Mark T. Unno
IASBS Conference, August 1995
The attainment of buddhahood through the nembutsu, this is Shin. This is called the store of awakening. . . . This is the sudden teaching within the sudden teaching.
In his writings, Shinran uses many different terms of art to
express his understanding of the nembutsu path. Among them,
the term "sudden" is one of the more recurrent, as he applies it over
a dozen times in many different genres, including the philosophical
exegesis of the Kyogyoshinsho, the letters of the Mattosho,
and hymns, such as the Shozomatsu wasan. Occurring as it
does numerous times across several genres, it has nevertheless gone
relatively unexamined in the study of Shinran's textual legacy.
Historically, the term for sudden (Jpn. ton; Ch.
tun) came into prominence in the discourse of Ch'an Buddhism,
in particular the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.
Thereafter the sudden or subitist interpretation became preeminent in
not only Ch'an but in East Asian Buddhism as a whole. In Japan
virtually all schools by the Kamakura Period had adopted or
incorporated the language of sudden awakening-including Tendai,
Shingon, Kegon, Zen, and Pure Land. However, no one in Japan had gone
into as much detail on the significance of the sudden teaching in the
Pure Land tradition as Shinran. In considering the problem of sudden
and gradual, Shinran in turn looked most often to the Chinese master
Shan-tao as a source of understanding.
Shinran echoes Shan-tao in equating the sudden teaching with the
bodhisattva path of the Mahayana and the one vehicle as attributed to
the Pure Land sutras, especially the Meditation Sutra. Thus he
The master of Kuang-ming-ssu [Shan-tao] states that our
bodhisattva-store, [the Mahayana,] depends upon the sudden
teaching and the ocean of the one vehicle. . . . The exposition of
the Meditation Sutra, the Amida Sutra, and the like is
that of the sudden teaching, the store of awakening.
Again he states,
Master Shan-tao explains,
The attainment of buddhahood through the nembutsu, this is Shin.
This is the ocean of the one vehicle.
This is the store of awakening.
This is the complete teaching within the complete teaching.
The sudden teaching within the sudden teaching.
At the same time, Shinran relates the sudden teaching to such
notions as other-power and the crosswise leap, notions that are
absent in Shan-tao but are either elaborations of other Pure Land
masters' thought or his own formulations.
These passages indicate not only the importance of the sudden
teaching for Shinran but his attempts to find his own understanding
in relation to past figures in the Pure Land tradition and the
Mahayana in general by synthesizing his own expression of the sudden
teaching. So far, however, they tell us nothing about what the sudden
teaching actually meant to Shinran as a path of practice.
A Problem of Mahayana Thought
Although Shinran draws upon many standard Buddhist notions in
order to formulate his understanding of the problem of being human,
such as ego-attachment (gashu), delusion (mayoi), and
the like, he focuses heavily on blind passion (bonno) as the
source of human suffering. In order to become free of blind passion,
it was necessary to sunder desire based on attachment, fixated on
dualistic thinking. Any path out of dualistic thinking and blind
passion could not itself depend on dualistic distinctions. Thus, it
could not be incremental, be dependent on linear progress through
relative time, or be defined in terms of a goal that lay in the
future. If it were dependent upon any of these relative conditions,
it would be impossible to reach the end of the path, since the
reality of awakening was beyond the reach of finite calculations, and
dualistic thinking could not lead to this boundless reality no matter
how long it was applied. In this sense, Shinran's problem was no
different from that posed by the Platform Sutra, and it is no
surprise that he came to understand the significance of the Pure Land
path in subitist terms.
If it could not be incremental, it had to come all at once. It is
like opening one's eyes. Either they are open or not, however
slightly. One either awakens to the reality of emptiness, the
dharmakaya-as-suchness, the formless buddha, or one does not, since
it is precisely the partial, incomplete grasp of reality based on
dualistic thinking that is the source of endless suffering.
