Unlocking Tannisho, Part 16

XIII

Some people say that those who do not fear committing evil because of the inconceivable power of Amida’s Vow are guilty of taking pride in the Primal Vow and, therefore, will not attain birth. This betrays doubt in the Primal Vow and shows a lack of understanding of good and evil as the product of past karma.

Good thoughts arise in our minds due to the effect of past good, and we are made to think and do evil because of the working of karmic evil. The late master said, “We should know that even as trifling a thing as the speck of dust on the tip of a rabbit’s hair or a sheep’s fleece is the product of past evil karma.” At another time he asked me. “Would you agree to anything I say, Yui-en?”

“Of course, I will,” I replied.

“Are you sure that you won’t disobey me?,” he repeated, and when I again agreed, he continued, “Go, then and kill a thousand people and your birth in the Pure Land is settled.’

“Even though that is your order,” I protested, “and even with the capacity for evil within me, I cannot kill even a single person.”

“Then why did you just say that you would not disobey what I, Shinran, said?” And then he went on, “By this we know that if we could act according to our thoughts, we could kill a thousand people for the sake of birth in the Pure Land if so required. We do not kill, not because our thoughts are good but because we do not have the karma to kill even a single person. Yet, even though we do not want to injure anyone, we may be led to kill a hundred or a thousand people.”

The gist of this statement is that when we think good thoughts, we think we are good; and when we think evil thoughts, we think we are evil, not realizing fully that it is not these thoughts but the inconceivable power of the Vow that makes our salvation possible.

Once there was a man who fell into wrong views proclaiming that he would intentionally do evil as a way of attaining birth, since the Vow is directed to those who are evil. Thus saying, he committed many evil deeds. When Shinran heard about this, he admonished in a letter, “Do not take poison just because there is an antidote.” He made this point to correct such erroneous views, but not at all to say that evil is an obstacle to attaining birth.

Shinran, moreover, said, “If upholding the precepts and maintaining the disciplines are required for true entrusting, how could we ever hope to go beyond birth-and-death? It is only by encountering the Primal Vow that such hopeless beings like ourselves are shown to be prideful and haughty. And yet evil cannot be committed unless it is already within us.”

Again, he said, “People who make a living by casting nets or fishing in the seas and rivers, those who sustain themselves by hunting wild life and catching birds in the moors and mountains, and people who pass their lives by trading and cultivating fields are all alike.” According to Shinran, “Under the influence of our karmic past we human beings will do anything.”

And yet, in recent years people put on the guise of striving on the nembutsu path. They claim that only good people should say the nembutsu. Or they post restrictions at gathering places, proclaiming that those who commit certain acts are prohibited from entering. Are these not the sort of people who show outwardly how wise, virtuous, and diligent they are, while inwardly cherishing vanity and falsehood?

Karmic evil committed because of taking pride in the Vow is also an effect of past karma. Thus, leave everything good and evil to the working of karma and single-heartedly entrust yourself to the Primal Vow. Such is the way of Other Power. In Essentials of Faith Alone it is said, “To what extent does one know the power of Amida’s compassion when a person believes that salvation is impossible because of karmic evil?” For the very reason that we are guilty of taking pride in the Primal Vow, the true entrusting as the gift of Other Power is settled.

We can be free of taking pride in the Primal Vow only after we entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow, having extinguished karmic evil and blind passion. But if blind passion were extinguished, one is already a buddha; and for a buddha the Vow realized through five kalpas of profound thought would be useless.

Since the people who censure others for taking pride in the Primal Vow themselves are filled with blind passion and impurities, aren’t they also guilty of taking pride in the Primal Vow? If so, what is the evil that takes pride in the Primal Vow and what is the evil that does not take pride in the Primal Vow? Indeed, all this debate reveals shallowness and immaturity.

Explanation:

This passage of Tannisho is one of my favorite passages because it hits at the core of the matter of the debate on ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as well as explaining the relationship between that and Karma.

“Some people say that those who do not fear committing evil because of the inconceivable power of Amida’s Vow are guilty of taking pride in the Primal Vow and, therefore, will not attain birth. This betrays doubt in the Primal Vow and shows a lack of understanding of good and evil as the product of past karma.”

This point was created because of a misunderstanding of the words of Shinran. There are people in this world who believe that the primal vow of Amida Buddha is directed towards those who are evil. This is a correct assumption, being that all beings at the core are evil, however, that does not give one the right to commit as much evil as they want to. As master Shinran stated “Do not take poison just because there is an antidote.” Just because the vow of Amida Buddha promises to save even the most defiled of beings, that doesn’t mean you should commit murder and other crimes freely. Likewise, just because there is an antidote, it doesn’t mean you should keep putting poison into your system!

Then, there is a anecdote between Yuien and Shinran about what effect past Karma has on our actions in the present.

“Would you agree to anything I say, Yui-en?”

“Of course, I will,” I replied.

“Are you sure that you won’t disobey me?,” he repeated, and when I again agreed, he continued, “Go, then and kill a thousand people and your birth in the Pure Land is settled.’

“Even though that is your order,” I protested, “and even with the capacity for evil within me, I cannot kill even a single person.”

“Then why did you just say that you would not disobey what I, Shinran, said?” And then he went on, “By this we know that if we could act according to our thoughts, we could kill a thousand people for the sake of birth in the Pure Land if so required. We do not kill, not because our thoughts are good but because we do not have the karma to kill even a single person. Yet, even though we do not want to injure anyone, we may be led to kill a hundred or a thousand people.”

Our karma determines the actions that we are able to take in this lifetime, and our circumstances in this lifetime. There is no other possible explanation as to why some people are born in rich families and others in poor. Why some people live a lavish lifestyle and others who do not. Why there are some people who like peaches and other who like oranges. It is all due to the karma we have accumulated in the past life. Likewise, there are those who have the capacity to commit evil and those who do not. It is all dependent on Karma. Yet, under the correct circumstances, we cannot deny that every single one of us would be capable of evildoing. Imagine if someone did ask you to rob a bank. Would you do it? Mabe you would not, but what if you were robbing the bank to get medicine to save a dying family member or close friend? To pay for surgery to save yourself? Would you still deny that you are incapable of committing such a deed? I would think not. That is the sheer wonder of the working of Amida’s vow, which promises to save even the most defiled of beings. Everyone is defiled and so in relying on Amida’s vow, we are able to attain other power faith and achieve rebirth in his pure land. But whether we achieve rebirth in the pure land has nothing to do with our thoughts. We are always thinking, speaking and doing evil. Yes, there are intermittent thoughts of good, but this is not a factor that will determine whether we are able to achieve salvation or not.

When Dharmakara (Amida Buddha) spent 5 kalpas in contemplation, he also came to the very same conclusions. He has known the true nature of beings all along, and there is no way possible to fool him. Everything that is good and evil is only due to the workings of Karma. So, we should not pay attention to this, and leave it at that. These are called the evil passions which human beings suffer from. Through other power faith, their roots can become cut, however, our blind passions will still exist. The most important thing is to be true and entrusting to the vow of Amida Buddha, this is the one thing that can guarantee salvation and enlightenment.

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