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

Shozomatsu Wasan 105

The mark of the evil of the five defilements
Is that the titles 'monk' and 'teacher of dharma'
Are used for serfs and servants
And have become derogatory terms.

Slaves and Servants

Throughout Buddhist history that there have been monks and nuns who engaged in worldly activities and political intrigue; some, no doubt, were occupied in servile roles. In any case, it seems to me that Shinran Shonin's generalisation clearly does not apply, by any measure, to all of the monks and nuns of his time. The movements that were initiated by Dogen, Nichiren and Ippen attracted many followers and there is little evidence to suggest that they demonstrated the level of corruption that Shinran is speaking about; they were the antithesis of it.

Needless to say, the Buddha Dharma has always been very conscious of the potential danger that arises when its teachers become economically dependent on others. In many places in the Tripitaka, we are reminded that the Buddha Dharma is 'difficult to understand, and difficult to accept'. It is a theme that appears in a diverse genre of the sacred literature. For example, the Larger Sutra and the Dharmapada both contain this idea. The reason for this is that, in order to find liberaton, it is necessary to let go of attachments to objects and ideas, which serve as hindrances. Nothing is more difficult than this.

There is always an ever-present risk that those who come to hear the dharma will be uncomfortable with some of the teaching and may even feel a need to withdraw from it for a while. However, if a teacher has, as his principal objective, the desire to keep his hearers happy so that they keep on supporting him financially, it is inevitable that the teaching will be compromised. It seems to me that anyone who qualifies as a teacher will need to have accepted and surmounted, to his or her own satisfaction, the challenges that the teaching manifests along the way.

A teacher must be as honest as possible with himself as well as with those who come to him or her for guidance. It is one thing to admit that one does not understand something but quite another to say that because one does not understand it, it is therefore wrong. It is even worse to say that the teaching does not contain a particular element because there is a risk that someone will be tempted to dispense with the teacher's services. It is worse still to distort the teaching in order to maintain a secure livelihood.

It is extremely difficult to avoid these blandishments. If a teacher knows that someone, who is listening to him, is strongly attached to a point of view, which may be challenged, it is very easy to succumb to the temptation to modify the teaching so as to make it more palatable. The teaching is as difficult to impart as it is to receive. The dharma needs to be experienced at first hand, and - because one needs to 'prove' it for oneself -, teacher and pupil are both students.

As students, teacher and pupil will always be tempted to avoid confronting things that they may find unsettling. Yet, the goal of the Buddha Dharma is nothing less that final liberation and those who seek this goal need to face difficulties squarely and with courage.

Slaves and servants, then, are students and teachers of the dharma who are primarily motivated by interests other than the dharma: for example, their own authority, or their comfort, or their popularity. The mark of the last dharma age is that teachers who are supposed to be expounding the dharma, prefer to teach only those things that will please their hearers. Such people are true slaves and servants. They will never be free themselves, and will never help others to be free.

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