Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 41

'Among my disciples, who will give themselves to doing evil,
Wrong views and self-indulgence will flourish,
And in the last age they will destroy my teaching.'
Thus Shakyamuni foretells in the Lotus Face Sutra.

Wrong Views

The Lotus Face Sutra (renge-men-kyo) is one of a genre that includes a description of the way that the dharma will decline over time. As we have already seen, the east Asian concept of the dharma-ending age represents a compounding of the 'age of the five defilements', in which Shakyamuni appeared, by the natural attrition that occurs with the passage of time. This verse is simply a re-affirmation of this theme. It also reminds us of the apparent decadence of the sangha in Shinran Shonin's own experience. We can see evidence of this in his extensive use, in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, of the Candle of the Latter Dharma by Saicho.

The Lotus Face Sutra uses the traditional metaphor of the dharma as a raft to carry the disciple across the stream of birth-and-death to the other shore of enlightenment. In fact the analogy usually seems to be associated with the idea that the dharma is just a raft and, when enlightenment has been reached, it can be left behind. Naturally, the analogy does not really work very well in the context of the Mahayana, which recognises the ultimate identity of opposites. The sutra changes the analogy somewhat by describing how 'vicious monks who violate the precepts... will live in pleasure and do various evil deeds.' This viciousness is analogous to sinking the raft so that it does not reach the other shore.

This verse also emphasises the corruption of views (jaken), the phrase that begins the second line in this verse. This gives a clear impression that the source of the damaging self-indulgence is wrong views. Before the adherents to a system of thought can begin to act in a corrosive way, their thinking itself must first of all become corrupt. After all, the Dharmapada says,

Everything is led by the mind; the mind is the leader; everything is made up of mind...1

As one might expect, there is a plethora of 'wrong views' that lead to mistaken actions. Both wrong views and mistaken behaviour are natural to the human condition. In the main, the dharma recognises ninety-five erroneous doctrines. Most of these are ideas that flourished in the time of Shakyamuni and most of them fall on either side of the Middle Way, by means of which Shakyamuni became enlightened.

However, the Mahayana seems to be very conscious that an especially corrosive influence is a disregard of the reality of the law of karma. Obviously, the way we interpret events and experiences has a profound influence on the way that we respond to them. Since the law of karma is the basic interpretation of experience within the scheme of the Buddha Dharma, any neglect of its importance will lead us in the direction of complacency or fundamentally flawed interpretations of the dharma.

When we were surveying the Jodo Wasan we explored the way that karma had become a critical problem for people at the time of Shakyamuni's birth. The Upanishads, which laid the ground-work for some of the existential concerns that seem to have inspired Shakyamuni to take up his Great Renunciation in pursuit of the Truth, are burdened with karmic anxiety. In any case, the basic meaning of 'karma' is, simply, 'action'.

In those terms, Shakyamuni's great break-through was to understand that 'karma' was action in an ethical, rather than a ritual sense. As everyone would know, until Shakyamuni's enlightenment, it was generally believed that favourable birth would eventuate for those who observed the rituals of the Vedic tradition properly. This kind of 'good karma' would result in a favourable birth. Because the Buddha Dharma sought to revise the ritualistic doctrine, it can be described as Vedantic, since it brings an end to the sway of the Vedas. Indeed, it seems that Shakyamuni, in his youth, was perplexed by ritual. It does not seem to have been logical to him.

This questioning led him to understand that action (karma) was essentially ethical in scope. Shakyamuni seems to have even been prepared to ridicule ritual and we know that he often instructed the Brahmins (the priestly caste) in ways that would incline them towards a good life as the essential thing - rather than by having recourse to astrology and religious observance. Shinran too, in his teaching, insists that it is not the 'ritual' of the nembutsu that results in ultimate nirvana, but the virtue received in the transference of shinjin.

Although action (Sk. karma) comes to be associated with behaviour from the time of Shakyamuni, it still leads inexorably to a range of different kinds of birth. Shakyamuni's way out of samsara involves the ultimate transcendence of birth-and-death but in all respects, the law of karma is organic; it cannot be avoided. This sense of the inexorable nature of karma - or, so it seems to me, at any rate - gives a powerful impetus to the maintenance of those actions, which will deliver desirable outcomes. In the Buddha Dharma, I imagine that the most basic favourable outcome is the initial entry into samadhi, or the first stage of a bodhisattva, bodhi-citta, which, according to T'an-luan and Shinran takes the form of faith.

When the law of karma ceases to be the strong motivation that it originally was and its importance and remorselessness is lost sight of, one would expect that an understanding of liberation (Sk. moksha) must also become debased. Without knowing that we are enslaved to destructive habits, it is difficult to see how we can be moved to want to transcend them. What person would seek to escape from prison without first realising that they were behind bars?

My understanding of the Buddhist perpective in the matter of the law of karma is that it is not a question of a simple idea of reincarnation. Such a process is specifically denied - certainly in the Abhidharma. Instead, the dharma proposes, as everyone knows, a complex and evanescent structure of both personal identity and a set of wider, more universal repercussions for actions. Each specific act does not bring some specific result for an individual, down the line of time, as it were. Instead, karma is initially somewhat inchoate. Like a ripple in a pond, it seems to be both spatial and temporal. This lends an acute sense of its significance for us as responsible beings; such breadth can even engender a sense of panic.

Because of its subtle nature, the important thing is this sense of being captured and suffocated by the pain of existence, resulting in a yearning to be free of it. It is not necessary, or so it seems to me, to treat the law of karma in a literal, albeit superficial or rigid way. It is not so much something that we neccessarily 'believe' in. Rather, the doctrine that surrounds it merely gives form to an intuitive presentiment, which in itself is the more acute and accurate part of the concept.

In any case, perhaps it does not matter how we choose to interpret the law of karma, whether in subtle or simplistic ways, the significant thing about it is the impetus it gives us to solve the dilemma and to find freedom. But when the sense of capture or loss that it portends is lost, then the entire reason for pursuing the path begins to break down. It is, for example, inconceivable that Shakyamuni would have given up his palace life if he had not encountered a sick man, an old man and a cadaver - the sources of his foreboding for the welfare of humankind.


1. Dharmapada, 1; Buddha-Dharma, Numata Center, 2003, p.428

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