It could not depend upon linear progress through relative time; it
had to be instantaneous. Although one might reach a finite
destination through linear progress, no amount of finite progress
could lead to a limitless goal. One might walk to the corner store
one step at a time, but how long would it take to walk to the Pure
If it could not depend on the passage of time, then it could not
lay in the future; it had to be immediately present in the
here-and-now. It is like asking when today is today. As long as one
is thinking about it, it will never arrive. The fact must be grasped
immediately in the here-and-now, for it is in the very nature of
reality beyond distinctions that it cannot be grasped objectively,
merely in terms of the idea that it comes instantaneously or
is to be found in the present.
Thus the path of nembutsu, if it is to lead to the
boundless reality of awakening, must be the sudden path in at least
three senses: it must come all at once, all of a sudden, and in the
here-and-now. Or stated in other terms, it must be complete,
instantaneous, and immediate. In terms of these three basic senses,
Shinran's understanding of sudden does not differ substantially from
that of other Buddhist thinkers adopting the sudden teaching, going
all the way back to the position attributed to Hui-neng, who negated
the idea of the incremental cultivation of prajña
wisdom, gradual progress towards the goal of awakening, and
awakening as a reality not yet fully present.
As a problem of Mahayana thought, affirmation of the subitist
standpoint in some form is necessary if one is to move beyond the
confines of dualistic, conventional reality to awaken to the
unfolding of the highest reality-a movement that must come all at
once, instantaneously, and in the here and now-because there is a
qualitative difference between the two levels of reality that cannot
be traversed in terms of the calculations of the discursive mind.
Shinran, however, found that he was unable to realize such a
sudden awakening due to the blind passions that burdened him. In
fact, he found that he was "incapable of any practice
whatsoever." And yet, it was
precisely at the point that his ego-centered self, or self-power,
exhausted all possibility of awakening through dualistic thinking
that Shinran encountered and entered into the realm of formless
compassion, nonduality, other-power. He defines the moment at which
dualistic self-power is dissolved and resolved into all-embracing,
boundless other-power as the moment of the crosswise leap, the sudden
teaching within the sudden teaching:
The crosswise leap, in which one embraces the primal vow and becomes free of the mind of self-power, is called the other-power of the crosswise leap. This is the sole practice within the sole practice, the sudden within the sudden, the truth within the truth, the one vehicle within [all] vehicles-this is Shin.
In order to understand how this sudden crosswise leap enables the
practitioner to dissolve the tension between the two levels of
reality and resolve them in the light of the samadhi or
oneness of boundless compassion, one may turn to Shinran's
expressions of nembutsu as the sudden path of practice.
The Nembutsu as the Sudden Path of Practice
Shinran's emphasis on the sudden character of the nembutsu path
and shinjin as the reality through which the significance of
the Pure Land becomes manifest in the present is stated in a number
of passages such as the following from his Notes on `Essentials of
[When it is stated in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life,] "Then they attain birth," it means that when a person realizes shinjin, he or she is born immediately. . . . This is also called the attainment of the equal of complete awakening. . . . "Then" means "immediately"; "immediately" means without any passage of time and without any passage of days.
At the same time, he avoids saying that birth or awakening is
directly attained in this life. There may seem to be a rather small
semantic difference between saying that one is born immediately
without the passage of time when shinjin is attained and saying that
one is born in the Pure Land in the present life, but for Shinran
there is an important difference. To say merely that one attains
birth or awakening in the present life implies that one can become
free of blind passions, something that Shinran found he could not do.
In any case, what would it mean to the farmers and fishermen of
thirteenth-century Japan, struggling from day to day, to say that
everyone is already awakened? Nevertheless, the reality of birth and
awakening does become fully, suddenly present through the working of
the nembutsu and shinjin. In fact, it is precisely because one is
burdened by blind passion that the boundless compassion of Amida and
the Pure Land take on their significance. The unfolding of the
Amida's compassion embraces and dissolves the distinction between
samsara and the Pure Land, yet in the world of linguistic
understanding it is precisely because the two levels of reality are
in dynamic tension with one another that each carries the
significance that it does. Without one the other has no reality; the
unqualified assertion that one actually attains awakening in this
life negates the reality of both.
