The Meaning of the "Exclusion Clause"
in the Primal Vow

by Paul Roberts

Posted on the True Shin Buddhism Yahoo! group March, 2012


The purpose of this essay, culled from several Dharma discussions we have had in our online Sangha, is to explain the "Exclusion Clause" of the Primal (18th Vow).

The reason it is an important subject to discuss in detail is that the Exclusion Clause is often very problematic for sincere seekers who are brought by Amida to the Shin Sangha. 

Either for imagined reasons, or real ones, such seekers wonder if perhaps THEY are excluded from the Primal Vow.  This essay addresses those concerns.

In Part 1, we discuss the actual Dharma message.  We talk about the Dharma TRUTH that no one is actually excluded, and we show WHY that is so.  We also examine why Master Shinran considers "slander of the Dharma" the worst possible karmic offense.

In Part 2, we shift from thinking about the Dharma, to thinking about OURSELVES.  We talk about the fact that even if we haven't slandered the Dharma, or committed one of the Five Great Offenses, we are no better off than someone who had.  Whether we had done such evil deeds, or not - we were STILL in the same position of wandering through Samsaric existence, drowning over and over in the vast ocean of birth and death, entirely unable to paddle our little raft to the far shore of full enlightenment.

And finally, in Part 3, we examine the deep truth of KARMA, as Master Shinran understood and explained it.  We recognize that whatever we have done, or not done - for good or for evil - has powerful roots in our karmic past.  If, in this life, we have killed 1000 people, or committed any of the Five Great Offenses, or even slandered the Dharma - our deeds have their roots in our karmic past.  And similarly, if we have never done such evil things in this life, this too has karmic roots in our karmic past.

When we understand these ESSENTIAL thoughts shared by Master Shinran, Master Rennyo, the Seven Pure Land masters and Shakyamuni Buddha Himself, we are able to listen deeply to the Primal Vow, AND to the Exclusion Clause, with both intellectual understanding, and inner gratitude that is free from any fear or anxiety whatsoever.

Part 1

One of our members wrote me the other day, asking me about the exclusion clause in the Primal (18th) Vow in the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life.  His question was not merely intellectual - but personal.  He is concerned that he has committed the ultimate karmic evil of slandering the Dharma, and is wondering, with some fear, if this will prevent him from receiving SHINJIN and becoming a Buddha at the end of this life - even though that is his deepest aspirational desire.

It is an outstanding question - and one deserving of a serious answer.  So I want to spend some time discussing it, for the benefit of everyone.

Let's start by reviewing the Primal Vow once again:


If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma."


So, first there is the Vow itself, made by Bodhisattva Dharmakara.  And then, appended to it, we find the exclusion clause - apparently excluding those who commit the five gravest offenses, and those who abuse the right Dharma.

In Master Shinran's translation, he uses the word SLANDER rather than ABUSE: 


"Excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right dharma."


Now - let's start with a critical GENERAL PRINCIPLE for understanding the True Teaching of the Pure Land Way.  That principle is this: 

You must have a clear understanding of the big picture - the primary themes - that define the Dharma, before trying to parse an individual phrase that you might encounter in your own reading and study.

To use Shakyamuni's wonderful metaphor:  You have to have a clear vision of what the whole elephant looks like, before you start to look at the elephants tail, or trunk, or toe nail.

Unfortunately, most Shin Buddhists - including most Shin Buddhist teachers - just don't do that.  They cherry pick here and there, and build a case for a Dharma message that has only the slightest resemblance to what our Dharma masters really teach.

That's why, when we teach here, we start with the basics - The Three Pillars of True Shin Buddhism.  That's why, when we recommend texts to study, we recommend Master Rennyo's letters, or (alternatively) Eiken Kobai Sensei's books. Through difficult and frustrating personal experience, we have found that if we don't teach in that way, people almost always become confused and frustrated, and never really "get" this wonderful, and supreme, Dharma message given for our benefit.

And of course, this isn't just our idea.  This is exactly what Master Rennyo figured out himself, when trying to help the various local Shin Sanghas come to settled SHINJIN.  He knew that if only he could ground people in the basics - what I call SHIN UGLY - or SHIN BUDDHISM 101 - that it would allow countless people to receive the full outpouring of Amida's grace.  That was the genius of his method, and that is why under his leadership the Shin Sangha experienced the most explosive growth in its entire history - saving it from the dustbin of history and establishing it as the largest school of Buddhism in Japan, ever.

So...what's the big picture?  What's the basic principle?  What's the fundamental Dharma idea that will allow us to understand the exclusionary clause PROPERLY?

The big picture is that Dharmakara spent many, many lives taking birth as a great and powerful Bodhisattva.  In each of those lives, the Larger Sutra tells us, He thought little about himself.  Instead He reached out to all sorts of people - plain people, common people, confused people - to help them in countless ways.  Even before He became a Buddha, He was guided by great compassion and great wisdom.  His intention was ever and always to make a way for people who had no way.

