Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 10

With life-defilement, the untimely end occurs in a moment,
And both forms of recompense - oneself and one's environment -            perish.
Rejecting right and turning to wrong prevails,
So that people senselessly injure each other.

Turning from the True

Like the last verse, these lines are also inspired by Shan-tao's Fa-shih-tsan (hoji san). It refers, as before, to the strengthening impact of the five defilements with the passage of time. In Shakyamuni's time, his presence and his practical dharma were powerful resources for the amelioration of the stresses that were engendered by the five defilements.

One of these defilements is 'life-defilement'. It refers to what can only be described as the exhaustion of the life-force. I always think that a good analogy for this concept is the way that plants that are propagated from cuttings may gradually weaken as generation after generation of new stock is produced. I am not a botanist and do not understand why this happens.

Roses, for example, are widely cherished for the variety of characteristics that is displayed in their blooms. When a new variety is bred, either by accident, deliberate genetic manipulation or by cross-species pollination, new plants are then propagated by using buds from the original successful hybrid plant that results from one of these processes. In this way countless replicas of the original plant can be produced almost indefinitely. This process can go on for generations - indeed, centuries. A popular damask rose in Adelaide came from original stock that was brought to England from Damascus during the crusades.

Many of the domestic roses in Adelaide have descended from individual plants that were brought to the settlement nearly 200 years ago. However amongst these 'heritage roses' there are signs that some stock is sinking into a degenerative phase. Growth becomes weak and the plants begin more easily to fall prey to disease. This pattern of degeneration is highly variable, but, when it is evident, it reminds me of the Buddhist concept of 'life-degeneration' that coincides with the decline of the kalpa.

It seems to me that life-degeneration represents the outcome of karma that was poorly informed, during an earlier time of declining dharma. In this way the degeneration of the dharma compounds itself. Not only individual lives degenerate; the environment, which supports the life, also goes into decline. The key thing is the sense of the exhaustion, the dulling, of the experience of living.

Essentially, these ideas represent inner dispositions and a darkenning of awareness: a change in the sense of the locus of reality from the internal life - the life of thought - to externalities. It is a growing sense of futility and oppression of the spirit, so to speak. As the first century Greek thinker Epictetus pointed out, we see the world around us in a way that is informed by our expectations - by the meaning that we choose to give to events. We are constantly interpreting the things we see, hear and experience - and we develop habits that colour their significance for us. He would have warned us against the current trends.

It is quite remarkable that the symptoms of the dharma-ending age seem so patently plain in our time! It is generally accepted as self-evident, these days, that the most desirable aspects of social and personal aspiration are growth and the acquisition of goods. Only very few people genuinely see these tendencies as destructive and wrong-headed. Such people are often characterised as maladjusted or 'losers'. Yet, it is in these emphases - the sense that external, material things are genuine 'reality' - that we find the source of the viciousness of life. We are primarily measured by property, appearance and status. The most important things are our possessions. This attitude causes intolerable stresses that are markedly evident in modern social discourse.

In the belief that the 'only reality' is the external-material we see the deflection of the dharma from a mainly inner locus ('all things are led by the mind,' as we read in the Dharmapada) to a concern with superficialities, like status, appearance, behaviour, ethics, political activism and demeanour. These things are being elevated to matters of first importance, making the dharma appear burdensome instead of liberating. Shinran Shonin draws our attention to this trend in several places, including the wasan, as we shall see later.

When one reads the old classics of both east and west it is remarkable that they are invariably concerned with the big questions: Who am I? Why do I live? What is the purpose of life? What should I do? It is extraordinary that people who are now seriously preoccupied with these concerns are often diagnosed as depressed because of the painful and obsessive demands that they often make upon us.

In any case, these questions have now been resolved in the direction of consumption and we no longer enjoy discussing them. Our lives are now the very antithesis of the ancient axioms, like Socrates' aphorism 'The unexplored life is not worth living' and the Oracle's 'Nothing too much'. Modern externalities have even eclipsed the budding existentialist metaphysics which played such a crucial role in impelling me, just thirty years ago, into the nembutsu way.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that these current trends necessarily have eschatological significance. Of course, if population growth, consumption and the exhaustion of our natural resources continues as it is now, it is hard to see how the human race can survive. Nevertheless, I have lived long enough to know that the practice of forecasting the future by extrapolation from present conditions is almost never reliable. Hand in hand with the growing assumptions about the triumph of materialism and technology there are ever more strident voices warning us to take care. There is every sign that these voices are beginning to be heard.

Even so, many ominous threats now hang over us. Probably one of the most significant is the way that technology and medicine are providing the tools for the control and management of people. Our moods, emotions and even our thinking are becoming the subject of external manipulation. I wonder if this trend is a foreshadowing of the way things really will develop in future. These themes are a common subject of science-fiction.

That, perhaps, is where any analysis of future likelihoods will need to remain. Few of us have the wisdom to understand the present, let alone the future. The thing that is of most urgent significance for us is how we feel about our present existence. After all, the age of dying dharma is with us already. The future of mankind is quite as likely to be as bright as dark; it is full of potential either way. For many of us, however, deepening darkness seems inexorable. We cannot help but turn our focus and our concerns to the pressing needs of the moment.

Out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this sutra and maintain it in the world for a hundred years or more."1

When we survey our diminishing resources, the burgeoning human population, the trend to the external gross-material life, the supremacy of the acquisition of goods over inner light, developing technologies to control individual and collective humanity and the substitution of consumption for effort, one thing stands out for me. It is what Professor Hisao Inagaki calls 'spritual starvation'. It is the way we are being deprived of the joy of the inner life by both our circumstances and our personal choices. The big questions are being shouted down by the demands of the modern workplace: the media; marketing hyperbole; the prurient gossip and hysteria that passes for news; the petty hatreds and bickering of political, religious and juridical adversaries; the constant barrage of fraudelent claims; promises of constant progress and evolution; and the stresses of overcrowding.

The upshot of this is that many people are being sapped of the adrour and the joi de vivre that is the natural birthright of all living things. Amid the dreary affluence of the first world, bought largely at the expense of the majority poor, there is growing misery and querulousness. Fear stalks the land as we try to hide suffering, old age and death from view. It is as though the age of declining dharma is a regression into the womb-like security of the palace that sheltered Siddhartha Gautama from facing the truths that would press him to seek the truth. How remarkable that, in this way, 'turning away from the true and clinging to the twisted prevails' so palpably in our time.

The 'true' lies within. It is deep dharma that is speechless, matchless and void: the heart of life - the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Yet, to the world at large this inner world is unreal. Materiality, the illusion that we will live forever, be forever young, prevails - blind to the levelling and inescapable reality that is death. I think that it is in this denial of the interior life, the life of the spirit - emptiness (Sk. shunyata), or dharma body, to use a more Buddhist term - that our dread and existential crisis resides.

Conditions are such that few of us will recognise our spiritual hunger, but for those who do the bright wisdom of infinite life is waiting.

Namu-amida-butsu


1: The Buddha, Larger Sutra, 47, tr. Inagaki, p. 312.

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