Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 46

The afflictions of the three evil courses are forever eliminated,
And only spontaneous, delightful sounds are heard.
For this reason the Buddha's land is called 'Happiness';
So take refuge in Amida, the ultimately honored one.

The Pain of Ignorance

The afflictions of the three evil courses are forever eliminated. The 'three evil courses' ('three mires') are the paths of 'fire', 'blood' and 'sword'. Fire is the realm of hell; blood the realm of animals; and sword is the realm of hungry spirits. Unlike the realm of human birth - in which it is possible for us, given the right karmic outcomes, to come into contact with the wonderful dharma of the Buddha - the three mires are totally steeped in ignorance. The three realms are also part of the 'natural' order and entities like 'hungry spirits' are a species of living organism like us. To be ignorant is to be completely at the mercy of one's own desire. It is 'nature red in tooth and claw'.

Although some people are squeamish about the idea of hell, I see no reason to suppose that it is an allegorical contrivance. Most major religions espouse an idea of hell. And it is not really satisfying either to suggest, as some do, that it is a metaphor for the suffering of this (human) existence. Suffering in the human realm is bad enough (except, perhaps, for the privileged few whose comfortable circumstance allows them to think that they have somehow escaped it) but existence in hell is far harder to endure because - like animal life and the life of hungry spirits - it is steeped in unmitigated spiritual and ethical blindness.

The Buddha Dharma does not necessarily maintain a benign view of the so-called natural world. In fact, it seems to me at any rate that the romantic view of nature, which characterizes the European Enlightenment, has become even more entrenched in our time, and betrays the fact that most of us live in cities and have little contact with it.

People who live close to nature have a more realistic view. Nature, like hell, is savage and brutal. It is ruthless and merciless. It is governed by intellectual blindness, greed and fury. Awesome it might be, majestic it might be, complex it might be, but it is certainly not benign. You only have to watch a female spider consuming her young, or see the appalling injuries which a playful pussycat can inflict on an innocent bird or mouse, or see a python swallow whole a bleating lamb, or watch the ravages of disease and climate - watch Lake Eyre in central Australia move through its periodic drying phase as countless millions of wetland birds and fish gradually starve, dehydrate and suffocate in the unremitting heat. All is unmitigated greed and fury. Farmers and pastoralists know these things well.

This, of course, is not to say that we should not respect and revere the wilderness. The Buddha Dharma urges us to develop compassion for all living things. Buddhists are famous for their kindness to animals, plants - and hungry spirits. In traditional Buddhist countries this practice of compassion is deeply entrenched. In places like Thailand and Sri Lanka, people are eager to feed even hungry spirits in an act of wonderful generosity and compassion. Indeed, for the very reason that the 'afflictions of the three evil courses' is so profound our compassion is called upon all the more.

Needless to say, the Buddha Dharma understands the breadth and extent of the 'afflictions of the three evil courses' and the central motivation for the Buddha's epic quest to find the 'way out of suffering' is fundamentally driven by dread of this vast stock of endless suffering - endless both in terms of time and dimension. Many reasons there are, which serve as a basis for us to seek deliverance by riding upon the Buddha vehicle, and fortunate are those of us who are blessed with such a powerful dread.

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