Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 79

All of them great sages -
By various means, brought the most foolish and lowest
Of evil people to enter the Vow
That does not neglect people of grave offenses and transgressions.

Introducing 'the Evil Person'

At this point, I will lay my cards on the table: there is a trend in religious discourse these days, with which I disagree. It is a certain tendency to reduce religions to a single source or idea. I subscribe to the more recent view amongst scholars of religion that religions are plural and can be quite unrelated even in traditions, which have the same historical origins. I accept that this is not yet a well received perspective because it is disturbing for some and out of step with the globalising and unitary sensibilities of our time. But, since this is an acute and urgent problem, which demands our attention sooner or later, let's digress briefly to explore the significance of a plural - rather than a reductionist - view.

A plural view of religious revelations seeks to respect the uniqueness of each tradition and accept that there really are irreconcilable differences. Indeed, some religions are intended precisely as a direct reproof of an earlier movement. Sometimes it is the result of clearer thought; since the differences in traditions are often quite marked. Things that look alike - as, for example, bats and birds do in flight - actually have an entirely different origin and structure. Again, it is a more generous view because it does not want to submerge one tradition within the world view of another. I also think it is a more honest view because it is prepared to co-exist with an uncomfortable reality.

Reductionism in the field of religious discourse is part of a feature of contemporary life. For example, the vast and complex reality of each individual human being is reduced to single and absurd factors like star-signs, genes, animal behaviour and so on. It is to be hoped that we will one day grow out of this suffocating fixation and learn to celebrate again: variety, difference and complexity for their own sake... and, to be frank, that life is ultimately an impenetrable mystery.

I respect the fact that people are understandably concerned that the accentuation of difference may lead to conflict, yet, it seems that it only does so if we, as individuals, seek control over others. If we can each of us be comfortable with a view that the revelation or religion to which we subscribe is absolute truth while, at the same time, having sufficient respect for the probity of others to be able to recognise their capacity to hold the same view about the revelation to which they subscribe; then, I think we will have moved a long way in the direction of genuine harmony and inner peace. And we will enter into a more honourable and decent relationship with others wherein we all hold each other in regard, respecting each the other's uniqueness, dignity and capacity for depth and thought.

When considering Shinran Shonin's teaching, then, we need to see it from our position of standing 'within' it - as participants - and unique. In Shinran's thinking concepts like 'the evil person' have a special significance. It is a mistake to use the yardstick of non-Buddhist religions, or even related religions within the Buddhist movement - to understand what he means. The content of other, equally as unique religions, cannot legitimately be brought to bear in discussing it.

In this verse Shinran has left a marginal note that says what he means. 'The most foolish and the lowest, are' he says, 'we who have sunken to the bottom of the great sea.' 'Grave offences and unwholesome actions,' are 'the five grave offences and the ten unwholesome actions.' Shinran includes himself as among those who can be designated as 'evil persons', who are prone to depravity.

The 'five grave offences' are well-known: matricide, patricide, killing an Arhat, destroying the harmony of the sangha (the community of monks and nuns) and shedding the blood of a buddha. The ten unwholesome actions are the opposite of the ten good actions and are those behaviours which lead to dire karmic outcomes as a natural consequence. They are killing, stealing, unfaithfulness in relationships, lying, speaking harshly, slander, idle chatter, greed, anger and wrong views.

The dramatic and traumatic events at the palace in Rajagrha served, in Shinran's view, to evince this important insight. Thus the dharma of Amida Buddha is spoken of as being especially for 'the evil person' (akunin). Shinran carries this theme into the next verse, so we will have an opportunity to examine this more fully when we come to it .

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