Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 40

Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.

The Question of 'Licensed Evil'

This is one of those verses in the collection of Shinran Shonin's wasan that evokes so many themes and operates at so many levels that it could easily serve as the basis for a volume of considerable size before its potential riches are exhausted. I would like to touch upon just one theme in our consideration of it at this time. Needless to say, it is difficult to avoid some questions that it raises first.

At preliminary glance this verse seems to be suggesting that the virtue that is transferred from Amida Buddha to the person who entrusts himself in nembutsu is in direct proportion to the amount of karmic evil generated by the follower. Indeed, in a marginal note, Shinran indicates just that. The virtue transferred by Amida is an antidote to one's personal karmic evil. In other words, the deeper our karmic evil, the greater Amida Buddha's virtue.

It seems to be the case that faith is an ever deepening process whereby the more one dwells in the light or wisdom that is Amida Buddha the more shadowy and irrelevant one's own reality becomes. That is to say that - as one lives in the light - one's own 'virtue' is seen as nothing but karmic evil and of absolutely no value on the way. So 'the greater the ice, the greater the virtue' indicates the overwhelming of the self by the Power of the Primal Vow.

It is, however, possible to turn this adage into a kind of tantric kundalini concept, whereby it is suggested that one's karmic evil is a force which is transmuted into a virtuous force by the power of the Primal Vow. Apart from being a highly mystical concept and a tantalising one, it seems to me that it does not really accord with Shinran's own account of his life of nembutsu. On the contrary, towards the end of his life, he writes of his conflicting passions (Sk. klesha) as being at once powerless and persistent.

In any case, what I want to explore in more detail derives from the fact that the verse was composed in 1248, several decades after the Pure Land community led by Honen Shonin had responded to clerical criticism that his interpretation of the dharma was inciting his followers to antinomian (lawless) behaviour. Considering the threatening nature of the clerical critique and the fact that Honen and his leading followers - including Shinran - had responded by giving an undertaking that followers should not say that, 'since the nembutsu path has no precepts, drinking liquor and eating meat are to be encouraged, the observance of precepts is to be regarded as sundry self-power practice, and believers of the Primal Vow should have no fear of committing evil acts,'1 it is interesting that Shinran should put his brush to paper and compose a verse that lends itself to an antinomian interpretation. It seems to encourage evil actions (Sk. karma) as a way of inducing greater virtue.

Nevertheless, as the Tanni Sho points out, our evil is not the focus of our concern, for:

Since you have even a heart that presumes upon the Primal Vow, the mind of entrusting yourself to the Other Power becomes all the more firmly settled.2

From my point of view, I find it hard to believe that someone who genuinely trusted in and knew the power of the Vow would want to presume upon it, knowing that in the eyes of the world at large, it will be brought into disrepute. And how disrespectful and disingenuous would such behaviour be? And how mean-spirited and unappreciative of the inestimable virtue of the Primal Vow as it works within one's life?

Needless to say, Shinran never wavered in his belief that

We should not express outwardly signs of wisdom, goodness, or diligence, for inwardly we are filled with falsity.3

This reading, which he gives to Shan-tao's writing, made a very deep impression on Shinran, for he uses it not only in the passage from the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that I have quoted here, but also on at least two other occasions; and it is again quoted by Yuien-bo in the Tanni Sho. Rennyo Shonin also castigated individuals who tried to appear to be a 'goody two shoes'. On one occasion he suggests that even if we are called cattle theives we should not put on airs of virtue.

None of this, however, is to suggest that deliberate bad behaviour is the order of the day. In 1252, just four years after completing the Koso Wasan which contains the verse we are considering here, Shinran had cause to warn against 'licensed evil' (zoaku muge), suggesting that 'those who wish to abandon the world' would not behave in such a way. His warning seems obvious.

Yet, in using the phrase 'abandon the world', Shinran is drawing upon an idea that was common in east Asian Buddhism. A person who left 'the world' was considered to have abandoned the conventional morality which supported the social order: family responsibilities, earning a living to contribute to society, obedience to parents; as well as respect for secular authority and religion. People who became a monk or a nun entered a higher order of existence which transcended common standards of decency and, as bodhisattvas, did so for the sake of themselves and others. Shinran clearly supports this view of abandoning the world:

The rule of the person who renounces worldly life is not to pay homage to the king, not to pay homage to one's parents, not to serve the six kinds of blood-relatives, and not to worship spirits.4

On the face of it, then, Shinran seems to be suggesting that we abandon worldly virtue for a higher order. Needless to say, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho he quotes extensively from the Mappo Tomyo Ki of Saicho and demonstrates that - in the age of 'decadent dharma', which we live in now - the Buddhist order (Sk. sasana), consisting of monks, nuns and male and female householders, has fallen into empty superficiality; and that all precepts and rules of conduct have faded even from memory; even that someone who practiced them should be viewed with suspicion.

Although the Shinshu kyodan tended to fall back upon the old Confucian preferences of lay Pure Land movements, Shinran, in fact, saw the emergence of new order in human relations. We are not 'of the world' and yet, the guiding principles of the Buddhist community have also fallen away. Shinran described a new way of life in relation to both the religious and the secular realms; a way of being that was hammered out for him in the harsh realities of life as he knew it:

I am now neither a monk nor one in worldly life.5

A person who knows the unspeakably wonderful sense of liberation that Amida's Primal Vow brings knows only a sense of indebtedness, gratitude - these are lame words for something that becomes so organic; so deep. To my mind, it is a kind of 'generosity of spirit'. A nembutsu follower of Shinran's dispensation draws upon this sensibility to find the terms for their own relationships with society at large and with the individuals who move in and out of their lives. They eschew shows of piety along with deceitful and sanctimonious self-righteousness, but they also live - in their hearts - in the light of the Pure Realm, having emotionally abandoned the world.


1: HIC, Mattosho, 1978.

2: CWS, p.672.

3: CWS, p.84.

4: CWS, p.274.

5: CWS, p. 289.

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