Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 8

The Buddha's light is supreme in radiance;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha, Lord of Blazing Light.'
It dispels the darkness of the three courses of affliction,
So take refuge in Amida, the great one worthy of offerings.

Light in Hell

Karma is usually poorly understood. One hears people saying things like 'It must be my karma', when they actually mean either destiny or fate. Karma in fact is an aspect of the ancient Aryan world-view and pre-dated the rise of the Buddha Dharma by some 2,400 years. It was originally thought that one's caste or status in society was determined by the rituals one observed and that people had a single surviving aspect of their personalities, which endured almost to eternity through many births. However, the Buddhist movement criticized this view holding firstly that one's degree of enlightenment would curtail eternal wandering in samsara.

The Buddha Dharma accepts the primitive world-view of re-birth but understands this to be neither by means of an immutable entity nor total destruction of personality. When it comes to the exact nature of the lives which one may have previously experienced, only a Buddha or an arhat (an epithet for a realized Buddhist who has attained the highest stage of the Shravakayana1) can know such things in any detail.

The Buddha Dharma insists that the only certain feature in the range of birth and death is that the degree of awakening and personal conduct determine future outcomes and that the most constant and unremitting fact is change. Instead of a unitary personality we are made up of complex bundles, the skhandhas, which are in different synergies at every moment.

In our modern materialistic society much is made of the cardinal principle of the dharma, known - in Sanskrit - as anatman. There is a strong nihilistic flavour attached to much commentary at this time: but the truth of the matter is that anatman does not hold the significance that is given to it by the use of trivialized renderings, like 'no soul'. Anatman is not a dogma, for the Buddha Dharma is never dogmatic. It is an adjective used to qualify factors of existence.

In the first place the Greek term ψυχη (psyche), often translated as 'soul' or 'spirit', may also mean 'mind' or 'heart' and, in that case, it is closer to the Sanskrit term citta, an important part of the Sanskrit compound prasanna-citta that is equivalent to shinjin. There are eight consciousnesses (Sk. vijnana), of which the eighth is the alaya-vijnana, the repository of karmic bija or 'seeds' that bear fruit in future lives.

None of this is to concede the cardinal principle (Sk. lakshana) of anatman, but it is important to be aware that the Buddha Dharma is not nihilistic; that these questions are damaging if they are exaggerated or turned into slogans and hollow clichés. The nature of the continuity and inter-related factors of life is a 'middle way' that is neither eternalistic nor entirely negative. Above all, we ought to remember that the teaching of the dharma seeks to disabuse us of attachment to 'views' (Sk. drsthi) - or fond beliefs - of all kinds, so that we can 'see things as they are'.

'Karma' describes our deliberate actions; damaging deliberate actions lead to painful results and sound deliberate actions lead to pleasant results. It is impersonal and collective and we experience the results of previous karma as our current existence, moving as it does in and out of varying circumstances. Sometimes we are sick and in pain, or depressed; sometimes rich and sometimes poor; sometimes we are joyful, sometimes sad.

Such change moves in and out of endless life forms, too. Honest people acknowledge complete bewilderment in this endless stream. We may for a time find ourselves in absolutely appalling circumstances, far more painful or even deleriously happy than anything that we can ever imagine in the present life with all its vicissitudes. The deleriously happy existences - the delerium of power - are in the heavens and the unspeakably miserable circumstances - the misery of impotence - are described as the three courses of affliction (sanzu) - 'blood' (animals), 'fire' (hell) and 'sword' (hungry spirits). All of us may find ourselves in these conditions for considerable lengths of time!

The majestically flaming light of Amida Buddha is, however, completely unhindered. Even in hell we can hear the call of the Buddha: Namu-amida-butsu.


1: Shravakayana means 'hearer vehicle'. Currently it is represented by southern Buddhism in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc.

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