Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 96

My evilness is truly difficult to renounce;
The mind is like serpents and scorpions.
Even doing virtuous deeds is tainted with poison,
And so is called false practice.

Devastation and Joy

Of all the songs of the Wasan, this verse is at once the most devastating and the most exhilarating. For it is proclaiming the culmination of the Pure Land tradition by implying that only absolute, unconditional trust in the Vow of Amida Buddha affords the way to Enlightenment. Shinran Shonin is clearly a man who knew how to lead people from the things that are easy to accept, through to the most difficult levels of understanding, by way of incremental stages.

Throughout its history, the Pure Land Way has been of the view that human nature has become corrupted in the environment of the Dharma-ending Age (mappo-ji). We have frequently considered the impact of this concept within the Pure Land tradition. We forget or reject it to our peril, since its perspective is not misanthropic but sorrowful and compassionate, and it levels all living things to the same status, whereby all beings may realise Nirvana through the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

We can argue about the truth of mappo. Certainly the tiny minority of people who are the beneficiaries of decaying societies, environmental degradation, increasing conflict and the decline in any metaphysical sensibility, will try to deny its reality. But no one can, surely, deny that access to an accurate and successful application of the Path of Sages is anywhere in evidence. The Pure Land tradition would insist that this is because we are constantly moving away from the living presence of Shakyamuni. We must admit, of course, that our conviction about the relevance of Mappo-ji has a certain - and inevitable - subjective quality. Yet, it must also be said that it is very difficult to understand Shinran's teaching without an underlying consciousness of the all-pervading influence of the Dharma-ending Age.

So it is that the traditional Pure Land view (that human nature is corrupt) becomes acute and absolute in Shinran's thinking. His use of the word akusho ('evilness') signifies his clear conviction that, in the final stages of the Dharma, Buddha-nature has been completely eclipsed and has no influence or practical reality until birth in the Pure Land. Consequently, all religious practices in the samsaric environment are utterly void and hopelessly contaminated. They have no value whatever and may even be positively dangerous, since they are inevitably tainted and poisoned 'good acts'. Indeed, all that remains to us is the heart that entrusts itself in Namo Amida Butsu.

In this way, towards the end of his Wasan cycle, Shinran finally tells us a devastating truth. We have seen it coming - he has been preparing us for it - and now the moment has arrived for us to face it, and its consequences, without prevarication.

All we do, says Shinran, is tainted by the poison of ego and there is no way that it can reliquish its hold on us. This assessment is not as harsh or as unusual as it seems. The tone is not judgemental; it is a cry of lament. As we will see later on, it also signifies an inexorable movement in the direction of the Nembutsu Way. Furthermore, it is founded on the core sensibilities of the Buddha Dharma, that all conditioned existence is nourished by greed, anger and folly (Sk. lobha, dvesa and moha). There is, therefore, nothing intrinsically strange or alien about Shinran's awareness. His teaching and practice of faith (shinjin no gyo) is the logical extension of the reality of the three roots of evil.

The Buddha Dharma, from its inception, contains the seeds of its ultimate culmination, in the True Pure Land teaching of Shinran Shonin. It would be a great tragedy if realisation of his message were thwarted by any convenient revision of it in directions that derive from contemporary prejudices. Because, once that has been done, and Shinshu has been moulded into something other than itself, then just at the very moment that it is most needed, it will have disappeared from view.

The fact that our self-power practices can never be pure because of our 'evilness,' which is 'truly difficult to renounce,' is the final refuge of all people who awaken to true self-awareness. It is now the only gateway to bliss and the end of suffering.

Herein lies the phœnix joy that arises from the grey ashes of this devastating news. It is the relief, the boundless joy, that comes from handing our existential dilemma in its entirety, without any input whatever on our part, over into the hands of the All-Wise One whose light is diffused unhindered into every nook and cranny, into every sentient heart in the universe.

The very Primal Vow, that calls to us from the compassionate heart of the infinite Dharmakaya, arose as the catalyst to our inveterate darkness. It is its perfect antidote.

- March 24, 2006.

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