And the pinnacle of His work - His great achievement - demonstrates how His great compassion became INFINITE compassion, as He emerged as the Buddha of Infinite Life and Infinite Light.

So clearly - CLEARLY - it just doesn't make any sense to think that somehow His Infinite compassion could be limited to those who haven't done the worst, and most terrible, karmic deeds.

We don't even have to look at Dharmakara/Amida to see this.  We see it - in preview form - in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha.  He rejected no one who wanted to be His disciple.

One of my very favorite stories is about what happened one day when Shakyamuni was walking alone in the forest.  There was a crazy, homicidal maniac who lived there named Angulimala.  He used to lay in wait, to attack people and kill them.  He actually wore a necklace made of the fingers of his many victims.

So when Shakyamuni came strolling by, Angulimala began to follow him, with murderous intent.  But no matter how fast he walked, he couldn't seem to catch up with Shakyamuni.  Finally, he screamed out in rage, "WHY ARE YOU MOVING?".

The Buddha turned around, looked at him, and said, "Angulimala - why is your mind moving?".

At that moment, the power of Shakyamuni's Buddha-field overwhelmed Angulimala, knocking all the crazy out of his head.  Angulimala dropped to his knees, and worshipped the Buddha, and then arose as one of his disciples.

All that terrible karma, simply overwhelmed by the power and compassion of Shakyamuni!  How wonderful that is, and what a demonstration of the BIG PICTURE for us to understand and ponder, deep in our hearts.

And furthermore, Master Shinran declares this, quoting Shan-Tao, in the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho (KGSS):


The Pure Land is free forever from slander and dislike; all are equal, with no anxieties or afflictions. Whether human or deva, good or evil, all can reach the Pure Land.

On attaining it, their distinctions vanish; all equally enter the stage of nonretrogression.

Why is it thus? It comes about because Amida, in his causal stage, under the guidance of Lokesvararaja Buddha, abandoned his throne and left his home, and awakening the mind of compassion and wisdom, widely proclaimed his Forty-eight Vows.

Through the power of the Buddha's Vows, the karmic evil of the five grave offenses and the ten transgressions is eradicated and all are brought to attainment of birth. When those who slander the dharma or abandon the seed of Buddhahood turn about at heart, they all reach the Pure Land.


So...once we have a clear view of the BIG PICTURE, how do we explain the exclusionary clause of the Primal Vow?  What is the purpose of it?  Why did Dharmakara utter it?  What does it mean for us today, who are being called by Amida in this body, in this life?

The answer is that the exclusionary clause is an example of SKILLFUL MEANS in the declaration of the Dharma - one of many.  Its purpose is to provoke the very sort of Dharma dialogue that we are having right now.  Its purpose is to cause us not to take the Primal Vow lightly - as though it is some sort of lottery ticket or life insurance policy.  Its purpose is to aid us in LISTENING DEEPLY to the Dharma - with our whole mind and our whole heart - and not meander around in intellectualism, or mere religious formality.

So...what do we hear, when we listen deeply to the Dharma, when it comes to the exclusionary vow?   I hear several things, which I will share with you one at a time.

The FIRST thing I hear is that from the perspective Amida Buddha, and Shakyamuni Buddha, and Master Shinran abuse and slander of the right Dharma is an extremely serious karmic mistake - in fact, from their perspective, it is the WORST karmic evil a person could commit.

I didn't understand that early on in my own study of Shin Buddhism.  After all, I was listening to modernists who said, flat out, that Amida is not a real Buddha and the Pure Land is not a real place.  I was listening to educated and erudite men (and a few women) who thought that Carl Jung was a better source of Dharma truth than our Dharma masters.  And being sort of educated and erudite myself, I was into buying their ideas.

I had no idea how HARMFUL - how TOXIC - these ideas really were.  I had no idea that these ideas would absolutely prevent me from receiving Amida's gift and becoming a person of SHINJIN.  I had no idea that these ideas would literally prevent me from fulfilling what had long been my great goal - which was to become a fully enlightened being at long last.

And yet here is Master Shinran, in the KGSS once again:


Question: What are the characteristics of slandering the right dharma?

Answer: Saying there is no Buddha, no Buddha-dharma, no bodhisattva, no bodhisattva-dharma. Deciding on such views, whether through understanding thus in one's own mind or receiving the ideas from others, is called slandering the right dharma.


It was only the crushing blow of my daughter's death which revealed to me that these Dharma slanders totally undermined the very foundations of my own spiritual journey.  As everything in my little world collapsed, I saw, with true horror, that I literally had NOTHING to stand on, or depend on, because I had swallowed these Dharma slanders, and listened to these Dharma slanderers.

