Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 8

Ignorance and blind passions abound,
Pervading everywhere like innumerable particles of dust.
Desire and hatred arising out of conflict and accord,
Are like high peaks and mountain ridges.

King Ashoka

'Desire' and 'hatred' actually equate to the two most profound kleshas, or 'afflicting passions' - craving (Sk. raga) and anger (Sk. pratigha). These, in turn, spring from the fundamental and underlying ignorance or darkness of mind (mumyo, Sk. avidya), which the Buddha-dharma considers to be the cause of all that is wrong and dissonant in life; the source of the habitually aberrant reactions to stimuli that result in samsara-sustaining karma. Our base ignorance or darkness of mind is the primary problem that the Buddha-dharma seeks to address.

Desire and hatred (aizo) suggest a social range for 'greed', and 'anger' (or 'hatred'). These dharmas are more internal in their impact. In the age of mappo the afflicting passions break loose and reign supreme.

It is worth considering the verity of this proposition. Is not history littered with brutality and avarice? It does not seem to be a new phenomenon. However, in a larger time-frame unfettered conflict within human communities is relatively new. Although history includes much violence, rape and pillage, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that these tendencies become integral to human experience with the rise of agricultural society. They have been more recently compounded with the development of industrial and consumer society. The scale of the pathological impact of desire and hatred has become vast.

It is, of course, worth considering these questions more deeply. We will have ample opportunity to look more closely at them throughout the course of our reflections upon the Shozomatsu Wasan: the poems of the dharma ages.

The Buddha-dharma always looks to the empire that was governed by the Mauryan King Ashoka for its model of the 'good society' - a society that the ruler sought to make free of desire and hatred. There is some controversy as to Ashoka's actual dates but modern historians seem to have settled on either 265-238 or 273-232 BCE as the years of his rule. These years represent a time, during which the Buddha Dharma consolidated its life as a community; when its social principles were enshrined in law. The experience for the populace seems to have been especially felicitous, since Ashoka's Empire came to be remembered as a lost paradise that was only spasmodically replicated, for example, in the Indo-Greek Kingdom of Gandhara (modern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) - from about 100 BCE to 300 CE - and the court of Prince Shotoku in seventh century Japan.

King Ashoka was not always benevolent. He engaged in a particularly robust military campaign against the Kalingas (modern Orissa) but his later conversion to Buddhism was thorough-going. Although he never sought to impose his deepest convictions on others, and kept discussion about the Buddha-dharma within his circle of Buddhist friends, he promulgated edicts that imposed certain universal norms of behaviour upon his subjects. These 'rock edicts', as they were called, enjoined rectitude, truthfulness, compassion, mercy, kindness, nonviolence, considerate behaviour toward all, frugality, contentment, and not harming living things. His axiom was that we ought to lessen those behaviours which damaged these principles and grow in our preference for what is good.

Ashoka also called upon his citizens to cultivate their spiritual lives. By this he did not intend to impose the inner values of the Buddha-dharma upon his subjects. Instead, he openly encouraged unconditional religious tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others. However, Ashoka's personal example and his frank allegiance to the Buddha-dharma provided an opportunity for the consolidation and flowering of Buddhist culture. Indeed, until Askoka's time the Buddhist community basically consisted of small, isolated pockets of followers. Without Ashoka's conversion, the Buddha-dharma may not have survived to become the most widespread and popular religious and philosophical movement in human history.

For those of us who come from European and Middle-Eastern cultural backgrounds, it is hard to believe that a kingdom like the one that was governed by Ashoka could have truly existed. We associate governance based on religious principles with intolerance and violence. This makes Ashoka's world all the more difficult to comprehend. Of course, the society that he reigned over was short-lived in the overall scheme of things but it certainly seems to have been as happy, harmonious and blessed as it is remembered to have been; there is no doubt that the Buddha-dharma thrived. This is because it was barely known before Ashoka's time but his missionary efforts - that were mainly directed towards the west and south (Buddhism thus became the first missionary faith) - quickly bore fruit.

The axioms of Ashoka's social morality have come to be widely associated with the Buddha-dharma, especially in societies where it is the prevailing doctrine. Some of the small kingdoms of the higher reaches of the Himalayas - for example Mustang in the east and Ladakh on the north-western border of Kashmir - were able to maintain societies based on Ashokan principles for many centuries. In most Mahayana countries, however, prevailing social norms have usually overwhelmed any full-scale Buddhist influence.

In any case, Ashoka's Empire was not exclusively Buddhist. It can be seen to have been inspired by the dharma and was the first experiment in extending certain core Buddhist principles to society at large. However, some mores of this society were hard to sustain in the face of the need for good governance. For example, adherence to the practice of non-harming in our relations with other people and animals becomes problematic when it comes to the need to defend society from violent incursions, like marauding tribes and rat plagues.

Ashoka's three principal legacies were: the dissemination of the Buddha-dharma more widely in the world; the Buddhist ethos of tolerance for other faiths; and the establishment of the Buddha-dharma as a respectable teaching that was relevant to everybody in the community. Unfortunately, his concept of an idyllic society based on Buddhist mores did not survive for long, except in isolated and small remote areas. It was this failure that probably proved to be the source of the idea that the decline of the dharma was inexorable with the passage of time. Especially is this so when it is remembered that Buddhism has been guilty of sporadic sectarian violence and episodes of intolerance. This is acutely evident in Sri Lanka today.

If we are to understand the significance of this for ourselves, I believe that we need to reflect upon just whether or not we can honestly say that we would find Ashoka's society congenial. How would we like to live in a country, which was governed by an absolute, hereditary monarch? Such society has no place for individual needs and aspirations. Surely, if we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that we prefer to live in a system which affords us opportunities to step out of the limiting factors of our birth and attain success based on our own efforts and merits. In my own case, I can say that I am grateful that my grandfather, who was born into a working-class family of displaced farmers in England was, thanks to the accrual of wealth by his hard-working father and mother - made possible by a liberal society -, able to go to university in London and become a fine medical practitioner in Australia. What about the body politic? Surely, we prefer to believe that we have some role in decision-making and most of us clearly find representative government fairly congenial in that regard.

Would we honestly want to live in an Ashokan-style society in which we are enjoined to be absolutely other-regarding? Do we think that only others have 'rights' and that we ought to relinquish all of our own power and energy for the sake of others? What about frugality? Do we not prefer to live in an acquisitive way? Let's be honest about this - would we be prepared to do without our comfortable homes, our cars, the wealth of variety that can be found in shops and markets? Would we be prepared to live, honestly, in a world that is based on non-harming? Yes, many of us are happy to base our personal disposition on such a principle but would we be ready to see this as absolute? The more deeply we consider, in an honest way, the questions that arise in a comparison between Ashokan society and our own expectations and beliefs, the more lucid we become in our realisation that the age of mappo is an organic reality - it is part of our make-up.

We shall see, in the next verse, that 'desire' and 'hatred' also comprise the dynamics of modern religion and ideology. The way we think and the things we believe in are based on a level of organic corruption that is so subtle that we do not realise just how deeply entrenched it is. Even in the case of truly poor and deprived peoples the vast majority of us aspire for the freedoms that permit personal empowerment, the acquisition of goods and the comforts and privileges that we have gleaned as a result of modern technology.

On the face of it we could be tempted to fall into despair. But the joyful fact is that, thanks to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and the pure shinjin that he transfers to those who accept his Name, the all-pervasive ignorance that has become the 'wisdom' of the world can be transformed into the true wisdom (Sk. prajna) that leads to final transcendence (Sk. moksha).

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Jodo Wasan

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Shozomatsu Wasan


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