Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 46

Although there are initially nine grades of beings,
Because the birth attained through Amida's pure Primal Vow
Is birth that is no-birth,
The Pure Land is free of such discrimination.

Vertical Distinctions

You will remember that Shaykamuni proposed a new version of the ancient caste system in India. Whereas people were assesed on the basis of birth into a particular stratum of society, and one's future destiny was determined by ritual, Shakyamuni sought to correct this idea by teaching that behaviour (one's actions - karma) determined one's future destiny. In this life human beings could be graded on the basis of nobility (Sk. arya), which was determined by character and - in regard to the future - one's conduct concerning underlying principles of non-self (Sk. anatman), non-attachment and above all the mental attitude associated with the four 'divine' abodes (Sk. brahman vihara) equanimity, loving-kindness, pity and good-will.There are ten noble castes, the bodhisattva stages (Sk. bhumi), each of which is redolent with certain character traits. There are also castes of ordinary people (Sk. bombu, prthagjana). The Contemplation Sutra of our Pure Land tradition lists nine of these.

Karma often resembles what we know as ethical or moral behaviour. However, in my view morality is a seperate field of human endevour and it is not appropriate for it to be linked with the spiritual life. In the Buddha-dharma there are really three levels of conduct. At least, so it seems to me, having studied the Abhidharma and the (Hinayana) Vinaya earlier in my life. At one level, conduct is determined by wholesome and unwholesome actions. This is not really morality since actions are carried out with a view, not to outcomes within the secular realm in terms of social and personal consequences, but for the purpose of neutralising karma and moving - in stages - towards ultimate transcendence. This kind of karma is delineated in the Abhidharma tradition. It is especially focussed on the task of demolishing the illusion of self. The bodhisattva path is one of the behavioural structures that is associated with this same ethos.

Then, there is the second level of behaviour, much of which is the result of casuistry, case history and the desire to ensure that the Buddha-dharma supports human society - even though it is, in principle, concerned altogether with transcendence and not really interested in the need for social order as such. This is the ethos of the Vinaya tradition. Hence, the Vinaya is built upon case studies and explores the way in which adherants of the dharma can avoid scandal and disorder in society. Needless to say, the Vinaya includes the famous five precepts for lay followers. These were already in existence in Shakyamuni's time and are held in common with many religious traditions; they have universal significance. The ten commandments of Judaic traditions include the five precepts but have added other precepts of cultic significance, which are not relevant to the Buddha-dharma.

This level of conduct is interested in demeanour, rather than attitudes; in precedent, rather than karmic outcomes. In our Jodo Shinshu tradition the Rules of Conduct (okite) which govern our behaviour belong to this group. They were promulgated by a succession of decrees from Honen Shonin to Rennyo Shonin and include obedience to the law and religious tolerance. All Shinshu followers bind themselves to okite in the 'Statement of Received Understanding' (ryogemon) which we occasionally rehearse to remind ourselves of the basic principles of Shinshu.

The third level that I speak of consists of an overlapping of these two traditions and this tends to give the impression that the Buddha-dharma posits an ethical system. Indeed, karma based on the ten wholesome actions has a highly ethical flavour. However, it is not strictly ethical since it does not countenance ambiguity, complexity, exceptions, trangressions, reparation, forgiveness and all of the wondrous mix of concerns that make up a truly ethical system. Ethical systems must be, perforce, secular: their principal concern is with relations between individuals and groups. There are superb ethical systems that are available for us to engage with. In modern times Utilitarianism, which is based on the principal of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' is a thoroughly workable system. However, such ethical systems as that of K'ung-fu-tsu (Confucius) are undergoing important revivals today and there is a movement amongst conservative Australians to seek to adapt the Confucian system to modern liberalism, with an emphasis on family relations, loyalty, respect for others and so on.

The nine classes of ordinary human being that are listed in the Contemplation Sutra (the reference in this Wasan) represent a mature doctrine in which the Abhidharma and Vinaya ideals are to some extent inter-woven. In any case the highest person of the highest grade is someone who manifests the most useful behaviour (Sk. karma). The lowest person of the lowest grade is someone whose karma is appalling and completely beyond the pale for the purposes of moving towards useful karmic outcomes. The nine classes make up a set of vertical distinctions. The highest class, like a clear sky, is the most 'pure' (that is to say, having the brightest clarity of mind and action) and the lowest is dirt and clay.

The primal Vow of Amida Buddha is Primal (Sk. purva) precisely because it gives no weight to vertical distinctions based on conduct. It comes from the primordial wisdom-compassion; the realm of no action, no karma, that sees no distinctions and is the immanent reality that pervades all things. Since it is free of the limitations that arise from the calculation implicit in the realm of action, it is of unlimited power. It cannot ultimately be resisted. The nine classes of ordinary person lose the significance of their distinctions in the Pure Land; the characteristics of each group lose their value.


As to the phrase 'birth that is no-birth', Shinran reminds us in a footnote that it is birth outside the six courses (of samsara).

Persons of true and real shinjin are not born in the six courses or four forms of birth; hence "no-birth".'1

1: CWS, p. 372.

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