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

Shozomatsu Wasan 73

For five hundred years they do not emerge
From the palace of seven precious materials or
    the borderland;
Having themselves committed offences,
They suffer all forms of adversity.


In this verse, Shinran Shonin seems to be telling us that the Pure Land is not entirely the 'Land of Bliss'. Is he suggesting that, in the provisional Pure Land - the borderland or womb-palace - people will experience torment? What does he intend?

It seems to me that, in order to understand this insight, we need to keep in mind the contrast between the 'Age of True Dharma' (the time of Shakyamuni - and, mostly, the five centuries following his appearance on earth) and the Last Dharma Age. The True Pure Land, which is tantamount to nirvana, illuminates even those of us who live in the Age of Mappo. However, those of us who choose to believe that in this era it is still possible to attain enlightenment by our own efforts, will sink into the quicksand of our own karma.

The last two lines of this verse do not allude to any concept of punishment but to the limited level of comprehension in those who doubt the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. We have already explored the significance of the inevitable outcome of the karma (actions) that we create. Those who seek to attain enlightenment by their own efforts are beset by endemic hindrances and defilements that continue to support existence in samsara. Those who follow the nembutsu in the same spirit create their own limitations that prevail even though they are born in the Pure Land. On the other hand, those who are free from self-power and open to the light and Name of Amida Buddha (the 'external cause of birth in the Pure Land' 1, are ultimately free from karmic constraints and able to fulfill their aspirations to liberate others by skillful means.

Shinran understood clearly that the awakening of the Primal Vow's shinjin in a person is a rare occurrence. Rennyo Shonin, too, frequently lamented the lack of evidence for shinjin in the Hongwanji community. He counselled people of shinjin to 'constantly dredge the channel of faith and to let the water of Amida's dharma flow freely'. The karmic torments that we create for ourselves arise because we see ourselves as the measure of all things, and capable of incalculable attainment. Our trust is in our own goodness, our own rationality and our own capacity to develop our spiritual life. Yet, this perspective was not originally a prominent part of the Buddha Dharma, which is based on 'not-self'.

Shakyamuni's enlightenment, although accomplished without a teacher - because he was nurtured by long-fallow and unused ground, the dharma - was not a result of his own creative efforts. If it had been, he would have continued to be tormented by the problem of suffering, as he had found in studying under two teachers during the time of his Great Renunciation. Instead, Shakyamuni's awakening to the dharma and to nirvana - which is eternity, bliss, freedom, and purity - was by opening his mind and breaking down the rigidity of the illusion of his self.

Shakyamuni abandoned ascetic practices and began to 'hear' the dharma, sitting under the bodhi tree; Shinran exhorts us to abandon the practices of the nineteenth and twentieth Vows and to 'hear' the dharma of the Primal - eighteenth - Vow. To paraphrase Rennyo, the dharma-channel was dredged and allowed to flow freely. At the very cusp of his enlightenment it was self and the inexorable karmic outcomes, which the illusion of self creates, that Shakyamuni acknowledged and abandoned:

I sought the builder of this house of suffering, but I was unable to find him. The wheel of samsara turned around and around, and I repeated lives of suffering again and again. But you, builder of the house, I see you know. You will not build the house again. All the rafters are broken, and the ridgepole is destroyed. My mind takes leave of craving and attains Nirvana.2

Shakyamuni's enlightenment was simply a matter of 'seeing'; of awakening. His active 'seeking' only kept the wheel of samsara turning. He did not generate his enlightenment and neither can we. Although we sometimes have dreams in our sleep of trying to wake up, we very rarely do. We wake from sleep in the fullness of time or because of some other agent: a child's cry, a bad dream over which we have no control, a barking dog - and other natural processes. Becoming free by the Buddha Dharma is a similar thing. Even if we try to wake ourselves up while we are asleep, the attempt to awaken is, itself, only a dream.

It is possible for any religious teaching to slip into an almost universal aberration of its essential calling and principal inspiring insights. As Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, has suggested, ideas can spread like a contagion or a plague - almost like a viral infection. Two of the most remarkable of these events that I have mentioned before were the way that Christianity re-invented itself as a warrior, crusader religion, at about the turn of the last millenium and the use of the Buddha Dharma, especially Ch'an (Zen) for military purposes.

In these Hymns of the Dharma Ages we contemplate the full significance of the Dharma-Ending Age. As we have seen, in reviewing the Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, there grew an ever deepening consciousness of the Last Dharma Age from the time of Tao-ch'o (562 - 645). Not only were Buddhists developing a growing sensibility to the natural passage of time but they also became aware of an increasing hardening of self; of the the human constitution becoming ever more rigid and tenacious. The precise causes of this trend are difficult to unravel but it is certain, as far as I can see, that the increasing sense of spiritual disease eventually overtook the earlier sense of 'not-self' that prevailed in humankind.

As readers will know, there was a relevant an interesting change in perspective that took place in Europe at the time of the 'Enlightenment'. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith and Voltaire began to invert the world of human relationships and to show that the common good functions best when people appeal primarily to each other's self-interest. I am only speaking here of a trend but, if one looks, one can see it everywhere, just as religion generally, in our time, seems to be descending into solipsism, on the one hand, and scepticism, on the other.

The important thing to remember in the case of Shinran Shonin - at least, as far as I can see - is that he understood clearly that these trends are here to stay. People often refer to Shinran as a 'reformer' but he was certainly not one of those kinds of reformers who seek to reverse inexorable trends and force the clock back to an earlier age. Instead, he ackowledged, with Shan-tao before him, that Shakyamuni was dead and gone. His true dharma age was not going to return within any meaningful duration. The world of easy transcendence that appears to have been Shakyamuni's lot - and the experience of countless of his followers - is no more. Far from returning to a pristine past, Shinran understood that we have only an ever declining future to look forward to.

Far from serving as a source of despair, however, for Shinran this awful and ineluctable predicament was a cause for high joy. Although, as we see in this verse, he was saddened for those who had not relinquished their own efforts and were inflicting ongoing torment and suffering upon themselves, Shinran became a 'true disciple of the Buddha'. His relationship with the dharma was a living, close and personal relationship just like the relationship between Shakyamuni and his disciples. For Shinran, Amida Buddha is real and tangible. His heart was transfixed by Amida Buddha and he saw himself as living within Amida Buddha's light.

It is only by turning to Amida Buddha as Shinran did that we can ultimately be free from the torment of self-created endevours. The Last Dharma Age ensures that we simply cannot approach the dharma in any other way. Towards the end of the third book of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, Shinran quotes at length a passage from the Nirvana Sutra, in which Shakyamuni describes the deceits of the human mind. Prince Ajatashatru was a tormented being until such time as he abandoned his brooding self-obsession and opened his heart to the shinjin of the Buddha. This remarkable event, which is redolent with the preoccupations of people of the Last DharmaAge, actually brings into play the very processes that culminated in Shakyamuni's enlightenment.

As Shinran turned to face the light of Amida Buddha's wisdom, this very same process began in him, too. That is why, even though he was imbued with the mire of the Last Dharma Age, he was able to rejoice, so that his heart might burst with joy. Though living indeed in the depth of despair, yet torment turned to serene trust. Though immersed in the terrors and torments of the nightmare that is the Last Dharma Age, he knew that it was a bad dream from which he would awaken in the Pure Land, just as Shakyamuni did, during his time on earth, in the Right Dharma Age.

1. CWS, p. 54

2. Buddha Dharma, Numata Translation Center, p. 20

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