Meaning of the "Exclusion Clause"
in the Primal Vow
by Paul Roberts
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
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
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
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.
One of our members wrote me the other day, asking me about the
in the Primal (18th) Vow in the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of
His question was not merely intellectual - but personal. He is
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
becoming a Buddha at the end of this life - even though that is his
It is an outstanding question - and one deserving of a serious
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
joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and
Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain
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
then, appended to it, we find the exclusion clause - apparently
who commit the five gravest offenses, and those who abuse the right
In Master Shinran's translation, he uses the word SLANDER rather than
"Excluded are those
who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right
Now - let's start with a critical GENERAL PRINCIPLE for understanding
Teaching of the Pure Land Way. That principle is this:
You must have a clear understanding of the big picture - the primary
that define the Dharma, before trying to parse an individual phrase
might encounter in your own reading and study.
To use Shakyamuni's wonderful metaphor: You have to have a clear
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
just don't do that. They cherry pick here and there, and build a
a Dharma message that has only the slightest resemblance to what our
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,
recommend Master Rennyo's letters, or (alternatively) Eiken Kobai
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
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
Rennyo figured out himself, when trying to help the various local Shin
come to settled SHINJIN. He knew that if only he could ground
the basics - what I call SHIN UGLY - or SHIN BUDDHISM 101 - that it
countless people to receive the full outpouring of Amida's grace.
was the genius of his method, and that is why under his leadership the
Sangha experienced the most explosive growth in its entire history -
from the dustbin of history and establishing it as the largest school
Buddhism in Japan, ever.
So...what's the big picture? What's the basic principle?
fundamental Dharma idea that will allow us to understand the
The big picture is that Dharmakara spent many, many lives taking birth
great and powerful Bodhisattva. In each of those lives, the
tells us, He thought little about himself. Instead He reached out
sorts of people - plain people, common people, confused people - to
in countless ways. Even before He became a Buddha, He was guided
compassion and great wisdom. His intention was ever and always to
way for people who had no way.
And the pinnacle of His work - His great achievement - demonstrates how
great compassion became INFINITE compassion, as He emerged as the
Infinite Life and Infinite Light.
So clearly - CLEARLY - it just doesn't make any sense to think that
Infinite compassion could be limited to those who haven't done the
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
who wanted to be His disciple.
One of my very favorite stories is about what happened one day when
was walking alone in the forest. There was a crazy, homicidal
lived there named Angulimala. He used to lay in wait, to attack
and kill them. He actually wore a necklace made of the fingers of
So when Shakyamuni came strolling by, Angulimala began to follow him,
murderous intent. But no matter how fast he walked, he couldn't
catch up with Shakyamuni. Finally, he screamed out in rage, "WHY
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
knocking all the crazy out of his head. Angulimala dropped to his
and worshipped the Buddha, and then arose as one of his disciples.
All that terrible karma, simply overwhelmed by the power and compassion
Shakyamuni! How wonderful that is, and what a demonstration of
PICTURE for us to understand and ponder, deep in our hearts.
And furthermore, Master Shinran declares this, quoting Shan-Tao, in the
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
On attaining it, their distinctions vanish; all equally enter the stage
Why is it thus? It comes about because Amida, in his causal stage,
guidance of Lokesvararaja Buddha, abandoned his throne and left his
awakening the mind of compassion and wisdom, widely proclaimed his
Through the power of the Buddha's Vows, the karmic evil of the five
offenses and the ten transgressions is eradicated and all are brought
attainment of birth. When those who slander the dharma or abandon the
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
exclusionary clause of the Primal Vow? What is the purpose of
Why did Dharmakara utter it? What does it mean for us today, who
being called by Amida in this body, in this life?
The answer is that the exclusionary clause is an example of SKILLFUL
the declaration of the Dharma - one of many. Its purpose is to
the very sort of Dharma dialogue that we are having right now.
purpose is to cause us not to take the Primal Vow lightly - as though
some sort of lottery ticket or life insurance policy. Its purpose
aid us in LISTENING DEEPLY to the Dharma - with our whole mind and our
heart - and not meander around in intellectualism, or mere religious
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
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
an extremely serious karmic mistake - in fact, from their perspective,
the WORST karmic evil a person could commit.
