Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

John Paraskevopoulos

Blind Passion

Pure Land Buddhism has been described as a spiritual path for those with little or no capacity for cultivating virtue and attaining wisdom through traditional practices. In appealing to the 'ordinary' man, this path has been disparaged by the more conservative schools for pandering to mediocrity and moral laxity because of an absence of any kind of discipline or obligatory code of conduct. In view of the rather pervasive nature of these criticisms, it is important to tackle them head-on and dispel certain misconceptions.

The focus of Shinran's teaching is the person of 'blind passion' because he was convinced that the object of Amida Buddha's Primal Vow is precisely such a person. What does it mean to be a person of 'blind passion'? The translators involved in the Shin Buddhism Translation Series offer the following insight:

Blind passion (bonno) is a comprehensive term descriptive of all the forces, conscious and unconscious, that propel the unenlightened person to think, feel, act and speak - whether in happiness or sorrow - in such a way as to cause uneasiness, frustration, torment and pain and sorrow mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically for themselves and others. While Buddhism makes a detailed and subtle analysis of blind passion, employing such terms as craving, anger, delusion, arrogance, doubt and wrong views, fundamentally it is rooted in the fierce, stubborn clinging to the foolish and evil self that constitutes the basis of our existence. When we realize the full implications of this truth about ourselves, we see that the human condition is itself nothing but blind passion. Thus, just to live, or wanting to live, as an unenlightened being is to manifest blind passion at all times, regardless of what we may appear to be. One comes to know this, however, only through the illumination of great compassion. Hence, awakening to one's own nature is called the wisdom of shinjin, and the person who realizes it has already been grasped by the Primal Vow.

This passage has been quoted at length as it serves as an excellent summary of the nature of blind passion and its crucial role in bringing our spiritual life to fulfilment and maturity. If one honestly considers the above statement and what it entails for oneself, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are all afflicted by bonno, to some degree or another. Shinran insists that any trace of bonno in a person is sufficient to preclude the attainment of enlightenment. He goes further and states that any actions undertaken by a person of blind passion are fruitless and cannot break the cycle of ignorance and delusion. In other words, the benighted ego cannot transcend itself. It requires another power to illuminate it for what it is and to show it the way to true liberation from such a woeful state. This power is Amida Buddha's Primal Vow.

All this struck many of Shinran's contemporaries as unjustifiably pessimistic and defeatist. They argued that Shinran was had too bleak a view of human nature and that he was, effectively, 'selling it short'. The prevailing view of the time was that each person was possessed of the Buddha-nature (bussho) which effectively ensured the enlightenment of all people if they would only subject themselves to the proper discipline and practices prescribed by the Buddha.

Shinran never denied the existence of Buddha-nature - in fact, he equated it with shinjin which he saw as the Mind of the Buddha that is awakened in people through the Buddha's own initiative and power. However, he denied that it was possible for a person without such an awakening to reach a state of enlightenment. After all, a deluded ego has no other resources to draw on except its own ignorance - it simply digs a bigger hole for itself convinced, all along, that it is making 'progress'. Talk of 'pessimism' and 'defeatism' is neither here nor there. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and how can any person of sound mind, in taking a good hard look at the world and his fellow man, fail to see the desperate plight of humanity as it suffers terribly from the 'three poisons' of anger, greed and stupidity ? Proclaiming such an insight takes courage and acute perspicacity. It actually acts as a spur towards finding a true and lasting solution to the peril of the human condition rather than resting content with banal and superficial palliatives. These are false and pernicious comforts that merely fuel our existential illusion.

True wisdom and spiritual relief can only come from the Buddha. Any human contrivance aimed at curtailing our blind passions is sure to prove as ephemeral and transitory as human life itself. Only that which is Infinite can attain the Infinite. Our longing for salvation is, in fact, the call of the Buddha deep within us seeking to be liberated but this can only be achieved by the complete abandonment of our 'false' self and its deceptive wiles. Only through complete surrender to the eternal life that is Amida Buddha can we hope to have the heavy burden of bonno lifted and transmuted by His wisdom and compassion. This act of letting go and allowing Amida to 'overwhelm' us, so to speak, is all we need to do. It is to permit the Buddha-nature to work on us without interference from our calculating ego, thereby ensuring our swift and unfettered attainment of enlightenment in the Pure Land.

Assuredly, the spiritual quest is full of dangerous perils and painful trials. All the more reason, then, to confront this quest with the utmost honesty whatever the cost. Each person must make a judgement as to their real aptitude and capabilities and decide their own course in following the path of the Dharma. Shinran encouraged people to make up their own minds and never insisted that they accept anything on his own authority. Choices must be made but these, too, can be fraught with imponderable difficulties. However, Shinran's great merit was to insist that we be true to ourselves, even if what we see is unpleasant, and to remind us that there is a way out of our impasse if we would but only lift our gaze to a level where the Buddha's blinding light is able to transform our debilitating bonno into unalloyed joy.

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