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Lay Outreach and the Meaning of “Evil Person”

By Taitetsu Unno

This essay consists of three parts: 1) standard understanding of good and evil in Buddhism, 2) implications of good and evil for contemporary life, and 3) how we might appropriate these concepts to enhance the life of the ordinary person. Our focus is on lay outreach and how it might advance the cause of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).

One of the central ideas in Shinran's thought, expressed succinctly in the Tannisho, a collection of his sayings, is his statement that “even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person.” This radical pronouncement not only leads to misunderstanding but could also invite actions that undermine ethical and religious life, as is frequently evident in the history of religions. In order to properly understand Shinran's statement, we must clarify the different ways in which good and evil are used in his writings.

It should be clearly noted at the beginning that the terms “good” and “evil” are used within a Buddhist soteriological context. This means that the terms have a twofold usage: one on the ethical plane, and the other on the religious. On the ethical plane the two terms are shaped by historical, social, and personal views deemed essential and necessary to maintain an orderly society. In contrast, the second view of good and evil on the religious plane focuses on how one understands the meanings of life and death. We can describe this as the vertical aspect of one's life compared with the alternative view, which is a horizontal and objective view of life. Both the ethical and religious dimensions are essential for the good life, and we can find an abundance of both in the teachings of Buddhism.

One of the most famous exhortations for the ethical Buddhist life is found in the famous saying repeated countless times throughout history: “Practice good, avoid evil, and purify the mind—this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” The Buddhist path is replete with injunctions for such a life, leading some scholars to describe Buddhism not as a religion but as “ethical idealism.”

At the same time, however, the goal of the religious path is regarded as more basic and fundamental because it reveals the timeless value of this unrepeatable life and the bottomless significance of the here and now. The ultimate objective is to integrate the two dimensions into a single, unitary whole as illustrated by the Tendai vision of ten interdependent realms from the highest realm of Buddhahood to the lowest realm of hellish existence. This suggests that within Buddhahood is contained the potential for hellish existence, and within the latter the potential for Buddhahood.

This dual realization is inherited by Shinran, who expressed this unitary vision countless times. We quote, for example, two poems by him that reveal both aspects. The first poem reads:

Each of us in outward bearing
Makes a show of being wise, good and dedicated,
But so great are our greed, arrogance, perversity and deceit
That we are filled with all forms of malice and cunning.

But this is immediately followed by another poem:

Although I am without shame and self-reproach
And lack the mind of truth and sincerity,
Because the Name is directed by Amida,
Its virtues fill the ten quarters.

Here we see the convergence of evil being embraced by the Ultimate Good that is Amida.

The profound self-identity realized within Jodo Shinshu emerges from the life experience of its founder Shinran and countless faithfuls who followed in his footsteps. This experience is evident on the everyday level in numerous expressions of Shin teachings that are found in the vernacular. They include religious awareness loosely rendered into English, as follows: oroka (foolish), muchi (ignorant), tsumaranai (good-for-nothing), asamashii (shallow), nasakenai (pitiful), hazukashii (shameful), hakarai (calculating), wagamama (self-centered), and zurui (deceitful). In contrast to these negative terms, the positive expressions are summed up in a few terms, such as arigatai (grateful or thankful), mottainai (undeserving), etc.

The ultimate expression, however, is the nembutsu, Namu-amida-butsu, which transforms everything, both negative and positive, into the Highest Good. In the words of Saichi:

To be grateful
'Tis a lie 'tis a lie,

Here we see the goal of Shin Buddhist life as realizing wholeness of namu (relative being of evil) and amida-butsu (Buddha).

Such an integrated life, whereby the highest good and its direct opposite are experienced simultaneously faces a formidable challenge in the West, where the traditional Christian concept of sin has lost its significance. As Gerhard Schepers writes,

The problem of sin today no longer plays an important role it did in biblical thought or in the theology of Christian thought as in Augustine and Luther. For modern man the consciousness of sin seems, in most cases, no longer to be an existential problem and even for Christians it rarely is an essential element in their experience of faith. (Japanese Religions, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 2)

Thus, sin as religious language is replaced by modern phraseology that is more accessible for contemporaries, such as Paul Tillich, who discussed sin as “alienation” from self, world, and the ground of being.

As Shin Buddhists, however, how can we awaken to the twofold structure of nembutsu faith, realizing the oneness of boundless compassion (Amida Buddha) and limited karma-bound beings (you and me), simultaneously and gratefully? We have to begin by turning to our own experiences, based on the Buddha Dharma, and to see how the Shin teachings enhance our life, drawing from concrete happenings that have helped us through difficulties. Such an approach requires active involvement in the Buddha Dharma, or as one of our members stated, “playing or sporting in Shinran's garden,” where everyday challenges are met with new insights and boundless energy.

Here are some examples of such a life, culled from stories shared by Sangha members in Massachusetts. An estranged daughter, who has fought with her aged father all her life, visits him in the hospital and apologizes for being a willful daughter. The moment she says, “Dad, I'm sorry,” the father responds by saying, “No, no, I'm sorry for being so hard on you and never showing any affection. Please accept my apology.” She quietly intones “Namu-amida-butsu” with a deep sense of shame and gratitude.

In another family two sisters are both concerned with the well being of their elderly and sickly mother. The older sister blames the younger one for being negligent, leading to harsh counter charges. But she finally realizes the working of Other Power and writes, “I came to the point where I experienced my mother, my sister and myself all as beneficiaries of Great Compassion already acting in the world, and I could let go of my ego-calculation (somewhat) and feel grateful.”

A young man studies his family history in the South and recounts generations of bigotry that he inherits and vows to overcome his family's past, recalling the egalitarian view of Shinran who saw all people as his equals—peasants and merchants, hunters and fishermen, women and men regardless of social class—and as children of Amida.

A scholar is mistakenly arrested and jailed in Southeast Asia. Instead of anger he develops a sense of compassion for his captors, declaring, “They, too, are my brothers.” And chanting the Name of Amida Buddha, he repeats, “I am alive, I am here this moment. My future is here and now.”

We can cite other examples, but it is crucial that we share our own stories about playing in Shinran's garden where the sky is blue, the sun is warm, cool breeze blows, birds sing, and flowers bloom. This is the Pure Land of Amida depicted in the Smaller Pure Land Sutra. We are all parts of this wonderful realm, which is ours to enjoy here and now.

Next article:
What Accounts for the Success of Soka Gakkai? Lessons for the Renewal of Shin Buddhism in North America, by Roger Corless

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