I didn't understand that early on in my own study of Shin
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
and erudite men (and a few women) who thought that Carl Jung was a
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
and becoming a person of SHINJIN. I had no idea that these ideas
literally prevent me from fulfilling what had long been my great goal -
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
in one's own mind or receiving the ideas from others, is called
It was only the crushing blow of my daughter's death which revealed to
these Dharma slanders totally undermined the very foundations of my own
spiritual journey. As everything in my little world collapsed, I
with true horror, that I literally had NOTHING to stand on, or depend
because I had swallowed these Dharma slanders, and listened to these
It was just then - in my darkest hour - that Amida led me to a TRUE
the person of Eiken Kobai Sensei. I was truly a drowning
under for the third time. And yet, because of Eiken's TRUE words,
experienced Amida Buddha Himself reaching down to me, and pulling me up
the great ship of the Primal Vow.
I received Amida's inconceivable gift of SHINJIN - and my spiritual
never been the same since.
Now...I want you to note well. Because I had become a follower of
Dharma slanderers, I was a Dharma slanderer, too! There's no
it. It was the truth of my life.
But the fact that I had slandered the Dharma in no way prevented Amida
reaching out to me with His Infinite Compassion.
have the understanding of the Exclusion Clause that it is a
PERMANENT exclusion, rather than a TEMPORARY one. Further, some think
is not really legitimate to use the writings of some lesser teacher who
a Buddha to show that the exclusion is only temporary.
answer to this problem is simple enough.
Three core Sutras of Shin Buddhism are, in order of
Larger Sutra of Amida Buddha
Smaller Sutra of Amida Buddha
Contemplation Sutra is the one that resolves this intellectual
problem. It tells the story of an incredibly dysfunctional royal family
lived during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.
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
the point: Prince
Ajatasatru was definitely guilty of committing one (or perhaps two) of
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
we'd see that in the Contemplation Sutra.
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
Buddha about the nine grades of beings, including the lowest grade.
follow the sutra:
there are the beings who will be born in the lowest form
of the lowest grade.
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
stupid and guilty of many crimes, deserves to fall into a miserable
existence and suffer endless pains during many kalpas.
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
Dharma and teach him the remembrance of Buddha, but, being harassed by
he will have no time to think of Buddha. Some good friend will then say
"Even if you cannot exercise the remembrance of Buddha, you may, at
utter the name, "Buddha Amitayus."
him do so serenely with his voice uninterrupted; let him be
(continually) thinking of Buddha until he has completed ten times the
repeating the formula, "Adoration to Buddha Amitayus" (Namah Amitabha
Buddhayah, Namu Amida Butsu).
strength of his merit of uttering that
Buddha's name he will, during every repetition, expiate the sins which
him in births and deaths during eighty million kalpas. He will, while
see a golden lotus-flower like the disk of the sun appearing before his
in a moment he will be born in the World of Highest Happiness.
twelve greater kalpas the lotus-flower will unfold;
thereupon the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, raising
voices in great compassion, will preach to him in detail the real state
the elements of nature and the law of the expiation of sins. On hearing
will rejoice and will immediately direct his thought toward the
the Bodhi -- such are the beings who are to be born in the lowest form
lowest grade to Buddhahood. The perception of the above three is called
meditation of the inferior class of beings, and is the Sixteenth
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?
again, it's very simple.
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
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
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.
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,
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
this call and response may happen over the course of many
ultimately, the outcome is certain: Each
and every being WILL - sooner or later - receive Amida's grace as it
and thereby finally come to the end of their long journey in samsaric
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
Him. They have come to know that His way
of bringing people to the end of suffering and the beginning of
the BEST way - by far. His way works -
not just for the rare person of sterling character and strong will and
spiritual ambition - but for the plain person, the average person, and
the truly TERRIBLE person as well.
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
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
place, have been able to repent of their slander and become people of
SHINJIN. We have several of them here
- simply from having some basic familiarity with the Three Pure
Land Sutras - it is abundantly clear that in the end, each and every
being IS saved by Amida Buddha. There is
no need to go outside of these Sutras to know that fact.
to go back to explain WHY, in the minds of the Buddhas,
slandering the Dharma is the WORST karmic evil - even greater than the
killing one's own father or mother.
It has to do with karmic EFFECT.
The Buddha taught that human birth is precious and exceedingly
said that when this life is over, we might not take birth in a human
When you kill another human being - even your own parent - you are
one life. You are ruining one person's chances of
Dharma (or some other teaching) and responding in such a way that he or
a good birth after this life is over.
