Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 33

Full of compassion for sentient beings of this defiled world,
Mahasthamaprapta encourages us to say the nembutsu;
He embraces the people of shinjin
And brings them into the Pure Land.

The Defiled World

Jokuse is translated here as 'defiled world'. However, it is obviously a nuanced term because the Ryukoku Translation Series, on at least one occasion, chooses 'corrupt' instead of 'defiled'. It seems to me that it is a good idea to use 'corrupt' because it reminds us that jokuse is an incremental concept. The world in which Shakyamuni appeared is already described as defiled in the Larger Sutra but, as time passes and Mappo deepens, defilement does too. Defilement turns to decay and corruption.

As we have already seen in the process of exploring earlier verses, especially those in the volume on the Dharma Masters, the world is defiled in five ways. Hence, 'defiled world' is sometimes the world - or age - of gojoku - five defilements (Sk. panca kasaya). In the Sutra of Heroic Advance (Sk. surangama sutra) we read that Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva was taught the nembutsu samadhi by Amida Buddha. He then resolved that 'in this world' he would 'embrace followers of the nembutsu and make them enter the Pure Land'.

I understand that the Surangama Sutra actually laid much of the groundwork for Mahayana meditative practice and we can see from this story about Mahasthamaprapta's resolve that it is other-regarding in emphasis. In other words, from the Mahayana perspective, any attainment is of benefit not only for the practicer but all other beings as well. The upshot of Mahasthamaprapta's realisation of the nembutsu samadhi was not just the success of his own yoga, it also empowered him to benefit others. He was enabled thereby the embrace others and take them to the Pure Land.

Mahasthamaprapta (Possessed of Great Power) Bodhisattva is essentially the embodiment of Amitabha Buddha, for he is light, or wisdom (Sk. prajna). In the Pure Land Sutras and mandalas, Amida Buddha is flanked by Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. The latter Bodhisattava is on Amida Buddha's right and is his principal attendant. He is 'closer' to Amida Buddha, so to speak, since light (wisdom) is Amida Buddha's principal characteristic.

As we think about this more carefully, we begin to realise that we would expect Mahasthamaprapta to exemplify the essential perspective of the Buddha Dharma which is 'insight' (Sk. vipasyana) - seeing things, as they are. This seems to be a very difficult concept to convey because this 'seeing' is devoid of prejudice and value-judgements. It is the active aspect of prajna, which is compassion: to see is to understand, to understand is to become the other. Mahasthamaprapta, sees 'this world' as it is, understands it, and becomes its constituents, bringing the nembutsu to light and by the power of this compassion bearing them to nirvana.

I believe that we need to be very careful about fully-realised compassion in the context of the Buddha Dharma. Amida's (or Mahasthamaprapta's) wisdom-compassion becomes us and the power of this compassion takes us to the other shore of nirvana in the Pure Land... but the obverse is not true. We, foolish beings, do not become Buddha until our birth in the Pure Land. This is because the 'defiled world' is not just an objectified abstraction; it is our reality. We are inextricably engaged by it and in it; we are enmeshed and integral to it. We are defilement and we are corruption. The defiled world nurtures us and we contribute to it in exactly the same way as food becomes us and we produce waste.

We will get a better idea of the nature of this 'feedback loop' when the time comes for us to contemplate the last section of the Shozomatsu Wasan. Here we will discover that, despite all this, 'mind-nature is, from the beginning, pure'. In fact, seeing things as they truly are also involves ultimately going beyond even conditions like the defiled world. This is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

In the world of the dharma's dying days, mappo, the defiled and corrupt nature of our enviroment has deepened. While Shakyamuni spoke to people living in the 'world of the five defilements', where greed, anger and delusion are the seed of existence, our world is the era in which greed, anger and delusion have themselves become desirable. Perhaps, it is time, then, to explore the 'five defilements' that have become so entrenched and seek to understand what it is that Mahsthamaprapta sees when he understands us as we are.

Of course, there is a question as to how significant the five defilements are to us and what they prove, if anything. It seems to me, however, that Shinran Shonin created a precedent in that regard. He did not consider them to be mere symbols but he saw, both within himself and the events of the world around him, clear proof of the Age of Mappo. If we are to take Shinran seriously, then it would seem worthwhile to explore his ideas carefully.

