Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 79

Sentient beings who, doubting the inconceivable
    Buddha-wisdom,
Believe in the recompense of good and evil,
Will inevitably be born in the womb-palace;
Thus, they are taught to be beings of womblike birth.

Beyond Good and Evil

The power of the Primal Vow is inconceivable; it is absolute. Amida Buddha is light, wisdom. Light is not just an attribute of Amida Buddha, it is his Name and his nature. Amida Buddha is light. This light is the 'wisdom that fills all things'. Because the light fills all things, it is life. Life is even the wind that stirs the desert sand.

Human judgements are influenced by self-interest; they are based on greed, anger and delusion. They are formed in darkness. In historical terms their formation has taken many and varied forms. In the social sense they are often a kind of contract. In some societies they were formed and maintained by kingly authority; now they are often based on a concept of human happiness: the 'greatest good for the greatest number'. The king was a father whose subjects were his chldren. True, he had their best interests at heart but the overall well-being of the tribe was his first priority. Anything that he thought would work against his perception of the things that were required for the survival of the group was evil, and those who threatened it had to be removed; often by means of ostracism, sometimes by means of death.

In our kind of society, evil is determined more by consensus than by any other means. Recent surveys have shown that people in English speaking societies now regard evil-doing differently from their forebears, who lived in feudal times, despite on-going attempts to revive feudal belief systems. Judgements are more a matter of consensus that is based on certain expectations and the rights of the individual, and these eventually find their way into a codified form as law, whether common or statute - and by various means.

Whether it is defined by the authority of the king or by means of consensus and law, evil is any action or disposition, which is considered to be harmful or unsettling. Ultimately, mores that are based on any kind of human judgement tend to be inherently unstable and subject to change, according to circumstances. An acute example of this is the way that killing another human being is usually regarded as abhorrent. However, this judgement is suspended in the case of war, when those who kill in the defence of others are often given heroic status.

Shinran Shonin makes clear in the body of his writings that he understands the term evil (aku) at two levels. In the first place, he intends the term to include people who are judged to be evil by society. We can see from his writings, for example, Notes on 'The Essentials of Faith Alone', that unpopular groups are included in his concept of evil. These kinds of people are those who are osctracised because, by necessity or otherwise, they violate the 'kingly' code (for example, the 'precepts') or the consensual code (for example, people who participate in 'unclean' occupations or activities: pariahs of various kinds).

Nevertheless, it is not classes or categories of people that is the focus in this verse. What is here being considered is the fultility of assessing the value of actions for the purpose of joining the ranks of the truly settled - those who are certain to attain nirvana. For Shinran there is also the profound and intractable problem of karmic evil.

Karmic evil refers to the fact that the life, which we experience as ours - and has arisen from ancient actions that derive from delusion and hunger -, is costly. We cannot live, and we cannot thrive without a net cost. We live at the expense of other lives, animals, plants and often other people. This net cost is the obstinate dilemma that is the problem of samsara. Its basis is systemic blind ignorance and we experience it in our confusion of heart: our afflicting passions. There is absolutely no way that even a person of impeccable morals can avoid the cost of samsaric existence.

Karmic evil is samsaric bondage. It is integral to our existence and it can only be transcended. For this reason the tantric idea that afflicting passions can be transformed is not accepted in the Pure Land way. The awakening of shinjin turns 'evil into good' because the intractable reality of karmic evil leaves us no option but to turn to face the light. The evil itself remains as it is: the afflicting passions continue as they are. Shinran was able to rejoice in the Power of the Primal Vow when he saw that the reality of karmic evil would be transcended. What is evil and oppressive, thus understood, becomes a source of joy and serenity.

The attempt to establish 'goodness' in ourselves by our own efforts, is founded on the very karmic evil that we are attempting to overcome. Our only option is complete entrusting to the absolute purity that is the Other Power. It makes no difference whether society, or ourselves, assesses us to be good or evil because karmic evil is our basic existential reality. Yet, at the same time, the light that is Amida Buddha fills our hearts and minds, calling to us in Namu-amida-butsu. Those, who give up trying to be anything or anyone other than themselves and accept 'the embrace that does not forsake' exactly as they are, will understand how evil is turned into good.

And what about our behaviour? Once the reality of karmic evil is understood, and once people accept Amida Buddha's 'embrace that does not forsake', they tend slowly but naturally towards kindness and warmth in their relations with others. There is simply no point in striving to be superior, or to judge others as good or evil.

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