Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 38

The unhindered light filling the ten quarters,
Shines on the beings in the darkness of ignorance,
And unfailingly brings to attainment of nirvana
The person who realises the one thought-moment of joy.

Ignorance

Lobha, dvesha and moha; these are the three roots of evil. 'Lobha' is always yearning and wanting more than we have; 'dvesha' is aversion or hatred, a malevolent attitude towards what we have; and 'moha' is another word for the Sanskrit term 'avidya', ignorance. These three fundamental flaws, as it were, are the things that keep us from transcending samsara.

It is in consideration of these coöperative and conjoined characteristics that we can describe ourselves as being deluded. This is not the conventional delusion that bespeaks madness but it is a delusion of sanity. It is in not realising or being able to co-exist with the deep knowledge of how we are constructed; it is in not truly knowing that we are living in the world of illusion. We discussed these issues when we were thinking about the verse before the last. We see the world of illusion as stable, real and normative.

When we first meet the Buddha Dharma it can be quite threatening because we begin to realise that it calls the assumptions that we hold dear into question. I have already spoken of the way in which our modern culture is inextricably enmeshed in the three 'roots of evil', greed, anger and delusion. Greed (Sk. lobha), especially, is deliberately inflamed not only by modern marketing but also by political 'pork-barrelling' as candidates for our vote make promises that cater to our desires.

The dharma, however, calls these things directly into question. It constantly reminds us that nothing is permanent and that everything passes away. These are things which cause us intense discomfort. Even more remarkable is the idea that all of the things we accept as 'fact' are mere illusion. To get some sense of the truly challenging nature of this concept, just think of our pain, our loves, and joys. Are these all illusion? What about 'science' in which people speak matter-of-factly about unseen things, microbes, particle physics, the cosmos, the weather and the theory of everything; including evolution and genetics. Going furher still, what about the technological outcomes of scientific endevour? What about the healing of disease, useful machinery - like cars and washing machines - radio technology, phones, computers and television?

Almost all of us believe that, as a species we are advancing ever onwards and upwards. Any change that people want us to endure is frequently described as 'progress'; something we must never allow ourselves to get in the way of. The point is that the Buddha-dharma tells us without either apology or equivocation that all of this is illusion and will - all of it, every atom of it - pass away. Do we really believe this? In terms of my day to day living, my ready acceptance of new medical treatments, and constantly 'improving' technology, I certainly do not. If I really, viscerally, deeply accepted the dharma, I would not live as I do. Why do we work and strive, raise families and engage in other - or alternative - creative activities if we accept the dharma as true?

Of course, all of this will pass away; and, for most of us, very soon - when we die. The fact, however, that we do not actually live as though this were so, is one of the ways in which we are truly ignorant. Our ignorance attests to - and reinforces - our attachment to samsara. The dharma presents us with bitter-sweet options. Most people become seriously engaged in the pursuit of the dharma as they begin to sense something of the Four Noble Truths, seeing them as presenting an irresistible analysis of life as we experience it; teaching us that life is in some way profoundly disquieting, unsatisfactory and as inherently painful, full of suffering.

Gradually, we become enchanted by the Buddha's solutions to our existential plight. As we begin to practice some of his teachings, we discover the remarkable fact that it actually seems to deliver on its claims. We begin to trust it and rejoice in it. At last, we can give our assent to its propositions and take intellectual refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. At last we can begin to give, however hesitantly, some assent to the idea that the world that we know is certainly evanescent, though we may, for a while, baulk at any assertion that it it utterly illusory.

Are these developments in our spiritual life signs that our organic 'ignorance' - the pivotal flaw that keeps us attached to the dharma - is beginning to crumble? The answer that the Pure Land path gives to this is 'no'. 'We do not begin to chip away at the ignorant foundations of our existence until we can look into the light of the Buddha and trust the Primal Vow.'

The Buddha dharma has begun to attract the attention of many people who have a European religious background in the last two decades. Yet, the dharma is still not well-received because few, if any people, trust the Primal Vow. Ignorance will thus remain as steadfast as ever. Our recognition of the organic nature of ignorance (Sk. avidya) is only signified in the acceptance of shinjin because until that moment we remain inextricably bound to a sense of an isolated and enduring self.

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