It was just then - in my darkest hour - that Amida led me to a TRUE teacher in the person of Eiken Kobai Sensei.   I was truly a drowning man, going under for the third time.  And yet, because of Eiken's TRUE words, I experienced Amida Buddha Himself reaching down to me, and pulling me up aboard the great ship of the Primal Vow.

I received Amida's inconceivable gift of SHINJIN - and my spiritual life has never been the same since.

Now...I want you to note well.  Because I had become a follower of these Dharma slanderers, I was a Dharma slanderer, too!  There's no denying it.  It was the truth of my life.

But the fact that I had slandered the Dharma in no way prevented Amida from reaching out to me with His Infinite Compassion.

Some have the understanding of the Exclusion Clause that it is a PERMANENT exclusion, rather than a TEMPORARY one. Further, some think that it is not really legitimate to use the writings of some lesser teacher who is not a Buddha to show that the exclusion is only temporary.

The answer to this problem is simple enough.

The Three core Sutras of Shin Buddhism are, in order of importance:

- The Larger Sutra of Amida Buddha
- The Contemplation Sutra
- The Smaller Sutra of Amida Buddha

The Contemplation Sutra is the one that resolves this intellectual problem. It tells the story of an incredibly dysfunctional royal family who lived during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.

As recorded in the sutra, the son of the king, Prince Ajatasatru, actually sought to kill both his father and his mother.  He was stopped from slaying his mother with his sword by his own counsellors, but he actually did execute his father.

Here's the point:  Prince Ajatasatru was definitely guilty of committing one (or perhaps two) of the Five Great Offenses - patricide and attempted matricide.  So if the Exclusion Clause of the Primal Vow was meant to be enforced as a PERMANENT ban from receiving the Buddha's grace, we'd see that in the Contemplation Sutra.

But that's not the vision we get from the Contemplation Sutra at all.  Instead, we get a vision (multiple visions actually) of Amida and His Pure Land - and a teaching from Shakyamuni Buddha about the nine grades of beings, including the lowest grade. Let's follow the sutra:


Finally, there are the beings who will be born in the lowest form of the lowest grade.
If there is any one who commits evil deeds, and even completes the ten wicked actions, the five deadly sins and the like; that man, being himself stupid and guilty of many crimes, deserves to fall into a miserable path of existence and suffer endless pains during many kalpas.

On the eve of death he will meet a good and learned teacher who will, soothing and encouraging him in various ways, preach to him the excellent Dharma and teach him the remembrance of Buddha, but, being harassed by pains, he will have no time to think of Buddha. Some good friend will then say to him: "Even if you cannot exercise the remembrance of Buddha, you may, at least, utter the name, "Buddha Amitayus."
Let him do so serenely with his voice uninterrupted; let him be (continually) thinking of Buddha until he has completed ten times the thought, repeating the formula, "Adoration to Buddha Amitayus" (Namah Amitabha Buddhayah, Namu Amida Butsu).

On the strength of his merit of uttering that Buddha's name he will, during every repetition, expiate the sins which involved him in births and deaths during eighty million kalpas. He will, while dying, see a golden lotus-flower like the disk of the sun appearing before his eyes; in a moment he will be born in the World of Highest Happiness.

After twelve greater kalpas the lotus-flower will unfold; thereupon the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, raising their voices in great compassion, will preach to him in detail the real state of all the elements of nature and the law of the expiation of sins. On hearing them he will rejoice and will immediately direct his thought toward the attainment of the Bodhi -- such are the beings who are to be born in the lowest form of the lowest grade to Buddhahood. The perception of the above three is called the meditation of the inferior class of beings, and is the Sixteenth Meditation.


Thus the Three Pure Land Sutras do give us the key to rightly understanding the Exclusion Clause of the Primal Vow.  CLEARLY Amida's grace is greater than any karmic evil that any of us could commit - even the very worst of us.  OBVIOUSLY the Exclusion Clause does not exclude anyone in any permanent way. are we to understand how the Exclusion Clause does exclude anyone at all?

Once again, it's very simple.

As long as someone is in the grip of such deep darkness that he (or she) would commit one of the Five Great Offenses, he is plunging himself into terrible darkness.  He is turning his back on the light, and putting himself into hell.  At that particular moment in his long journey of many lives, the Primal Vow can do him no good.  He is excluded from it - because he is excluding himself.

But if - at some point - even at the point of his death - he has a sincere change of heart, and turns towards the Light, he is excluded no more...just as Shakyamuni teaches right here.

And if he should die in his darkness, and have to endure some life or lives in some hell realm before finally expiating his evil karma, then when that expiation is done, he will once again be given the opportunity to experience the life and light of Amida Buddha - and respond to it once again.

Again, this call and response may happen over the course of many lifetimes...but ultimately, the outcome is certain:  Each and every being WILL - sooner or later - receive Amida's grace as it truly is, and thereby finally come to the end of their long journey in samsaric darkness.