The simultaneous awareness of what is appropriate in the world of
distinctions and the sudden unfolding of reality beyond all
distinctions can be seen in Section V of the Tannisho:
I, Shinran, have never even once uttered the nembutsu for the sake of my father and mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth. When I attain buddhahood in the next birth, each and everyone will be saved.
If it were a good accomplished by my own powers, then I could transfer the accumulated merits of nembutsu to save my father and mother. But since this is not the case, when we become free from self-power and quickly attain the awakening of the Pure Land, we will save those bound closest to us.
In this passage a distinction is made between the relationship to
one's parents based on one's "own powers" and that based on suddenly
or "quickly attain[ing] the awakening of the Pure Land." It
would seem that the desire to help one's parents is noble, and surely
Shinran would not disagree. But from a Buddhist perspective, the
desire to put one's own parents first is ultimately ego-centered and
implies all of the suffering brought about by tribalism and
anthropocentricism. Moreover, parents regarded in this limited,
relative sense are not one's parents in the true sense of the
Rather, it is when one comes to see them as beings who have made
it possible to encounter the dharma that one truly comes to see one's
parents, those who have been instrumental in opening up for one the
reality that "all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and
sisters, in the timeless process of birth." One's mother and father
are buddhas and bodhisattvas by virtue of their simultaneous
existence as limited beings and as windows out onto highest reality;
it is this fact that is cause for the nembutsu to flow forth, not as
a gradual practice in which one pursues the illusion of saving beings
one by one, but as the complete, sudden, and present reality in which
one is illuminated by and is enabled to embrace the whole universe of
In this life [as long as it is approached dualistically] no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent, [illusory], and limited. Only the saying of the nembutsu manifests the complete, [sudden] and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere.
This saying of the nembutsu is also what fulfills the deepest
desires of those "bound closest to us" and becomes the moment of
The specifically instantaneous character of the nembutsu as a
sudden path is significant for understanding the manner in which the
dualistic realm of blind passions is dissolved and resolved in the
unfolding of boundless compassion. "Instantaneous" is a temporal term
denoting the passage of time, but it defines a unit of time so
infinitesimal that it takes no time at all and is in this sense
infinite, eternal. The instant of nembutsu occurs in time but is not
of this world. This is known as the one thought-instant of shinjin
(ichinen no shinjin). The span of human life is short, yet
true human nature according to Shinran and much of East Asian
Mahayana is eternal buddha-nature. In speaking of the nembutsu as the
sudden path, we move in the relative world of time and space; in the
living nembutsu we are one with the formless dharmakaya. In the
instant of suddenly realizing the working of shinjin, the fact that
our lives are both but a brief moment in eternity and eternity itself
is illuminated in double exposure.
Passion and Compassion-Living Gradually in Light of the Sudden
The working of shinjin brings the dualistic world of samsara and
the nondual realm of the Pure Land into double exposure in the stage
of the truly settled (shojoju no kurai), but as long as we
live in this world it is impossible to avoid the shortcomings of our
limited existence. Our efforts to live in harmony with other people
and beings remain incomplete, gradual, and our attempts to do good
are less than perfect. Taking the path of the nembutsu does not mean
the negation of these efforts. It is necessary to strive to effect
changes in one's own life and the lives of others in order to be a
responsible member of the community of sentient beings.
The passion to effect positive change is integral to human life;
the recognition that this passion is flawed is precisely what opens
the way to unconditional compassion. Arising spontaneously,
unconditional compassion in turn informs our passion, making it
fuller, more complete. In Shinran's words,
Once shinjin is settled, we realize that since our birth [in
the Pure Land] is due to the working of Amida, it is not due to
our calculation. Even though we do evil, we should even more think of
the power of the Vow. Then the thought of tenderness and forbearance
will become manifest by virtue of "led to become so by
That is to say, the passion to effect gradual change is
illuminated and transformed by compassion that is sudden and
complete: "Truly the teaching is sudden and the faculties [of
human passion] gradual. [Amida's] practice is singular
but the mind is sundry. Thus it is called the sundry mind."
