Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Yoshifumi Ueda

What is Good ?  And Evil ?

Many people have heard of Shinran's admission, 'I do not know what the two, good and evil, really mean.' (Tannisho, Epilogue) Here Shinran pleads ignorance about the nature of good and evil. That means he lived in a world in which he did not know what good and evil really are.

We cannot function as a member of society unless we have some notion of good and evil. We must know what is right and wrong, good and bad, even in the simplest daily acts. When we meet someone early in the day, we say, 'Good morning' and when we take leave of a friend we say, 'Good bye'. We should not be late for school, or break a promise. As human beings we are expected to act in certain ways and, when we don't, we are branded as bad or evil. We are taught proper behavior as children: we distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad when we become adults. Without a sense of morality, human society cannot be maintained.

Shinran also received the normal upbringing of his times and learned what was right and wrong. He was orphaned as a child, entered the Buddhist monastery at a tender age, undertook rigorous discipline and practice for 20 years. Thus, when he says, 'I do not know what good and evil really mean', he is not saying that he is confused or ignorant about what the ordinary person knows about good and evil. He is referring to something else. The good and evil that he says he knows nothing about is not the ordinary, moral sense of good and evil, conceived with human self interest at the core and changing with different societies and times.

But if Shinran is not talking about ordinary, moralistic good and evil, what was he referring to? What other kind of good and evil is there? We rarely give thought to good and evil other than the conventional ones taught to us by society but, from what Shinran says, as reflected in his admission concerning ignorance of good and evil, he was aware of another kind of good and evil. What did he know, and how did he know it?

Shinran knew another kind of good and evil through the nembutsu, Namu amida butsu. That is, he could talk about not knowing what is good and what is evil through the nembutsu as wisdom granted to him by Amida Buddha. This is called eko, the wisdom directed to and transferred to all beings by Amida. Such common expressions as 'the wisdom of shinjin' or 'the nembutsu of wisdom' attest to the fact that Shinran was aware of another depth dimension of human awakening. This other kind of good and evil cannot be known through common sense, logic, philosophy or science. It can be known only through the words, Namu amida butsu or through the mind awakened by shinjin. More precisely, the words selected to make us aware of such a good and evil are Namu amida butsu and the mind selected for our awakening is the true, real and sincere mind that is shinjin.

Through the spiritual reality called Amida Buddha and the wisdom granted him through the nembutsu, Shinran realized that he knew nothing about good and evil. That is, he saw that the moral good and evil on the relative plane that he felt he knew was neither truly good nor truly evil. In fact, the nembutsu as wisdom made him aware that moral good and evil are both false, rooted in a deeper form of fundamental evil, an egoistic self interest. He was able to see this fundamental evil at the core of both moral good and evil because he had awakened to another kind of good and evil.

Since moral good on the relative plane is tainted by egoistic self interest, how can it be truly and really good? If even the highest good act is poisoned by egoism, it is not good but evil, an evil so profound that it makes ordinary 'good' an expression of evil. Shinran calls this 'karmic evil' or 'evil karma', suggesting its deep roots in the past and present. The wisdom directed to him by Amida is what made such an awareness possible.

Even on the common sense, moral plane, a thinking person can easily see an ulterior motive, an egoistic self interest, behind a so called good act. But we do not condemn it as evil; we still consider it 'good'. If we should condemn any good tainted with egoism as evil, we will not be able to find any good anywhere. Simply put, this means that if we accept morality as we know it, it cannot completely transcend egoistic self interest.

Through the nembutsu, however, Shinran awakened to good in the true and real sense, untainted by human egoism. He realized that the highest good allowed him to see moral good as inherently defiled and evil. His awakening came by virtue of the working of Amida's Primal Vow, directed to and given to him in the form of the nembutsu. The fundamental evil he was able to recognize is so deep and broad that moral evil cannot even begin to compare with it. On the moral plane, what we call evil has room to recognize its opposite, good (good and evil are relative), but the fundamental evil brought to light by the good that is true, real, and sincere (absolute good) is so profound that it makes moral good reveal its true face as evil (absolute evil). This fundamental evil is so deep and broad that even Shinran did not know its depth (hence called 'karmic evil' or 'evil karma'), giving rise to such statements as 'Under the influence of our karmic past we human beings will do anything'. (Tannisho XIII). This means that just because a person does not commit evil does not mean that he is good; it just means that the influence of past karma has not yet borne fruit.

Although Shinran came to know the true, real, and sincere good through the nembutsu, that does not mean he knew true good itself or knew the totality of true good. He merely had a brief glimpse of it through the nembutsu as suggested by his admission that 'I could say I knew what good is, if I knew good as thoroughly and completely as the Tathagata' (Tannisho, Epilogue). Only the Buddha can know the totality of true, real, and sincere good. Having gotten a glimpse of the true good through the nembutsu, however, Shinran realized that human beings do not really know what is good and what is evil.

We may ask, why, if Shinran came to know the nature of good and evil through the nembutsu, did he not realize the true good himself? The reason, he admits, is because he is nothing but human egoism itself: 'In this foolish being filled with blind passion, living in this impermanent world that is like a burning house, all things are empty and vain; therefore, untrue' (Tannisho Epilogue). On the other hand, you may ask further, if he is so filled with egoism, how could he even get a glimpse of true good? And the answer is that because Shinran is absolutely incapable of seeing true good, Amida Buddha, out of pity and concern, grants him true wisdom through the nembutsu. But as long as he is a person of karmic evil, even the power of Amida cannot give him access to the entirety of the good that is true, real, and sincere.

While Shinran considered himself as nothing but a foolish being empty, vain, and untrue he was given access to true, real, and sincere good by the working of Amida. That access enabled him to live in the world of true good and true evil. That is why Shinran was able to live out his life based on the wisdom of shinjin or the nembutsu of wisdom and not on worldly values or human morality. Thus, Shinran could say, 'In entrusting ourselves to the Primal Vow, no other form of good is necessary, for there is no good that surpasses the nembutsu' (Tannisho I).

This means that Shinran simultaneously lived in the world of fundamental evil, which is bottomlessly true and real. That is to say, for him both true evil and true good manifested what is true, real, and sincere. Everything in the world in which Shinran lived completely shed all forms of illusion; and people, things, and his own existence manifested reality. Through the nembutsu and shinjin, the true, real, and sincere world, boundless in space and time, permeated Shinran's life, whether in the direction of good or in the direction of evil. Shinran devoted his life to making us aware of this true world through various problems we encounter (in this case, good and evil) and using every possible means. The fascination that Shinran holds for us today comes from this true, real, and sincere world that exists deep below his life. His wisdom and compassion that flows out from such a world beckons us toward him without end.

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