And this is why ALL the countless Buddhas in the Ten Directions worship and praise Amida as the GREATEST of all the Buddhas, and work tirelessly with Him to lead sentient beings to take refuge fully and finally in Him.  They have come to know that His way of bringing people to the end of suffering and the beginning of Buddhahood is the BEST way - by far.  His way works - not just for the rare person of sterling character and strong will and fierce spiritual ambition - but for the plain person, the average person, and indeed the truly TERRIBLE person as well.

Someone as endarkened as Prince Ajatasatru was able to find Amida's light.  Someone as evil as Benno, who came to visit Master Shinran in order to assassinate him, was able to receive Amida's gift of SHINJIN and is now a Buddha.  And people who have actually slandered the Dharma, saying that Amida is not a real Buddha and the Pure Land is not a real place, have been able to repent of their slander and become people of SHINJIN.  We have several of them here among us.

So - simply from having some basic familiarity with the Three Pure Land Sutras - it is abundantly clear that in the end, each and every sentient being IS saved by Amida Buddha.  There is no need to go outside of these Sutras to know that fact.

I want to go back to explain WHY, in the minds of the Buddhas, slandering the Dharma is the WORST karmic evil - even greater than the evil of killing one's own father or mother.

It has to do with karmic EFFECT.

The Buddha taught that human birth is precious and exceedingly rare.  He said that when this life is over, we might not take birth in a human realm for countless ages. 

When you kill another human being - even your own parent - you are destroying one life.   You are ruining one person's chances of encountering the Dharma (or some other teaching) and responding in such a way that he or she has a good birth after this life is over.

But, when you slander the Dharma, you are destroying COUNTLESS lives.  It's impossible to calculate - for example - how many people here in America whose karma is ripe, who are already interested in Buddhism in one way or another - will not get to hear this wonderful Dharma because the American Shin Sangha has become so moribund after swallowing and regurgitating Dharma slander for many, many years.

I'm not the first person to think about this, of course.  It's exactly what Yuien-Bo was thinking about when he wrote the TANNISHO.  He literally wept as he wrote it (and I have wept too), thinking about how many people were going to be denied the opportunity to hear the Dharma and respond to it because the True Teaching was being polluted so badly with various sorts of divergences.

And Yuien-Bo's fears were prophetic.  The Shin Sangha struggled badly after Master Shinran's death, and declined precipitously in the first two centuries because of these divergences, and others.  If not for the great revival and restoration led by Master Rennyo, it certainly could have disappeared into the dust bin of history.

And if that had happened, would you or I even have gotten a chance to hear about Amida's salvic plan, much less respond to it, in this lifetime?

So...the FIRST purpose of this exclusionary clause is to get us to think deeply and reflectively about the Dharma.  We are actually SAVED by the Dharma.   The Dharma is Amida Buddha's method to get our minds to think and feel in a way that will enable us to receive Amida gift of SHINJIN.  As I have said so forcefully and so often, it is absolutely essential that those who are called to teach are good custodians of this Dharma - and do everything in their power to keep it PRISTINE.

And it is absolutely essential, as well, for those who are being called by Amida Buddha to listen ONLY to this pristine Dharma, so that they may be led and guided in the most direct way possible to respond to it, by entrusting themselves and their karmic destiny ENTIRELY to Amida Buddha - just as our Dharma masters tell us to do.

This is not some intellectual or philosophical hobbyhorse of mine, Dharma friends.

Shakyamuni Buddha said, "Everything I teach is about suffering...and the END of suffering".

Keeping the Dharma pristine, and not allowing any divergences, much less slanders against the Dharma is ESSENTIAL if we are to come to the END of suffering, and the beginning of Buddhahood, after countless ages strapped to the terrible wheel of birth, life, suffering and death.

So...this "skillful means" of including the exclusion clause is Dharmakara's way of telling us that we really must recognize abuse and slander of the Dharma for what it is - so that we can avoid it like we would avoid drinking poison.

Part 2

In the first part of this discussion, I talked about how the use of the exclusion clause is an example of "skillful means" in teaching, rather than a statement that actually is meant to exclude some people from the intent, purpose and power of the Primal Vow.  And then I shared the first way in which this is skillful means - talking about how it is meant to get us to think deeply about the idea of slandering or abusing the Dharma message that saves all beings everywhere.

Now, I  want to talk about a SECOND way in which this exclusion clause is skillful means:  It doesn't just get us to think deeply about keeping the Dharma message PRISTINE - but it also gets us to think deeply about who we are - and what our need really is.

So someone (like my Dharma friend who first asked the question, with some trepidation) might read the exclusion clause, and with some trembling wonder, ask, "Have I done one or more of the five great evil acts?"  Or, which is actually much more common, "Have I slandered the Dharma?"

In other words, it provokes someone to ask, "Am I somehow excluded...outside of the range of Amida's grace...too caught up in some karmic evil or other to receive Amida's great gift?"

