“Even when I utter the Nembutsu, I rarely have the mind of rapture and joy, nor do I have the mind of desiring to be born in the Pure Land in haste. Why is this so?” I asked. “I, Shinran have also had the same question,” answered Shinran Shonin. “Now, Yuien-bo, you are in the same state of mind!”
— “Tannisho,” Ryukoku Translation Series, Ryukoku University, Kyoto (1980)
Many of the readers may be familiar with this famous exchange between Shinran and Yuien-bo, purported author of the “Tannisho, Notes Lamenting Differences.”
The translation uses the term “mind of rapture and joy,” in Japanese kangi 歓喜. Readers may also be familiar with this term referenced during Obon which is also called “Kangi-e” or a “Gathering of Joy.”
What strikes me here is that the term is used in the negative sense that for both Shinran and Yuien-bo they neither have the mind of joy. This dilemma that Yuien-bo experienced is an age-old one for lay and minister alike. When we recite Namoamidabutsu, there is no joy, no gratitude, no desire to be born in Ojodo. Shinran answers the question in the next section of the “Tannisho”:
“If we reflect on the whole matter again and again, we should realize that our Birth in the Pure Land is all the more assured, because we cannot rejoice at what we ought to so much as to dance in heaven and on earth. It is the working of evil passions that presses our minds and keeps them from rejoicing when they ought to rejoice. The Buddha, knowing this already, called us ‘common mortals filled with evil passions’. Therefore, realizing that the Compassionate Vow of the Other-Power is for the benefit of such (evil) persons like us, I feel it all the more trustworthy.”
Shinran Shonin is so very consistent and never wavers from his reliance on the compassion of the Buddha and the Primal Vow. We who are filled with evil passions, flounder around reciting the Nembutsu and look for a resulting joy or peace of mind. We recite the Nembutsu looking for something in return. What we fail to see is that we needn’t do a thing, our birth in the Pure Land is already decided. The Nembutsu is in response to what has already taken place.
Many feel that Jodoshinshu is a religion of gratitude. However, I feel that this is misleading. Many feel that Nembutsu is an expression of gratitude to the Buddha. Again, this can be misleading. Many think that if I am grateful for the food I receive, if I am grateful to my parents, if I am grateful for what I receive, I will find joy in my life, and my birth is assured.
When I say this is misleading, what I mean is that Jodoshinshu Buddhism is a religion of deep introspection and mere thanks for what we are receiving is shallow and a gratitude that is self-serving. Deeply looking at the self, reveals that we are not capable of deep, sincere and true gratitude. And any gratitude that we can muster is temporal. How many times have we complained about the food being under or overcooked and tasteless? How many times have we complained about our family? How many times have we complained about our fellow Sangha members or ministers and what they do or don’t do?
Deep introspection takes guts to see the self with honesty. Seeing the self as evil and not capable of a single act of goodness is not fun. But it is humbling and enriching at the same time. A freedom from pretensions and pettiness. Life takes on deeper meaning and appreciation. As Shinran so eloquently points out, the Primal Vow is directed to beings such as us who cannot muster gratitude, joy or even the desire to be born. There is nothing left for us to do but recite the Nembutsu.