Amida Buddha is the dharma body ('true reality') as compassionate means ('for the sake of beings'). These two facts underscore the true significance of the Name. It is not just any old name or phrase: it is the Name, the identity, of the Tathagata of unhindered light.

1: CWS, p. 82-3.

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