Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 6

When sentient beings' life-span of tens of thousands of years,
Through a gradual decline of their karmic reward,
Decreased to twenty-thousand years,
The age came to be called the 'evil world of five defilements.'


Shinran Shonin here commences in earnest, the over-riding theme of the Shozomatsu Wasan - corrosion. His curious reference to this theory from a sutra that I only know as the Hike-kyo is a metaphor for the erosion of time; and, with it, human capacity and character. The same theory was taken up by Shan-tao in the Fa-shih-tsan which inspired the next three verses of the Shozomatsu Wasan. In the Shozomatsu Wasan, Shinran describes the corrosion that is associated with the passage of time, the spiritual erosion that blocks our capacity to accept Amida Buddha's entrusting heart.

Stature and durability corrode with time. Age shrivels living things and wears away even the hardest rocks. Erosion is the practical evidence of one of the principal themes of the Buddha Dharma: that all things are changing (Sk. sarva samskara anitya). Perhaps also what is generous becomes mean, what is expansive becomes pinched, the pure is tainted by exposure to contamination.

Of course, the dharma assures us that these processes can be reversed by following the path. The difficulty, however, in the age of the last dharma (mappo, Ch. ma-shih, Sk. pashkimakala) is that time has also eroded our proximity to Shakyamuni, the pure dharma has become tainted by the agglomeration of extraneous ideas and human passions and our links with it have become attenuated. It is rather like the way that static grows louder as we move away from the location of a radio transmitter. Eventually the signal is very faint - until it fades altogether. The noise of human greed, anger and delusion (Sk. moha, krodha & lobha) is the background static and it begins to drown out the sound of Shakyamuni's voice. This background noise also dominates our consciousness. The light of the Buddha becomes inconceivable and, when we look inside we see only afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas).

The terms 'tens of thousands of years' and 'twenty-thousand years' are not specific numbers but, as is often the case in early writing, imply relativities: from 'more' to 'less'. In the declining era of the current time-cycle (Sk. kalpa) we degenerate from universal existence to the particular, isolated, deluded individual. To my mind the proof of this lies in something to which I have alluded before. It is the difficulty in realising true compassion.

The capacity to be wholly at one with another, so that the resistance of our preconceptions, fears, anxieties, suspicions and self-referencing tendencies break down; so that we become free, fearless and open in a way that only prajna can generate... this capacity has become rare. In ordinary discourse the compassion that grows from the wisdom that is prajna has been cheapened and debased: people speak of compassion when they mean sentimentality, or kindness - or, even apathy.

Perhaps the overt and palpable suffering in the world has become so great that we cannot bear to look at it. We feel helpless and overwhelmed by the injustice, starvation and guile that seem to be so integral to life. While these have obviously been endemic human failings and suffering, they have become amplified. The point is that they are now drowning out true openness, honesty, compassion and gentleness. How often do we read about these latter qualities in the daily newspaper?

Thus, for me, mappo is a true and tangible reality and Shinran's interpretation and experience of life has a sharp resonance in our time.

The condition of mappo, then, is twofold. The first over-arching factor being described in this verse is an aspect of a declining cyclic age, known in the Abhidharma as a kalpa. A kalpa is so long that the Buddhist texts frequently use the metaphor of a sparrow brushing the Himalayas with a wing once a year. The time that it would take the sparrow to wear down the Himalaya in this way is a kalpa. We are in the downward slide of the current kalpa. Into this declining kalpa comes Shakyamuni and teaches the dharma 'in the age of five defilements'. As the kalpa continues to decline we also draw away from him in time and space, thus compounding the profound significance of the last age.

The attenuation of our links with Shakyamuni brings with it uncertainty about the teaching, arguments about its contents and the rise of religions and ideologies that are based on greed, anger and delusion. Instead of showing us the way to overcome these 'three roots (in, Sk. hetu) of evil' they use these negative forces to gain power and popularity. As T'an-luan taught, such religions and ideologies confuse followers of the dharma and also serve to entrench the anterior sources of suffering.

The ideas presented with immense power in Shinran's Songs of the Dharma Ages, or Shozomatsu Wasan, carry two contrasting themes: the first is the sense of degeneration and loss that pervaded the Buddha sasana in his time; the second is the gleaming, inconceivable and joyous light of Amida Buddha. The verses of this volume are, as far as I am concerned, the most sublime religious writing ever to have been produced. They are bound hand and foot with the verities of our anguished human existence, while singing of transcendence and joy. Of greater significance than anything else, though, is the way that Shinran found the age of mappo within his own heart and mind. It is at this point that he truly speaks to us.

For many of us, our initial contact with the Shozomatsu Wasan is somewhat confronting. We are simply not used to facing up to the reality of decline, decay, loss and corruption. From the cradle we learn to interpret terms like 'evolution' as 'progress', rather than 'adaptation'. We live with the illusion that technology is moving us forwards and upwards; and we are oblivious to its underlying themes. For example, we benefit from and use technology - and, why not? - but we forget its cost. We are hand-cuffed in a Faustian compact for the most important utilities in our lives.

We choose to forget the complexity of living and deny its bitter-sweet nature. Most people who read these notes live in places, which have a 'high standard of living' - well above the annual average individual world income of approximately AUS$7,500. While a billion people in the world fight the discomfort of over consumption, twenty-six million children die of starvation every year. The comfort and well-being of one group taxes and drains the resources and lives of others. It is very hard to live with a consciousness of these contradictions. Indeed, I don't think we can. When it comes to the human condition, our hearts move us to do what we can for good.

The Shozomatusu Wasan make clear that for a sound spiritual life we need to take account of those things that we are inclined to describe as 'negatives', or as the 'dark' side. Needless to say, this kind of dualism is not really a part of the Buddha-dharma. In this darkness, Shinran was inspired by the light of the Buddha to see and rejoice in another reality:

This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all become Buddha.1

1: CWS, p. 461.

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