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

Shozomatsu Wasan 37

The power of the Vow is without limit;
Thus even our karmic evil, deep and heavy, is not oppressive.
The Buddha's wisdom is without bounds;
Thus, even those of distracted minds and self-indulgence are
        not abandoned.

Evil Karma

In thinking about the full ramifications of what, I think, is Shinran Shonin's strong convicton of the pervasiveness of the age of mappo - in relation to history, society and the individual - we ought to unwrap the term 'evil karma' (zaigo) and try to uncover its meaning in the context of the Buddha Dharma.

It seems to me that many people who encounter Jodo Shinshu are perturbed by the strong emphasis on our evil karma within the thinking of Shinran. It is important to explore it because the concept cannot be resisted without losing the significance of Shinran's insights for us, and their genuine power to deepen our understanding and enrich our lives.

Many people seek, in their religious traditions, abstract realisations like meaning and virtue. Some also seek concrete things, like community, regulation of their impulses, practical moral guidance, mental and physical health and even wealth. It seems to me, however, that in every single instance, these qualities can be found outside the sphere of religion. Indeed, some needs are better met in the context of modern therapies than from the resources of the spiritual realm. When I think, however, of the religious path, I always come back to an idea of 'quality of life'. That is to say, it ought to enrich the experience of being human by revealing its dilemmas and its complexities in a way that permits us to reconcile evident contradictions. As an heir to the yogic tradition, the Buddha Dharma is especially adept in this regard.

When we turn to Shinran, indeed, we find that he meets few of those needs that can be found outside the realm of religious teaching. In any case, it is always worth keeping in mind the fact that Shinran did not live in a vacuum. His context was clearly one, in which Buddhist mores and concepts were taken for granted. As a result, Shinran's focus comes across to us as being upon the core existential questions that confront us; not so much on relatively superficial matters. His great gift is to bring us to an understanding of existence, in which the deepest despair and the highest exaltation can co-exist in such a way as to generate a dynamism that permits us to dare to have a penetrating self-understanding that leads to a sympathetic appreciation of ourselves and others.

When we delve into the concept of evil karma (zaigo) in Shinran's thinking we discover that it is so profound and honest as to represent - at least, as far as I am concerned - a new development in religion, transforming it into a human quest that transcends what have become the decaying superficialities that once supported it.

There is a common perception in the modern world that the purpose of religion is primarily its use as an instrument of social control. Whether this is true or not remains, by and large, a matter of conjecture. Whatever the truth of the matter, Shinran presents us with an order of things which is liberating and in which followers are otherwise entirely self-governing. They are able to function with relative freedom in spite of the constraints that are comprised of the out-playing of those things that have gone into their earlier subliminal character development.

In religious terms, this character development is what we mean by 'evil karma' (zaigo). We seem to experience these karmic constraints as a kind of burden or as an enduring sadness, perhaps. Most often they are apparent in the persistence of our afflicting passions (bonno, Sk. kleshas) or in an uneasy sense of our own intractable shortcomings.

Although it seems to me quite clear that Shinran's strong awareness of evil karma comes from his sensitivity to the full significance of the age of mappo, this should not exonerate us from helping others in their time of need. Indeed, the kind of logic that would support such an idea would be rather like saying that there is no point in taking an injured person to hospital because human beings are prone to injury. It seems to me that this kind of activism has little to do with religion. It is a matter of humanity and fellow-feeling.

The trouble is that in the last two centuries, religion has degenerated, by and large, into humanism and thereby colonised the human while abdicating its transcendent role. So, while there are practical needs to be met in the service of others, there are also the on-going eternal verities to be understood and explored with a view to ultimate transcendence both for ourselves and for others.

In spite of all this, the fact that we are kind and help those in need does not diminish the reality of evil karma: that it is the ultimate and timeless source of internal oppression for us. We meet, in this respect, a key point concerning evil karma, which is that it is not principally a moral but a religious or existential concept. Shinran points out that both good and evil people are afflicted by the outcome of their past evil karma. It is essentially that we are bound spiritually in such a way as to make it impossible for us to practice the 'Path of Sages' effectively, unable to progress along the path from one level of spiritual perfection to another.

As is the case for all aspects of the Buddha Dharma, however, evil karma is not a dogmatic assertion. In fact, we cannot learn about it; we need to know it. It means nothing if we do not sense its oppressive power in some way or another. Although its reality for us may be visceral, each of as individuals must come to a point at some stage, in which we are ready to assent to the irresistible significance of its presence. As as long as evil karma is not a clear reality for us, as individuals, we will always tend to see it as someone else's problem. Yet, very often the dawning of a sense of evil karma is the catalyst that sends us scurrying off in the hope of finding some way of addressing it and arriving at the gate of the Other Power way of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

Unfortunately, however, whether we are conscious of it or not, evil karma, like the Dharma itself, is an ever-present reality. I doubt that awareness of it can be induced artificially, because it is a fact of nature, as it were. This means that turning to the way of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha seems to be an event that occurs as part of a maturation process. It does not matter how long we try to deny its existence, evil karma will, indeed, must, eventually trip us up. Perhaps by a slow, gradually dawning realisation, or in a moment that the entire structure of our world-view collapses.

Nevertheless, it is generally understood that this is a process that takes æons. So it is, that an individual may be born into a Shinshu family or turn the the Pure Land Way spontaneously even after a rather brief encounter with the Path of Sages, or some other, similar self-power practice.

As profound as the problem of evil karma is, Shinran reminds us in this verse that it is only a constraint as long as we resist the call of the Primal Vow. Although we cannot be purged of its reality, it ceases to be a burden because, in Amida Buddha's Light, his wisdom, we come to understand it.

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