Having worked with many people over the past years, I can tell you that this sort of thinking is actually VERY common.  Many people are so riven by self-loathing and self-rejection that they simply cannot believe that Amida would accept them AS THEY ARE, when they cannot accept themselves.

And then there's the flip side of the same coin:  Some people will read the exclusion clause, and look up what the five grave offenses are (Master Shinran actually provides two lists, depending on which tradition and sources you might use).  They'll look at the list, and check off in their heads:  "No, I didn't do this one, or that one, or the other one.  And I didn't slander the Dharma, either.  I guess I'm good to go!"

Both of these positions come from a SHALLOW understanding of the TrueTeaching.  So let's listen deeply together to what a DEEPER understanding leads us to think about.

We've already covered the first case - the case of the person who thinks he or she is TOO evil, in the earlier part of our discussion.

The truth is, NO ONE is too evil.  NO ONE is rejected, when he (or she) turns about in heart.  NO ONE is rejected when he awakens his aspiration for Buddhahood, and then yearns for Amida to simply save him - delivering him from the endless bondage of birth and death in Samsara.

In the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, Master Shinran uses a wonderful analogy to describe what happens in such a case:


"Suppose there is a room that has been dark for a thousand years. If light reaches it, however briefly, the room immediately becomes bright. How can the darkness say that, having occupied the room for a thousand years, it refuses to leave?"


How wonderful!  The darkness of our own hearts and mind - no matter how dark it is - MUST yield to the ineffable, infinite LIGHT of Amida Buddha.  When someone turns towards the light, the darkness simply cannot stand.

So...if you are one who thinks your own darkness is just too much for Amida, I can tell you categorically that you are wrong.  You are simply believing a delusion - an idea that is not true.  And you don't have to take my word for it - in fact, you shouldn't.  Just ask the Buddha within to tell you whether or not Master Shinran and I are speaking the TRUTH when we declare that your darkness is NOT too great for Amida, and indeed could never be.

Now let's consider the flip side of the coin - the person who thinks that he (or she) isn't so bad, because he has not committed on the the five grave karmic evils, or slandered the right Dharma.

You can find a ton of these folks, with this kind of thinking, working to become enlightened in the many and various Paths of the Sages. Some of them are working VERY hard.  Others are treating their form of Buddhism as a sort of spiritual hobby.  But either way, what they have in common is a core belief that is they just keep doing one thing or another - whether it be discipline, study, practice or good works - they will continue making progress up the path of enlightenment, and get to Buddhahood sooner or later.

And you also find a lot of folks with this kind of thinking in the Shin Sangha today - and indeed there have always been a lot of folks like this.  When Master Rennyo closed down the temple he had built, it was precisely because too many folks who attended had this sort of thinking:  "I go to temple.  I give some money.  I say Nembutsu (or whatever).  I get my ticket punched, so I'm good to go".

Master Shinran pushes back HARD against that sort of thinking, and of course, so did Master Rennyo.

Here's something Eiken Kobai Sensei wrote in his book, UNDERSTANDING JODO SHINSHU, that covers what Master Shinran believed and said.


Further, the Venerable Master explained the meaning of the passage at the end of the 18th Vow that states: "... those who commit the five deadly evils and abuse the right dharma are excluded." In his Songo Shinzo Meimon (Collection of Comments on the "Objects of Reverence"), he expands on this phrase in the following way:

"The two kanji characters for “exclude” in the phrase, “... those who commit the five deadly evils are excluded,” consist of the character for “just” or “only” and the character for “except.” The purpose of the phrases, “commit five deadly evils” and “abuse the right dharma” is to show how deeply evil such actions are, and to declare the intent of causing birth in the Pure Land of all sentient beings in the ten directions without exception."

Although the phrases, "commit five deadly evils" and "abuse the right dharma" are used in the 18th Vow, the Venerable Master did not understand this to mean that those who commit such acts will really be excluded from the provisions of the 18th Vow. Rather, he pointed out the deeply evil nature of these two actions, and that the purpose of the vow was to cause birth in the Pure Land of even those who commit them. If we consider that point together with the passage in the General Preface just quoted, we realize that rather than even those who "commit the five deadly evils" and "abuse the right dharma," it is precisely those who commit such acts who are the true object of "salvation."

Although the Venerable Master emphasized that the purpose of the Primal Vow is to save evil persons, he is quoted in the Epilogue of the Tannisho as saying:

"When I carefully consider the Vow which Amida brought forth after five kalpas contemplation, I find that it was for me, Shinran, alone! How grateful I am to Amida’s Primal Vow that was created solely to save me, possessed of as many karmic evils as I am!"

As indicated above, the Venerable Master looked into the Primal Vow that was established to save "evil persons" such as those who commit the "five deadly evils," "abusers of the right dharma" and the Issendai, and looking deeply into himself, realized that he himself was the most evil of all, and thus the most in need of such a vow.

