Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 101

Through countless kalpas and innumerable lives,
We did not know the strong cause of liberation;
Were it not for our teacher Genku,
This present life also would pass in vain.

Living in Vain

From the perspective of the Buddha-dharma the law of karma is the basic premise. It is a law of nature and it is incontrovertible: it is not really open to question or debate. Once one departs from the assumption of the reality of the law of karma, it probably becomes very difficult to sustain a meaningful relationship with the teaching. Karma ('wholesome' [Sk. kusala] or 'unwholesome' [Sk. akusala] action) comprises a generative dynamism, which results in on-going existence, the round of birth and death that is samsara. Both the Hindu and Buddhist provenance have their well-spring in the problem that is posed by the law of karma.

Based on the fruits of Shakyamuni's enlightenment, the Buddha-dharma does not regard karma as evident in a simple, linear way. The word 're-incarnation', for example, is not a synonym for either 'karma' or 'samsara' from a Buddhist point of view. There is no continuing single objective reality that accrues merit or demerit and retains its integrity as it transmigrates through time. Indeed, Shakyamuni said that 'the range of karma' is one of five 'imponderables'; an ordinary human mind is unable to encompass it without self-delusion ('madness and distress').

Shakyamuni's enlightenment was principally concerned with release from samsara and it was in seeing how karma (action) arose and how it generates the results that keep the cycle of samsara turning that he became free (Sk. moksha).

I sought the builder of this house of suffering, but I was unable to find him. The samsaric wheel revolved around and around and I again and again repeated lives of suffering. However, you, builder of the house, I see you now. You shall not build this house again. All the rafters are broken and the ridgepole is destroyed. My mind takes leave of craving and attains nirvana.1

It was in 'seeing' (Sk. vidya) that Shakyamuni became free, just as it is in not seeing (ignorance, Sk. avidya) that we remain bound to samsara and continually create the karma (action) that keeps us in bondage. Karma is not overcome by more action, even if it is of a 'better quality' - by trying to be 'good', for example. This keeps us creating karma that leads to the maintenance of samsara, although with a pleasant result. What matters is our aspiration, purpose, intention, volition or will (Sk. cetana). It is by 'knowing' things as they really are, that karma ceases, and we become free, transcending samsara forever. The very fact that we are living now means that we have not yet 'seen', understood or attained awakening or enlightenment. So far we have been 'living in vain'.

The Abhidharma describes wholesome or unwholesome karma. Wholesome 'deliberate actions' (Sk. kusala karma) bring a pleasant result, while unwholesome (Sk. akusala) actions bring a painful result. But both pleasure and pain bind us to samsara; indeed, the obverse of pleasure is further suffering when pleasure is not repeated or reinforced.

All actions keep us turning through the cycle of births and deaths and, depending on their character, tend to weigh us in complex ways that, nevertheless, bring about an inexorable result. Examples of painful results (Sk. vipaka) are birth in hell, as fighting spirits or as beasts, where life is largely brutal and instinctive. Happy births are births in heaven, or as a god, where life is intelligent and gentle. Such births may be long and enjoyable but all of them eventually exhaust the supporting karmic cause and, then, the cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death commences all over again.

The Buddha Dharma does not associate karma with any kind of determinism because it has ascertained that the process of becoming (Sk. bhavana) is complex and many faceted. Our personality, so to speak, is an illusory construct that is made up of five 'bundles' (Sk. skandhas). These, in turn, are comprised of rising and falling constituents (Sk. dharmas). Although our environment and so-called physical conditions are the result of karma, and although the mental afflictions (bonno, Sk. kleshes) also may arise as a reslt of karma, we are able to respond in wholesome ways to these pressures and these factors of our existence. No one can say, 'My karma made me do it.' For example, the dharma of enmity (Sk. upanaha) may arise in our hearts but we do not need to act on it; in fact, we ought not.

Good behaviour is the karma that brings us to human birth, but not liberation. A human birth is auspicious because it is full of potential for both salvation and destruction: it consists of the suffering and brutality of beasts, the misery of hell, the antipathies of the fighting spirits, the intelligence and love of the gods and the pleasures of heaven. Indeed, it is always possible - for those who have a conceptual need to do so - to de-mythologise the 'six realms of existence' as signs of the reality of human life.

By the way, as we have already seen, actions that are carried out with a view to securing birth in the the Pure Land result in a provisional birth in a 'pure land' that is not the true Pure Land, since, as Shan tao said, the true Pure Land transcends the karmic causes of existence and is synonymous with nirvana. The Pure Land is not a heavenly realm, since both of these forms of existence remain part of samsara and are the result of wholesome karma - especially the four brahama viharas: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

As well as being equivocal, human birth is also rare. Because of the complexity of karmic causes and the vast mass of life itself in the biosphere, human birth is a 'hit-and-miss' affair. It is traditionally felt that we can only be sure of human birth if we practice the five precepts perfectly. This is only possible for a 'stream-winner' (Sk. srotapanna) or someone at the first stage of a bodhisattva (Sk. pramudita, 'the stage of joy') and both of these people have awakened 'faith' (shin, Sk. shraddha or prasanna) or the 'enlightening mind' (bodai shin, Sk. bodhi citta).

We are likely to receive human birth at most, only rarely in any kalpa, unless we have 'entered the stream of enlightenment'. A kalpa is the time between the creation and total destruction of a universe, and these are being constantly created and destroyed, on a time-scale that is vast beyond imagining. That is why Shinran is so conscious of the importance of this life as an opportunity to become free of samsara. It is the reason that he finds the fact of Honen's appearance to be inexpressibly fortuitous and the risk of having 'passed another life in vain' to be so horrifying.

Unless we are really aware of the nature of karma, it is very hard to understand the sense of urgency and, at times, desperation that marks the spiritual quest of people in Shinran's time. Indeed, there are many in our own time, who feel the way he did. The significance of finding the 'way out of samsara' is acutely urgent and crucially important, for who would want to go on suffering for ever and ever in many rounds of birth and death?

Honen's wonderful message - the message that brings Shinran and us such joy and relief when we first encounter it - is expressed succinctly in the words of the twentieth-century Jodo Shinshu sage Zuiken:

Shoji izubeki michi wa
       Namuamidabutsu

The way
       out of samsara -
              Namu-amida-butsu.


1: BD, p. 31.

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