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

Shozomatsu Wasan 5

The Great Collection Sutra teaches
That we are now in the fifth period of five-hundred years;
Because people are resolute in conflict and dispute,
The pure dharma is concealed in dormancy.


When the Dharma is 'concealed in dormancy' our capacity to think and act in a truly compassionate way is also 'concealed in dormancy'. As I have pointed out before, I think that the kindness we considered in relation to Koso Wasan 96 is not the same thing as compassion. In the Buddhist sense, compassion is based on wisdom (prajna) and involves 'becoming the other'. Kindness is based on the recognition of kinship, or common experience; but compassion derives from full understanding and knowledge of the other. It is an understanding so great that the compassionate one feels and knows the other's pain.

Strife may result from a superficial or even nescient appraisal of another, but not always. It is the antithesis of compassion. It is not the same thing as, for example, understanding another person's 'culture', 'religion' or 'circumstances' but in identifying wholly with the other. Compassion is not entirely rational or cerebral in this way. It is, in my view, no longer possible, therefore, for an ordinary person to be compassionate. So now we are islands, ships passing in the night, self-absorbed shadows that fall across other paths and then flit away.

Strife that is engendered by religion is a most intriguing - and, in my view, tragic - phenomenon, because its underpinning is sometimes that it is claimed as a virtue. I am referring to the fact that those religious traditions that emerged from the Middle East, were founded by men who explicitly sanctioned the idea that dissent or diversity in religious belief and practice should sometimes be addressed with violence.

Although violence inspired by religion is loudly bemoaned in our time, in Europe the belief that religious organisations should be restrained from violence is only relatively new. It was the men of the 'Enlightenment', especially the utilitarians and liberals, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who first offered a serious challenge to the traditional assumptions. These men suggested that religious violence was undesirable because it is incompatible with the common good.

Yet, European religion is informed by teachings that are very complex and contrary. They teach love and consideration for others but at the same time seem to sanction violence against dissent. It is argued that dissent is a disruption of the commonly agreed standards - and practices and traditions - that are conducive to harmony. In the past the tradition has contended that dissent itself - not the violent suppression of it - is the source of social disorder and disharmony.

One of the most acute examples of this in European history was the rise of the Cathars in Provence during the twelfth and eleventh centuries. The Cathars appear to have taught that the creator of the world was evil and that commonly accepted mores should therefore be abrogated. Procreation, for example, was deprecated by these people. This must have been shocking for those who were concerned about the future of society, since Catharism was gaining popularity. Although there was a long-established tradition of clerical celibacy and monasticism in western Europe at this time, it is quite another thing to condemn procreation altogether. It is also clearly offensive to say that the deity worshipped by the majority of people is evil.

The Cathars and their Armenian antecedents, the Paulicians, were both utterly exterminated by the Roman and Byzantine churches, respectively. In this way it was supposed that the divinity was honoured and the harmony and security of society was restored. We modern people of European background prefer to see these events as aberrant but it is the liberal or utilitarian view of human society that has inspired an amelioration of the religious strife that prevailed for almost two thousand years.

The Buddhaic traditions that once prevailed east of the Caspian Sea and Mesopotamia took a different view about the way to achieve social harmony. Shakyamuni accepted the reality of dissent and encouraged reasoned argument and pluralism. The way in which harmony was attained was by way of tolerance (Sk. kshanti), which was elevated to a high virtue and is associated with patience, self-restraint and endurance.

Although this resembles modern 'Enlightenment' and liberal values, there is no relationship between them. Liberal views are based on the proposition that human reason is the supreme locus of authority, whereas the Buddhist idea of tolerance is based upon non-ego (Sk. anatman) - that self-assertion ought to be mollified, even when it involves one's religious convictions.

As a result of Shakyamuni's views, the Sangha has historically been plural and relatively peaceful; signs of the violent suppression of dissent only emerged, right on cue in Shinran Shonin's estimate, around a thousand years ago - at the dawn of the Age of Mappo. The importance of tolerance in the Buddhist tradition is so powerful and such a compelling assumption that any other form of discourse was inconceivable until that time. Hence, the Buddha sasana witnessed the proliferation of a vast range of practices and teachings very soon after its establishment. These varied schools are famous for the way in which they lived in relative harmony, and mutual respect, for some fifteen centuries.

During Genshin's time the plurality and harmony continued to prevail. No one suggested that Genshin and those who followed his teachings should be exterminated or violently suppressed. But as the Age of Mappo began to deepen, such attitudes did indeed begin to emerge. It was the strife that afflicted the Buddhist community in tandem with the rise of the sectarian Pure Land movement under the guidance of the remarkable and gentle sage Honen Shonin that informed Shinran's experience. He saw in the realities that impinged upon his personal experience that afflicting passions and social strife had become normative. Indeed they are.

Even the Buddha Dharma, so long a source of tolerance and harmony, was being overwhelmed and silenced by egoistic self-assertion. The Age of Mappo is not just an idea, it is an historical fact. Its bitter fruit began to be harvested at around the beginning of the last milennium throughout the Buddhist world, reaching the holy city of Kyoto eight hundred years ago.

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