>>> REALLY grasp the nature of what Master Shinran said here, I want you to consider a hypothetical situation with me:

You know that the intent of all the Buddhas and advanced Bodhisattvas is to save all beings, bringing all of them to Buddhahood.  I often quote the Great Bodhisattva Vow their pure and focused intent:  BEINGS ARE NUMBERLESS; I VOW TO SAVE THEM ALL.

Now here's the hypothetical situation - which is actually a real possibility:

Perhaps (just perhaps), you are the very last sentient being in the entire universe who is not yet a Buddha or advanced Bodhisattva. Every other being already is - whether your family, or your friends, or your dog or cat, or even the insects and the micro-organisms that you see in the world.  ALL are Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, using their incredible powers to create this magical dream of a Dharmic world, specifically for YOU - the last BONBU standing.

It certainly is it not?

Now...if it were so, let me ask you this question:  Is there ANYTHING that you can do, as the last BONBU standing, to purge yourself of your own karmic evil?  Is there anything you can do to get rid of your own blind passions?  Is there anything you can do to let go of your many cravings and aversions?  Is there anything you can do to cut through the matrix of your own delusions and obscurations?

And finally, are you up to the task of eliminating your own intractable egotism - "the builder of this house", as Shakyamuni called it.

This is it.  You're the last BONBU standing.  When you have become a Buddha, the Great Work will be done.  But until you do, the Great Work will not yet be complete.

Can you do it?  Can you transform yourself into a Buddha?  Can you cut off the root of your own karmic evil?  Can you stop thinking bad thoughts - whether thoughts of anger, or despair, or fear, or greed - or whatever else it is that BONBUS think because of chattering monkey mind?

That, Dharma friends, is what Master Shinran means when he declares that the Primal Vow was made for him alone.  If, when he encountered it through his teacher Honen, who he considered a manifestation of the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, he was the last BONBU standing, the Primal Vow would have been made just for him.

And I say, too, that the Primal Vow was made for me, Paul, alone.  If all of you were already Buddhas, taking shape just to support and guide me on MY journey - I would still be unable to complete my journey on my own power, by my own efforts.  I would STILL be entirely dependent on Amida reaching out to me, to bring me out of samsaric life.

How about you?  Can you see, and feel, way down deep, that the Primal Vow was made for you alone?

But it goes even DEEPER than that.  When we finally understand the Primal Vow - and particularly the exclusion clause - it blows an IMMENSE hole in our very understanding of the nature of karma and rebirth.

Part Three

Just to recap:  We began by talking about how the exclusion clause is actually a teaching device - skillful means - to get us to reflect more deeply on the Primal Vow.  By thinking about its apparent contradiction to the Vow itself, it causes us to listen deeply - to ask why such a blatant contradiction exists.

We started by affirming - as Master Shinran does - that no one is actually excluded.  Even those who have committed one or more of the Five Great Offenses, or the ultimate karmic offense of slandering the Dharma - are not excluded from Amida's grace, once they have repented, and "turned about in heart".  This just makes good sense, because if some were excluded, then Amida's compassion could not be infinite...which of course, it is.

Then we talked more deeply about these offenses - and particularly what Master Shinran called the greatest karmic offense - the offense of slandering the Dharma.  We explored why it is the greatest offense - even greater (according to Shakyamuni) than killing one's mother or father.  And finally, we concluded part 1 by recognizing that the purpose of this skillful means teaching was to get us to truly understand what a terrible and tragic karmic mistake slandering the Dharma really is - and why we should ever and always want to teach and learn only the PRISTINE Dharma - the unadulterated teachings of our Dharma masters, without having even one single divergence "based on personal views", as Yuien-Bo puts it in his introductory remarks in the Tannisho.

Then, in Part 2, we shifted from thinking about the Dharma, to thinking about ourselves.  And we talked about the fact that even if we haven't committed any of the offenses mentioned in the exclusion clause, our true situation was no better than someone who had.  We talked about the fact that even if we were the last BONBU standing - and all other sentient beings were manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strictly for our benefit, we would still be entirely unable to unchain ourselves from everything that straps us so tightly to the terrible wheel of birth and death.  And we concluded by thinking about what it means, for each of us, to say as Master Shinran said, that the Primal Vow was made for me alone.

Part 3

So now I want us to listen deeply to a CRITICAL idea of Master Shinran's that combines what we have talked about so far - and brings us to an even deeper understanding of the Primal Vow, and the exclusion clause.

Let me start by sharing a passage that I had read many times in my first two years as a Shin Buddhist - before I came to SHINJIN - but did not really become clear to me until after I received Amida's incomparable gift.

It is from the TANNISHO.  I've shared it many times here before, but we have new members, and I am always happy to share it again.


Good thoughts arise in us through the prompting of good karma from the past, and evil comes to be thought and performed through the working of evil karma. The late Master said, "Knowing that every evil act done - even as slight as a particle on the tip of a strand of rabbit's fur or sheep's wool - has its cause in past karma."

