Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Shozomatsu Wasan 56

Although we have the teachings of Shakyamuni,
There are no sentient beings who can practice them;
Hence, it is taught that in the last dharma-age,
Not a single person will attain enlightenment through them.

No Enlightenment

Shinran Shonin is here reiterating a self-evident truth: that, in the last dharma-age, it is not possible for a person to become enlightened. He is careful to make it clear, however, that he intends no critique of Shakyamuni's teaching, which is still true, even though no one can any longer attain enlightenment thereby. In other words, it is not the fault of the sutras that enlightenment has become impossible; it is just the supremely unfortunate fact that we have been born into the last dharma-age.

Careful reflection on Shinran's statement will give us ample evidence of its veracity. Although there are those who claim to be enlightened - and some who even claim that shinjin is enlightenment-, the fact is that the presence of blind passions indicates the absence of enlightenment. Any person who manifests greed, anger or delusion, is not enlightened.

In addition to this, although they are sometimes used, neither rationalisations nor sophistry carry much weight. There is no such thing, for example, as 'righteous anger' in an enlightened person. This is because anger is one of the blind passions that was identified by the Abhidharma and Vijnaptimatrata Schools. Furthermore, when it comes to the question of shinjin it must be remembered that shinjin includes a profound awareness of one's own blind passions. Such an awareness immediately disqualifies shinjin as being tantamount to enlightenment.

It is no wonder that enlightenment is not possible in our time. Our society has enshrined the blind passions as virtues. For example, our economy is considered to be unhealthy if it is not driven by an endemic acquisitiveness that engenders greater productivity and growth. Envy plays an important part in this function and was identified by the Vijnaptimatratra School as a blind passion. An adversarial culture that plays one group off against another in both law and governance is based on several blind passions - enmity, affliction, pride, and arrogance.

In my view, it is just not possible to participate in society as a responsible citizen and be enlightened. We are condemned to live in a world of relativity that is guided by the only value system that is universally understood - Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has become the almost unchallenged basis for current values. Indeed, it can be shown that even the traditional religions of European society now speak in Utilitarian terms when addressing the public. Although both the systems and the society that they support are currently falling apart, they are being displaced by a mature consumer ethic that will dictate values in a significantly more arbitrary way. So there is unlikely to be a context that is more congenial to enlightenment any time soon.

In the tradition of the Buddha Dharma it is usually understood that the attainment of enlightenment requires a path that replicates the one that Shakyamuni trod. This may involve some six years in rigorous ascetic practices. At the very least a life-or-death struggle is likely for the aspirant. Certainly profound and prolonged dedication to the cause is due. Yet, with few exceptions, practice is severely curtailed in western society and most people engage in spiritual excercises that are immensely useful in themselves but do not demonstrate the depth of commitment that enlightenment would entail.

It must be understood, however, that Shinran's assessment does not portend a criticism of either Shakyamuni's teaching or of individuals. When it comes to those who follow the Path of Sages, it is worth remembering that such disciples do not usually see themselves as in any way drawing near to enlightenment, to say nothing of already having reached that exalted state. Certainly, in the Mahayana the third through to the final (tenth) stages of the bodhisattva path are at a level that has already exceeded ordinary mundane existence. So we are not likely ever to meet anyone who is even on the cusp of enlightenment. All orthodox followers of the exoteric streams of the Path of Sages aspire to be born during the life-time of the next Buddha - or must be born as Buddhas in a realm well beyond this one.

In the Vajrayana, or 'Mikkyo' traditions, enlightenment has an esoteric significance and meaning. The use of language and terminology in these schools belongs to a special hermeneutic. From Shinran's point of view, it seems evident that he was not including these schools in his statement that there is no one who can attain enlightenment, since his considerations are outside the purview of these teachings. There is a passage in A Record in Lament of Divergences, in which Shinran seems to accept the validity of the claims of these schools, seeing them as working in a different arena of endevour.

The fact that no one can attain enlightenment in the last dharma-age, is initially a cause for lament. However, it has two strong positive aspects. The first is that we ought to accept that any personal sense of failure, disappointment and despair that we might have as aspirants for self-improvement, which has enlightenment as its ultimate goal, is not a source of self-deprecation. It is not our personal short-comings that are the problem. The problem lies in the unfortunate fact that we have been born in the last dharma-age. We are the victims of circumstances.

The second positive aspect of living in the last dharma-age is that we are invited to entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and gain enlightenment at birth in the Pure Land. It is rare for people to avail themselves of this path unless they have first come face to face with the galling realities that are symptomatic of the Last Dharma-age. When they do, however, joy soon displaces despair.

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