Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

John Paraskevopoulos

The Human Condition

Because the power of the vow is without limits,
Even our evil karma, so deep and heavy is not burdensome,
Because the Buddhas wisdom is without bounds,
Even the bewildered and wayward are not abandoned.
(Shozomatsu Wasan 37)

While initially giving the appearance of presenting a rather bleak portrait of the human condition, the above verse contains, in fact, an important insight into the nature of the Buddha's compassion. When fully appreciated, it is capable of providing a liberating vision of spiritual emancipation for ordinary people.

What Shinran is trying to tell us here is that we should not be judging our spiritual worth by merely human standards which are, perforce, limited and distorted. Many sincere individuals who earnestly follow a spiritual path become easily discouraged as they soon begin to realize their many flaws and infirmities. A sense of unworthiness often develops in response to the countless imperfections we recognize as we come to deepen our self-awareness. This awareness, of course, is often a consequence of following a spiritual commitment or, at the very least, of recognizing a higher reality against which one judges oneself. Many individuals who lack such a commitment are often oblivious to such insights with respect to themselves as they lack the appropriate benchmark by which they can make an accurate assessment of their true natures.

Neverthless, there are dangers in coming to this awareness if one draws the wrong conclusions from it. It is not uncommon to encounter spiritual confessions in a number of the world's religious traditions where the individual in question expresses a profound self-hatred and sense of worthlessness in the face of Divine perfection. Occasionally, this can lead to extreme ascetic practices designed to crush one's ego or to even punish oneself physically. While such practices can serve as a corrective to address particular anomalies in one's self perception, more often than not, they can also greatly harm an individual and effect damaging distortions in one's spiritual life. The Buddha always exhorted individuals to avoid such extremes and to adopt a more measured and balanced approach in these matters.

Shinran's verse is important because it provides us with a crucial key in ensuring that we able to achieve such a balance. The recognition that our karmic burden is 'deep and heavy' and that we often feel 'bewildered and wayward' is a natural and honest response to the difficulties we all face in following the Buddha's call to a life of transcendence amidst the pain and turmoil of this world. Anyone who claimed that such a vocation can be pursued without considerable and confronting challenges is deluding themselves. However, the crucial insight that Shinran brings to this situation is that the Buddha does not judge us because of our limitations and spiritual poverty. The Buddha does not 'weigh up' our good and bad qualities and come to some overall assessment as to our worthiness of being 'saved'. The Buddha, in his boundless and inconceivable compassion, fully comprehends the human condition with all its tragic consequences. Such compassion would be meaningless if it did not embrace everyone despite these crippling flaws and obstacles in our natures. Such compassion is the preserve of the Buddha alone, not ordinary people who can only manifest it imperfectly. As Shinran observes in his Tannisho, there is no 'good' that we can do to earn our liberation and there is no flaw so bad that can impede the Buddha's desire to save us from our woeful state in this world.

As the verse says, the Buddha never abandons us even if we feel that we are utterly undeserving of his compassion. The recognition that we are saved despite ourselves, is the very thing that allows our karmic weight to no longer be as 'burdensome' for the Buddha takes it on his shoulders, so to speak, and assures us that it is no longer an impediment to our being embraced by his wisdom and compassion. To be sure, we still feel the bitter pain and disappointment of our own manifold shortcomings but we no longer have the added burden of feeling that we are thereby excluded from the Buddha's grace.

Such a realization should prompt an attitude of joy and gratitude and not a wanton abandonement to our every whim and desire. It is easy, but rather facile, to think that because the Buddha accepts us as we are, that we are somehow at liberty to continue wallowing in our own delusions and destructive passions. While the Buddha rejects no one who genuinely seeks refuge in him, despite all our 'evil karma', it does not follow from this that we should, in what could only be described as a calculating manner, proceed to feed this karma with more harmful actions and thoughts. It is a subtle point and one that is readily misunderstood, but there is a profound difference between being subject to blind passions by virtue of simply being human and actively seeking to perpetuate this state of affairs through a contrived attitude which says, as Shinran noted, that I should continue to take poison simply because I have access to an antidote.

Ultimately, the Buddha's message is one of joy in the liberating knowledge that our salvation from the fetters of human existence is not, in any way, subject to what we do, can do or should do. Of course, we seek to live our lives as humanely as we can with due regard to the well-being of others. Unfortunately, however, this is not always possible. Despite our very best intentions, we do often hurt other people and cause untold damage in all sorts of subtle ways - to ourselves, the environment, and to animals.

We should live our lives with our eyes wide open to all that we are and to all that we do. We should be honest about our capacities and not delude ourselves that we are better than we really are or superior to others. In the face of the Buddha's purity and perfection, we are as nothing. In relation to his steadfast promise of complete emancipation, we should take stock of our true worth and gratefully accept this gift with profound gratitude.

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