Further, the Master once asked, "Yuien-bo, do you accept all that I say?"

"Yes I do," I answered.

"Then will you not deviate from whatever I tell you?" he repeated.

I humbly affirmed this. Thereupon he said, "Now, I want you to kill a thousand people. If you do, you will definitely attain birth."
I responded, "Though you instruct me thus, I'm afraid it is not in my power to kill even one person."

"Then why did you say that you would follow whatever I told you?"

He continued, "By this you should realize that if we could always act as we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not that you do not kill because your heart is good. In the same way, a person may not wish to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people."

Thus he spoke of how we believe that if our hearts are good, then it is good for birth, and if our hearts are evil, it is bad for birth, failing to realize that it is by the inconceivable working of the Vow that we are saved.


Dharma friends, do you see what Master Shinran is saying here?

He's saying that we think we have free will, and that we can actually choose to do good, or to do evil.  But the truth is far more complex than that.  If we are doing good, it is due to the maturation of karmic conditions from the distant past.  And in the same way, if we are doing evil, it is ALSO due to karmic conditions from the distant past.

Last week, the whole world was shocked when a US soldier in Afghanistan left the base, and slaughtered 17 people in the local town, including women and children.  He may have been drunk.  Now, he says he doesn't even remember doing it.  But whatever the details turn out to be, it was a terrible tragedy and a karmic evil of great proportions.

I might look at such a thing, and say to myself that I could never do that.  But Master Shinran tells us that such talk is truly foolishness.   If karmic conditions from my own distant past ripened, I could do that - and worse.  It is not outside the realm of possibility that at some point, in some future lifetime, I could kill my own mother or father, as Prince Ajatasatru did, as described in the Contemplation Sutra.

It is not that I have no free will at all.  It is, rather, that there are other powerful karmic vectors at work in my life - and in ALL our lives - that are pushing and pulling us in one way or another.  And if we think that we can do something (whether good or evil) or that we cannot - Master Shinran is telling us that we are wrong about that.  What we can and cannot do - whether in this life or some other future life - is driven by a lot more than our capacity to make choices.

Master Shinran goes more deeply into this profound topic in his "Hymns of the Dharma Ages".  Let me share some of what he says there.  

He starts with this:


Reverently I say to fellow practicers who aspire for birth:
You should all deeply repent! Sakyamuni Tathagata is
truly our compassionate father and mother.
With a variety of compassionate means
he leads us to awaken the supreme shinjin.


Now, right away, the question arises:  Since he is talking to fellow practicers, what is he telling them to repent of so deeply?

The answer is, he is telling fellow practicers to repent (change their minds) about the entire structure of thinking that defines self-power Buddhism, when it comes to the singular question of how to come to Buddhahood at long last.

And in particular, he is telling his fellow Buddhists of the Hinayana and Mahayana to let go of their attachment to thinking in terms of karmic merit and demerit, as a strategy leading to birth as Buddhas.

Let's listen deeply together:



It is now more than two thousand years
Since the passing of Sakyamuni Tathagata.
The right and semblance ages have already closed;
So lament, disciples of later times!


Now, amid the five defilements in the last dharma-age,
Sentient beings are incapable of practice and realization;
Hence the teachings that Sakyamuni left behind
Have all passed into the naga's palace.


During the right, semblance, and last ages,
Amida's Primal Vow has spread.
At the end of the semblance and in this last dharma-age,
Good practices have all gone into the naga's palace.


Without entrusting themselves to the Tathagata's compassionate Vow,
No sentient beings of these times - the last dharma-age, and
The fifth five-hundred year period since Sakyamuni's passing -
Will have a chance of parting from birth-and-death.


We may think that these times* belong to the right dharma-age,
But in us - the lowest of foolish beings** -
There is no mind that is pure, true, or real;
How could we awaken the aspiration for enlightenment?

*These times: the age and its beings.
**foolish beings sinking in the depths of blind passions. We who are possessed of blind passions.


The aspiration for enlightenment through self-power taught in the Path of Sages
Is beyond our minds and words;
We foolish beings ever sinking* in transmigration** -
How could we awaken it?

*Ever sinking: constantly sinking in the great ocean of birth-and-death.
**Transmigration: wandering in the twenty-five forms of existence.


Under the guidance of Buddhas who appeared in this world,
Three times the sands of the Ganges in number,
We awakened the aspiration for supreme enlightenment*,
But our self-power failed, and we continued to transmigrate**.

*The aspiration for supreme enlightenment: the mind that desires to bring all sentient beings to Buddhahood.
**Continued to transmigrate: know that, with the aspiration for enlightenment of self-power, we have wandered thus in birth-and-death to this day.


It is by the power of Dharmakara's Vow
That we realize the nembutsu that is wisdom*;
Were it not for the wisdom of shinjin,
How could we attain nirvana**?

