Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 7

As the time of kalpa-defilement advances,
The bodies of sentient beings gradually grow smaller;
Their evil and wrongdoing amid the five defilements increase,
So that their minds are like poisonous snakes and evil dragons.

Signs of Mappo

One thing that always captures my interest is the fact that the source of this verse - Shan-tao's Hoji San - lists the gradual extinction of the environment as being inseparable from the decline and demise of humanity. What does this mean?

We are used to thinking of 'The Environment' as meaning the natural world. The study of the environment we call 'ecology', the science of the ecosystem. It is certainly true that - driven by the human need for food and clothing - the natural environment is being violently pillaged. Forests are being cut down, species are becoming extinct, the soil exhausted, rivers polluted and resources diminished. These events, however, are not what is intended in descriptions of the decline of the dharma. The systems of living organisms, like all things, are in a state of constant change and flux. Serious changes have occurred before, and - as human beings - we will need to adapt to any changes if we are to survive.

Perhaps in a generation or two we will learn from bitter experience that we need to be kinder to our water-courses, find agricultural practices that are sustainable, establish appropriate, 'eco-friendly' plants to sustain our population, and generally adjust to any resulting long-term climatic changes that may develop. Management is, after all, part of being human. Good management of our surroundings has enabled us to survive as a species so far. Hygiene is probably the most striking example. Personal cleanliness and dirt-free surroundings contribute more to health and well-being than anything else.

Needless to say, there is nothing in the teaching of the Buddha that suggests that environmental conservatism - rather than management - is a more desirable way of dealing with change. Non-harming (ahimsa) is a key and fundamental principle of Buddhist ethics but this is an individual responsibility that applies to our relations with other sentient beings. It does not neccessarily have sociological or political significance; except that in human affairs it is sometimes subversive, especially when prejudice or factional violence is called for by the group that we identify with.

In the sense that the dharma understands it, 'environment' refers to the way that the content of a person's heart and mind impacts upon his or her surroundings. For example, a Buddha's environment is characterised by the features of his enlightenment and nirvana. It is a radiant, clear and all-embracing, compassionate, environment. A person of bonno (Sk. kleshas), on the other hand, has a 'passionate' environment. It is complicated, noisy, irritating, agitated, confused and full of impurities - or, in the Buddhist phrase, 'dusty'.

It is possible to see, from this perspective, that there is a clear development, which co-incides with the age of decline. This is to be found in the way we live as a species. For many millennia we have been emerging from the tribal, nomadic life, through a gradually evolving urban existence - based on settled agriculture - to an expanding urbanisation in association with industry and commerce. From a life of relative silence and isolation as nomads living in very small groups, we human beings are gradually becoming fully urbanised. The number of people engaged in agriculture has been in decline for hundreds of years and cities have been constantly growing in size and complexity.

The noisy, stressful, complex, crowded and constantly expanding nature of our modern megalopolitan existence is - from the point of view of the dharma - the projection of our own common inner reality. The noise of the city is the noise of our hearts - self-induced. It is the environment that we desire. The point is that the growth of cities has been gradual and incremental and clearly co-incides with any putative sense of the age of the declining dharma as a developing historical reality. It is, if you like, an objective, yet empirical, test of the genuine reality that is the age of declining dharma.

I do not think, however, that this is the way that Shinran 'proved' the reality of mappo for himself. The fact is that Shinran's insight into mappo does not tend to associate the three dharma ages of 'real, semblance and declining' with the historical context of the seven dharma Masters, who, though anchored in history, seem isolated from such developments. Shinran sees all of the dharma Masters as manifestations of the dharma itself - of Amida Buddha, - in one way or another. Their teaching is not subverted by the moment in time at which they lived. Nagarjuna's teaching, for example, is not a manifestation of the false 'realisation' that is supposed to be characteristic of someone, who is living in the age of semblance dharma.

The same can be said for Honen Shonin. As far as Shinran is concerned Honen was fully awakened and even enlightened; we have already seen that Shinran saw Honen as a manifestation of the all-wise Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. It follows, then, that it is not at all clear that Shinran was very conscious of the passage of time, along with unfolding events and the evolution of mappo.

The remarkable thing about Shinran is the thoroughly 'Buddhist' way that he relates to his environment and to events. For he saw the proof of the age of mappo, not by carrying out an objective analysis of historical events, but by coming to terms with his own inner reality. Yes, it is true that the people around him had 'become like poisonous snakes and spiteful dragons', but, more importantly he saw this degeneration into elemental ignorance - the serpentine and primitive cortex - within his own heart. This makes Shinran stand out as unique among all of the world's great religious teachers.

Shinran discovered the age of declining dharma by looking within. Whereas most religious teachers seek to attract followers to themselves by trying to tout their own supernatural powers and moral excellence as evidence that they are qualified for such a role, Shinran felt that he had no such qualification. He tried, as hard as he could, to deflect our gaze from his person to that of Amida Buddha. It is this profound personal awareness that, paradoxically shows Shinran up as a person of rigorous honesty and truthfulness; he becomes someone, whom we know that we can trust.

Shinran would probably not have come to the pure entrusting heart that enabled him to gain such clear and honest insights were it not for the fact that he was engaged with all of the normal complexities and anxieties of life. The Shozomatsu Wasan are his final work, his last testament. In them we discover the full depth and wealth of his personal spiritual maturity. We know, from his writings, the genuine anguish he endured when it became necessary for him - for the well-being of the nembutsu community that he led - to disown his own son, Zenran.

At the end of his life, Shinran had become reconciled to himself, along with the internal and first-hand evidence that assured him that the age of mappo was real. It was surely only because he lived within the all embracing light of Amida Buddha that such an acute insight was possible. Although he felt that his inner reality was lamentable, it was at the same time a source of joy, since it deprived him of any option other than unconditonal and whole-hearted trust in Amida Buddha.

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