Understood in this way, these statements suggest not that Shinran
sought to eliminate passion but to see blind passion as the point of
entry into the world of compassion, so that one "freely manifests
spiritual power to play in the forest of blind passion,"
and to "attain nirvana without severing blind passion."
Conclusion-Beyond Sudden and Gradual
Through his own thinking reflected in the light of other-power
compassion, Shinran came to understand the significance of the sudden
character of the nembutsu path. Filled with blind passion, unable to
perfect any kind of practice based on gradual progress, the gradual
unfolding of his own life took on a boundless significance through
sudden illumination. Thus he came to extol this path in numerous
passages such as the following:
The one vehicle of the primal vow is the teaching of the sudden ultimate, the sudden instantaneous, the whole and complete; it is the teaching of nonduality, the path of the singularly real suchness. It is the sole practice within the sole practice, the sudden within the sudden, the truth within the truth, the complete within the complete.
But it would also go against the spirit of the sudden teaching if
he did not understand that all distinctions including that between
sudden and gradual operated only in the realm of conventional
thinking and did not represent fixed ideas in a philosophical system.
Rather, the notion of sudden points beyond itself, and one must see
this to become aware of its true significance. As Shinran states,
When one contemplates the great ocean of entrusting, it chooses
not between the rich and the poor, has nothing to do with being male
or female, old or young, makes nothing of karmic evil great or
little, does not weigh the length of practice, is not to be found in
[the distinctions of] relative practices or goods, sudden or
gradual, meditative or non-meditative, orthodox or heterodox . . .
but [is found] just in this shinjin inconceivable,
We cannot really learn about Shinran merely by seeking to emulate
him at the level of his conventional self, for he like everyone else
was limited and set apart by his particular circumstances in time and
place, but we can nevertheless be intimately illuminated by his life
and thought. For at the deepest level of reality his life is the
unending expression of the limited self as it unfolds in the light of
formless reality. In this sense, we learn not his doctrine but his
manner of learning, of learning to return to one's foolish self
which, embraced by boundless compassion, forgets all
This is the world in which gentle breezes blow, flower petals fall
freely showing both sides,
where no special meaning is needed to reveal the significance of
life, and uttering the nembutsu is as natural as breathing in and
out. Thus, "the master Shinran said, in the nembutsu no meaning is
the meaning; it is beyond description, explanation, and
 Gutoku Shinran,
Nyushutsu nimon geju, in Shinran chosaku zenshu, ed. by
Kaneko Daiei (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1964), 399-400.
 Shinran, "Gyo kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 76.
 Shinran, "Nyushutsu nimon ge," SCZ, 399-400.
 See, for example, Shinran, Kyogyoshinsho and Gutoku sho, SCZ, 262, 364.
 Tannisho, Section II, SCZ,673.
 Shinran, "Keshindo kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 262.
 Shinran, Yuishinsho mon'i, SCZ, 541-542. Translation adpated from: Yoshifumi Ueda, ed., Notes on `Essentials of Faith Alone'-A Translation of Shinran's Yuishinsho-mon'i (Kyoto: Honganji International Center, 1979), 34-35.
 Tannisho, Section V, SCZ,676-677. Translation adapted from: Taitetsu Unno, Tannisho-A Shin Buddhist Classic (Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center Press, 1984), 10.
 Tannisho, Section V, SCZ,676. Translation from: Taitetsu Unno, Tannisho, 9.
 Tannisho, Section XVI, SCZ,691. Translation adapted from: Taitetsu Unno, Tannisho, 31.
 Shinran, "Keshindo kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 266.
 Shinran, "Gyo kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 82.
 Shinran, "Gyo kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 81.
 Shinran, Gutoku sho, SCZ, 368.
 Shinran, "Shin kan," Kyogyoshinsho, SCZ, 119-120.
 This is an allusion to Ryokan's poem: Ura o mise/omote o misete/chiru momiji.
 Tannisho, Section X, SCZ,691. Translation adapted from: Taitetsu Unno, Tannisho, 16.