*Nembutsu that is wisdom: this is said because one attains Buddhahood through Amida's Vow.
**Attain nirvana: become true Buddha.


It is a great torch* in the long night of ignorance;
Do not sorrow that your eyes of wisdom are dark.
It is a ship on the vast ocean of birth-and-death;
Do not grieve that your obstructions of karmic evil are heavy.

*Great torch: Amida's Primal Vow is likened to a torch.


The power of the Vow is without limit;
Thus, even our karmic evil, deep and heavy, is not oppressive.
The Buddha's wisdom is without bounds;
Thus, even those of distracted minds and self-indulgence are not abandoned.

l.1: the Buddha's power is without limit.
l.2: we should not think the obstructions of our karmic evil to be too deep and heavy.
l.3: know that the Buddha's wisdom is vast and without limit.
l.4: we should know that we will go to the Pure Land regardless of the distraction and evil of our minds.


Through the words of the witness and protection
Of the countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
We should realize that the mind of self-power aspiring for supreme enlightenment
Is incapable of reaching fulfillment.


Although we have the teachings of Sakyamuni,
There are no sentient beings who can practice them;
Hence, it is taught that in the last dharma-age,
Not a single person will attain enlightenment through them.


Now...those extracts from the "Hymns of the Dharma Ages are really introductory to the point I am making. Please listen deeply to where Master Shinran goes next, as he continues:



As a mark of not apprehending Buddha-wisdom,
People doubt the Tathagata's various kinds of wisdom,
Believe in the recompense of good and evil, rely on their practice
Of the root of good, and hence remain in the borderland.


Do you hear what Master Shinran is saying?  He's saying the same thing that he said to Yuien-Bo, in that passage I shared from the Tannisho:  People who are thinking about their karma - whether good or evil - are simply not tuned into the RIGHT Dharma - the TRUE teaching - the one vehicle that saves all beings everywhere, whether good or evil, or in between (as most of us BONBUS are).
Let's listen again, as Master Shinran continues:



Practicers who believe in the recompense of good and evil
Doubt the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
And therefore remain in the city of doubt or the womb-palace;
Hence, they are separated from the three treasures.


Can you hear it?  Master Shinran is calling us to a MASSIVE paradigm shift - a complete transformation in our understanding...the understanding many of us got from our previous forays into Buddhism, or religious thought in general.
Let's listen some more:



People who, doubting the inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
Rely on their practice of the root of good and the root of virtue
Are born in the borderland or the realm of indolence and pride;
Hence, they fail to realize great love and great compassion.


Practicers who doubt the Primal Vow
Are born within lotus buds from which they cannot emerge,
Or are born in the borderland, or fall
Into the womb-palace; so Shan-tao admonishes.


Doubting Amida's various kinds of wisdom,
They do not entrust themselves to the Buddha,
And yet they deeply believe in the recompense of good and evil,
And they diligently practice the root of good.


Those who practice the root of good
While believing deeply in the recompense of good and evil
Are good people whose minds are possessed of doubt;
Hence, they remain in the provisional, transformed lands.


So, Dharma friends - when we think about the Primal Vow - and in particular think about the exclusion clause - and ask ourselves whether we might be outside of the Primal Vow because we have done one sort of evil deed or another...

Or...when we think about the Primal Vow - and in particular think about the exclusion clause - and we think that we will be able to take birth and become Buddhas because we have not violated one of the evils mentioned in the exclusion...

In both cases, our thinking is simply INCORRECT.  We are incorrectly thinking about the Dharma by considering the issues of karma and rebirth - whether good karma leading to a good rebirth, or bad karma leading to a bad rebirth.

And with the making and fulfilling of the Primal Vow by Amida Buddha - ALL such thinking becomes entirely obsolete.

Finally - FINALLY - it's not about you.  It's not about your goodness, and it's not about your wretchedness, either.  It's not about your attempts to fulfill what you think are your karmic obligations - and it's not about your failures to do so.

Those ideas are DONE, OVER, OBSOLETE.  They have all been superseded by the singular Dharma reality that Amida is calling all beings everywhere - and particularly He is calling you - with His infinite arms outstretched, as the perfect Mother-Father - ready, willing and able to embrace you just as you are, if only you will entrust yourself entirely to him.

This teaching blows an IMMENSE hole in the intellectual structure of Buddha-dharma, as almost everyone understands it.  This is one of the reasons that it is so very difficult for people to accept it, and come to settled SHINJIN.  To many people who are students of the Dharma on one of the self-powered paths, it just sounds unbelievable.

Now - as always - I don't expect you to believe what I wrote, just because I wrote it.  And I don't expect you to believe it, just because Master Shinran said it.

As always - the only way you will come to know that this is the TRUTH is to listen deeply - and to hear from the Buddha within. When you hear the Buddha within bear witness to the TRUTH of this Dharma message, then you will be able to accept it as TRUTH for your own life, and your own journey.


Paul Roberts