The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Koso Wasan 86

Had we not received the power of the universal Vow,
When can we part from this Saha world?
Reflecting deeply on the Buddha's benevolence,
Let us think on Amida always.

The Universal Vow

In all Buddhist traditions 'faith' or 'unshakeable confidence in the dharma' is fundamental and indispensable. Progress upon the way is impossible without it. The question remains, however, as to just how this serene confidence (shinjin Sk., prasanna citta) is awakened. In the Pure Land tradition, as Shinran understood it, salvation lies in accepting the shinjin of the Primal Vow' and moving naturally on to the status of a Buddha as a result of birth in the Pure Land (ojo); thereby attaining the capacity to 'save other suffering beings' in the way that Buddhas do. In Shinran's view, the Primal Vow includes a cluster of the Vows that are recounted in the Larger Sutra. Of these, it is the twenty-second Vow that supports 'return' (genso) to samsara after enlightenment to assist suffering beings.

In reminding ourselves of these salient facts we can see that this verse is a pithy summary of Jodo Shinshu. It tells us that through the power of the universal Vow we can attain transcendence: the salvation that is intended in the Buddha-dharma. Our response to this awakening is to say the Name of Amida Buddha. This verse explains why we followers of the Pure Land way say the Name: it is because of our recognition that, due to the power of the universal Vow, we can attain transcendence for the benefit of both ourselves and others.

But why is the Vow - 'universal' (gugan, or guzei)? The phrase is often used in conjunction with a strong term that indicates a powerful, karmic condition that has a decisive outcome. This coincides with a remarkable incongruity associated with the way that the eighteenth Vow is described in the Larger Sutra. For, although it purports to be a description of the universal Vow - the Vow that excludes no one - it contains an exclusion clause in the final sentence. Those who are excluded have committed the five grave offences and abused the right dharma.

The Kyo Gyo Shin Sho draws on resources from sacred texts to explore the nature of the five grave offences. These quotations from T'an-luan, Shan tao and two other sutras serve to illuminate the purpose of the exclusion clause, which is to remind us of the gravity of the evils that they represent and not to curtail the power of the universal Vow in any way. In reality, in spite of the 'exclusion clause', no one is excluded.

It seems to me, that Shinran's most incisive use of the phrase, universal Vow, is to be found in a paragraph that follows a very long and important quotation from the Nirvana Sutra. The quotation describes the emotional and physical suffering of the guilt-ridden king Ajatashatru. In his summary of the significance of this story, Shinran alludes to the way that the universal Vow can cure the incurable. The strength of the Vow is such that every single sentient being benefits from it. There is no one who is blocked from accepting the power of the universal Vow and attaining the status of a Buddha.

King Ajatashatru's karmic evil is evident in his pain of body and mind. He becomes the model of the full reality of karmic evil. In keeping with this, our karmic evil is described as 'sickness'; there is no one who is unable to be cured. The Power of the Universal Vow is such that, like Ajatashatru there is no one who cannot be cured of the existential distress that arises from ├Žons of unwholesome deliberate actions - bad karma. The only hindrance, as we shall see when we come to the Shozomatsu Wasan, is our own incapactity to accept the incalculable bounty that the universal Vow offers to us. This incapacity is 'doubt' (giwaku). It is a mark of our ingrained and native conceit and tendency to demurral; rather like being endowed with a wonderful and awe-inspiring talent for something but stubbornly refusing to recognise it, or use it for own own enjoyment and the benefit of others.

There are also passages in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho that refer to the kind of people who are regarded in the traditional Buddhist community as 'beyond the pale', when it comes to the question of their capacity to follow the path. Such people are wine-traders, merchants, butchers, hunters and farmers. The Pure Land way is a refuge for such people. This understanding of the power of the universal Vow has underscored the traditional acceptance of the Pure Land way (especially, Jodo Shinshu) amongst those who are regarded as pariahs in polite society. As a result, the Pure Land way has historically evoked great gratitude and fierce loyalty from its followers.

Ajatashatru's joy and relief at attaining the 'shinjin that has no origin in [him]' is powerful and palpable. Shakyamuni is described as the physician who cured Ajatashatru. He was cured of the 'three illnesses' which make us difficult to cure. These are: abuse of the dharma, committing the five grave offences and being icchantikas - without any spiritual sensibility of any kind. The five grave offences are matricide, patricide, killing a arhat, causing blood to flow from the body of a Buddha and causing disunity within the sangha. The Abhidharma lists five similar grave evils. These include raping a nun, causing unhappiness in the Buddhist community and smashing stupas.

Here we see, from the true teaching of the Great Sage, that when the three types of beings difficult to save - those afflicted with the three kinds of sickness difficult to cure - entrust themselves to the universal Vow of great compassion and take refuge in the ocean of shinjin that is [Amida's] benefiting others, the Buddha is filled with pity for them and heals them, commiserates with and cures them. It is like the wondrous medicine called manda curing all illness. Beings of the defiled world - the multitudes possessed of corruptions and evil - should seek and think on the diamondlike, indestructible true mind. They should hold steadfast to the Primal Vow, which is the wondrous medicine called manda. Reflect on this.1

Notice that the medicine called 'manda' (a particulary delectable extract from butter, or ghee) is used as a simile. The universal Vow cures spiritual illness. It cures the cause and leaves the symptoms to take care of themselves, gradually following the course of their prognostications; and fading - in the fullness of time. The Buddha-dharma does not support belief in magic or miracles because it knows that superficial problems will never be overcome while the trouble in our hearts is not dealt with. For mental or physical ailments we go a physician or a psychiatrist to find symptomatic relief but we go to the Buddha to cure the cause: our sickness of spirit.

The universal Vow, then, tells us that there is no one who is without hope of cure and there is no spiritual disease which it cannot meet, and ease, with its penetrating and soothing balm.

1: CWS p. 143.

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