Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 56

Setting aside his extensive work on the Nirvana Sutra,
Our teacher, Master Tao-ch'o,
Entrusted himself to Other Power - the working of
      the Primal Vow -
And urged the multitudes of the world of the five defilements
      to do so also.

The World of No Buddha

There are two elements to Tao-ch'o's belief that the world had entered the third dharma-age (mappo, Sk. pas cimadharma). The first was that, due to the inexorable passage of time, Shakyamuni's influence had waned and become tarnished by the human frailty of those who were its custodians. This sense of unease is first found in T'an-luan; Tao-ch'o just developed it further. Needless to say, the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang - born exactly forty years after Tao-ch'o - was moved by the same sensibility. His writing is touched by his sadness that confusion had entered the dharma.

The other perspective that arose in T'an-luan's thinking - but developed by Tao-ch'o - was that the passage of time had also brought about the dawning of mappo, the age of degenerate dharma, and with it a coarsenning in the human capacity to practice the dharma well. With these two things in mind, Tao-ch'o suggested that the Buddha, in his all-knowing wisdom, had provided options that are suited to the needs of people living in such difficult times. Adapting these developing ideas, Tao-ch'o coined two terms to describe the choices we may make if we are genuine followers of the Buddha-dharma. The first is the 'gate of the path of sages' (shodomon) and the alternative is the 'Pure Land gate' (jodomon).

It is interesting that Tao-ch'o uses moderate language in delineating these two paths and never insists that the two ways are necessarily mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, he points out that, while the choice is ours to make, the Buddha himself had predicted that - in the age of degenerate dharma - human-nature would become so corroded that the path of sages would lose its relevance. We now live in a time during which the Buddha is absent from this world of endurance (Sk. sahaloka). Instead, the five defilements (Sk. panca-kasaya) have become ubiquitous.

The 'five defilements' are developed from a straightforward empirical observation of the world that Tao-ch'o experienced. They represent a list of conditions that are the antithesis of the way in which a world graced by the presence of the Buddha is described.

As we might expect, the kasayas describe the lack of mental clarity and general well-being that one would anticipate in a world that is not under the guidance of the Buddha. The first of the five defliements - that prevail in both Tao-ch'o's time, and ours - is unclear views; heterodoxies that ignore the law of cause and effect. The quasi-Buddhist 'secular', or 'protestant' movement is one such.

Then there is the fact that the kleshas (bonno), afflicting passions, have become intractable. The third defilement may give us pause because it refers to the utter degradation of the physical world, resulting in an increase in mental instability and bodily disease. Following from this is the gradual shortening of the life-span of beings. These two final 'defilements' have arisen because of the violence and exploitation that reign unchecked without the guidance of the Buddha.

Clearly, we must decide for ourselves whether we live in the latter world of the latter days. Many people would contest the assertion that 'mappo' is a realistic concept. They see it as unduly pessimistic and negative. Such people usually make value judgements about change, believing that there is some kind of inexorable evolution and progress inherent in existence. However, I take the traditional Buddhist view, outlined in the Abhidharma Kosha Bhasyam of Vasubandhu, which insists that change is the fundamental principle of existence and that circumstances wax and wane - as greed, anger and delusion gradually cause the complete deterioration and collapse of one order before another cycle can begin. There is in every æon a 'golden age' followed by an age of deterioration and collapse.

In any case we must avoid a view of mappo that is satisfied with mere value judgements. To do that is to miss the point of the concept altogether. Its usefulness extends only to serving as a factor in the choices we must make; especially about that most important choice of all: our ultimate destiny. To this end, we really do not need to do more than to consider the second kasaya, klesha (bonno) - afflicting passions. In the course of these essays we have discussed them often, since a frank acknowledgement of the prevailing role that they play in our internal reality is an integral part of the awakening, which is associated with shinjin.

Tao-ch'o assiduously avoids pitting the path of sages and the Pure Land way against each other. He does not suggest that one way is right and the other is wrong; he does not characterise one as orthodox and the other as heresy. His main work, the An-le-chi is, more than anything, his personal apologia - or so it seems to me, at any rate. The choice we must make is ours alone. Yet, we must be frank and personally honest in making this choice, remembering that, of all great human capacities, the genius for self-delusion is the most subtle. However, if we do not accept the mappo thesis, then there can be nothing to stop us from pursuing the path of sages.

On the other hand, frank introspection and an honest appraisal of our inner life - and the world that we inhabit - may lead us to a different conclusion. In that case we may decide that the turpitude associated with the age of mappo is, indeed, the prevailing environment in which we live. What is needed then is a different courage: the forthrightness that is the special quality of those who turn away from themselves and walk alone towards the light: the wisdom of Amida Buddha.

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