The first corruption is 'defilement of time', (Sk. kalpa kasaya). This suggests a breakdown in the good order of things, whereby disease, famine and war begin to prevail. It seems to me that all of these things are, indeed, increasing in magnitude. I understand that the 1939-45 war around the world represented a continuing increase in the total number of people maimed and killed in any given conflict. Although no single event like it has occurred since then, the current aggregate capacity for its own destruction is such that humanity could easily bring civilization to an end altogether. Given human propensities, it is very hard to believe that such a catastrophe can be avoided indefinitely. Certainly this capacity, now readily to hand, is in itself evidence of mappo. Furthermore the continuing growth in population densities to unprecedented levels means that the cost of human life in the event of famine and other catastrophes is vastly greater than at any earlier time in history.

Drsti kasaya is the second defilement and suggests the corruption of 'views'. It seems to me, for example, that the current assumption, that the unending growth of per capita consumption represents the truth of social and individual well-being, is extremely dubious. Nevertheless, all economic theory and government policy tacitly accepts this idea as true. What makes this more difficult is that it is hard to see how this belief can be reversed; or how there is any way to avoid what seems to me to be the inevitable result: that the resources of the earth will soon be laid waste, along with most of its species of life. We also need look no further than the stark evidence of the decline in allegiance to the Buddha Dharma. Obviously, many people are finding the truths that the Dharma conveys to be unpalatable and are abandoning it.

Another striking fact of drsti kasaya is thes way that religions of both east and west have become utterly corrupted. Why, for example, did European religion suddenly undergo a metamorphosis around 1000 CE from a religion of peace and love to one that launched the Crusades? How did it happen that the Buddha Dharma, which inspired the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (in the third century BCE) to renounce violence against all living beings, managed to become a source of training and ethics for warriors? Why is that that for the last 500 years one of the principal causes of violent conflict has been religion?

The third defilement (Sk. klesha kasaya) may be interpreted as 'moral turpitude' but, in fact, it has more to do with a decline in an expectation that actions bring karmic results. In this respect, no one could argue that a belief that one may expect a future outcome from current behaviour has not declined. Because fewer and fewer people believe in an after-life, most people hold a sceptical view about the future results of our current actions. More significantly, it seems that there is less willingness to forgo present pleasure for future reward. Hence, for example, there has been a decline in the high regard that the practice of celibacy once enjoyed.

Sattva kasaya, the fourth defilement, is more about moral turpitude. In this regard it is interesting to note that law seems to be gradually replacing ethics as the rule governing behaviour. It is unusual to find people who act on the basis of a self-imposed ethical or moral standard. Indeed, it is often very risky to do so, since kind people, for example, leave themselves open for exploitation. It gives us pause. In any case, I have often found that kindness is regarded as weakness.

The fifth defilement is ayus kasaya, the deterioration of life itself. Although most people living in affluent societies do have a long life-span, the widespread extinction of species is a well-attested fact. What is more, since about 20% of human beings alive today eat less than is needed for proper nutrition, a simple calculation would make it clear that never have there been so many people, so close to starvation at any single time.

Many people will naturally want to argue against my comments about the current relevance of the five defilements. My views are purely speculative. It is very difficult to quantify these matters in a really convincing way. All I am really trying to demonstrate is that it is possible, as it was for Shinran, to find evidence in the world around us for a general and exponential tendency towards the corruption of our natural context. However, I do, in any case, question the popular assumption that humanity is necessarily on some kind of path of inexorable progress, or that 'evolution' suggests a constant process of improvement. It really only attests to the truth of the Buddhist 'dharma seal', which is that everything is always changing (Sk. anitya).

It can also be argued that my comments tend to deprive people of hope; that they are gloomy and depressing. However, it is interesting to note that Shinran could also have been accused of being 'negative' about the world he lived in. To suggest this is to forget that his analysis of the relevance of societal conditions as a way to affirm the reality of the age of mappo was, for him, ultimately a source of joy. It testified to the truth of the Buddha Dharma and to the awesome power of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

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