Unlocking Tannisho, Part 17

XIV

Some people say that one should believe that heavy evils of eight billion kalpas can be extinguished in the single utterance of nembutsu. This view refers to an evil person, guilty of ten vices and five transgressions, who has never said the nembutsu throughout life but who for the first time at the moment of death is told by a good teacher: nembutsu uttered once shall extinguish the evils accumulated in eight billion kalpas, and nembutsu uttered ten times shall extinguish the evils accumulated in eighty billion kalpas, thus leading to birth in the Pure Land. Is the single utterance or ten utterances meant to suggest the relative weights of ten vices and five transgressions? if so, this refers to the utility value of nembutsu in extinguishing evil. This is far different from our understanding. The reason is that in the awakening of one thought-moment, having been illuminated by Amida’s light, we are endowed with true entrusting which is firm as a diamond; thus, we are already included in the stage of the truly settled. When our life comes to an end, all the blind passions and evil hindrances are immediately transformed into the realization of the “wisdom of non- origination.”

Realizing that without this compassionate Vow, wretched and evil beings such as ourselves can never go beyond birth-and-death, we should know that all the nembutsu said throughout our lifetime simply expresses our gratitude to the benevolence and virtues of Tathagata’s compassion.

To believe that each saying of nembutsu extinguishes evil is to seek birth in the Pure Land by eliminating evil thoughts through one’s own efforts. If that is the case, since every thought we think in life binds us to birth-and-death, we must say the nembutsu until the final moment, continuously and consistently, without ever attaining birth. But since karmic consequences are decisive, we may end our life because of unforeseen accidents or we may be tormented by illness without ever attaining right-mindedness. Saying the nembutsu in such a state would be, indeed, most difficult. How are we to extinguish evil in such a state? If evil cannot be extinguished, then is attaining birth impossible?

When we entrust ourselves to the Vow that grasps us never to abandon us, we shall quickly attain birth, regardless of whether we commit evils for unknown reasons and even end our lives without saying the nembutsu. And when we say the nembutsu spontaneously, our trust in Amida becomes stronger and our gratitude to Tathagata becomes deeper as we approach the moment of supreme enlightenment. To desire to extinguish evil is the thought of self-power, the intention of those who hope to achieve right-mindedness at the moment of death. This shows the lack of true entrusting which is made possible by the working of Other Power.

Explanation:

This chapter is talking about the misunderstanding that a single recitation of the Nembutsu (by one’s own power) is enough to extinguish 8 billion kalpas of evil. Actually, I have heard this many times before, and it is still a misunderstanding that happens in this day and age.

First of all, we are talking about reciting the Nembutsu under our own power. This alone tells you that it is not plausible. Even having attained other power faith, we can only but say the Nembutsu out of true compassion and gratitude towards Amida Buddha for having saved us from the torturous cycle of birth and death.

Suppose that one has done nothing but commit evil throughout his whole life and in old age, encounters a master who teaches him of the Nembutsu. He says the Nembutsu once, and this extinguishes 8 billion kalpas of evil karma. However, the one thing that is missing from this picture is the fact that humans beings are defiled to the core, and can do nothing but commit evil with the mind, body and mouth. So, although saying the Nembutsu once may (in erroneous theory) extinguish 8 billion kalpas of evil, it is impossible to destroy all the evil which we have accumulated because we commit evil every hour of every day. Should we keep saying the Nembutsu every minute then until death? And what happens if we are unable to do that while having grown ill? It is simply an impossible feat that makes no sense. That is what this passage presents.

“To desire to extinguish evil is the thought of self power.” In Buddhism, while we are still alive, the evil and blind passions that make up our being will always be there. The purpose of Buddhism is not to extinguish these passions, but actually take control of them, reflect upon them, and be the master of them. We must, in effect, become more self aware of what deeds we are truly doing and capable of. It is only after we do that that we are able to abandon all self power efforts and enter into other power faith.

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