But, when you slander the Dharma, you are destroying COUNTLESS
It's impossible to calculate - for example - how many people here in
karma is ripe, who are already interested in Buddhism in one way or
will not get to hear this wonderful Dharma because the American Shin
become so moribund after swallowing and regurgitating Dharma slander
I'm not the first person to think about this, of course. It's
what Yuien-Bo was thinking about when he wrote the TANNISHO. He
wept as he wrote it (and I have wept too), thinking about how many
going to be denied the opportunity to hear the Dharma and respond to it
the True Teaching was being polluted so badly with various sorts of
And Yuien-Bo's fears were prophetic. The Shin Sangha struggled
after Master Shinran's death, and declined precipitously in the first
centuries because of these divergences, and others. If not for
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
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
and reflectively about the Dharma. We are actually SAVED by the
Dharma. The Dharma is Amida Buddha's method to get our
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
essential that those who are called to teach are good custodians of
- and do everything in their power to keep it PRISTINE.
And it is absolutely essential, as well, for those who are being called
Amida Buddha to listen ONLY to this pristine Dharma, so that they may
and guided in the most direct way possible to respond to it, by
themselves and their karmic destiny ENTIRELY to Amida Buddha - just as
Dharma masters tell us to do.
This is not some intellectual or philosophical hobbyhorse of mine,
Shakyamuni Buddha said, "Everything I teach is about suffering...and
END of suffering".
Keeping the Dharma pristine, and not allowing any divergences, much
slanders against the Dharma is ESSENTIAL if we are to come to the END
suffering, and the beginning of Buddhahood, after countless ages
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
of the Dharma for what it is - so that we can avoid it like we would
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
from the intent, purpose and power of the Primal Vow. And then I
the first way in which this is skillful means - talking about how it is
to get us to think deeply about the idea of slandering or abusing the
message that saves all beings everywhere.
Now, I want to talk about a SECOND way in which this exclusion
skillful means: It doesn't just get us to think deeply about
Dharma message PRISTINE - but it also gets us to think deeply about who
- and what our need really is.
So someone (like my Dharma friend who first asked the question, with
trepidation) might read the exclusion clause, and with some trembling
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
evil or other to receive Amida's great gift?"
Having worked with many people over the past years, I can tell you that
sort of thinking is actually VERY common. Many people are so
self-loathing and self-rejection that they simply cannot believe that
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
the exclusion clause, and look up what the five grave offenses are
Shinran actually provides two lists, depending on which tradition and
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
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
turns about in heart. NO ONE is rejected when he awakens his
for Buddhahood, and then yearns for Amida to simply save him -
from the endless bondage of birth and death in Samsara.
In the Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho, Master Shinran uses a wonderful
describe what happens in such a case:
"Suppose there is a
room that has been dark for a thousand years. If light reaches it,
briefly, the room immediately becomes bright. How can the darkness say
having occupied the room for a thousand years, it refuses to leave?"
How wonderful! The darkness of our own hearts and mind - no
dark it is - MUST yield to the ineffable, infinite LIGHT of Amida
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
can tell you categorically that you are wrong. You are simply
delusion - an idea that is not true. And you don't have to take
for it - in fact, you shouldn't. Just ask the Buddha within to
whether or not Master Shinran and I are speaking the TRUTH when we
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
(or she) isn't so bad, because he has not committed on the the five
karmic evils, or slandered the right Dharma.
You can find a ton of these folks, with this kind of thinking, working
become enlightened in the many and various Paths of the Sages. Some of
working VERY hard. Others are treating their form of Buddhism as
of spiritual hobby. But either way, what they have in common is a
belief that is they just keep doing one thing or another - whether it
discipline, study, practice or good works - they will continue making
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
today - and indeed there have always been a lot of folks like
Master Rennyo closed down the temple he had built, it was precisely
many folks who attended had this sort of thinking: "I go to
temple. I give some money. I say Nembutsu (or
get my ticket punched, so I'm good to go".
Master Shinran pushes back HARD against that sort of thinking, and of
so did Master Rennyo.
Here's something Eiken Kobai Sensei wrote in his book, UNDERSTANDING
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
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
evils are excluded,” consist of the character for “just” or “only” and
character for “except.” The purpose of the phrases, “commit five deadly
and “abuse the right dharma” is to show how deeply evil such actions
to declare the intent of causing birth in the Pure Land of all sentient
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
from the provisions of the 18th Vow. Rather, he pointed out the deeply
nature of these two actions, and that the purpose of the vow was to
in the Pure Land of even those who commit them. If we consider that
together with the passage in the General Preface just quoted, we
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
to save evil persons, he is quoted in the Epilogue of the Tannisho
"When I carefully
consider the Vow which Amida brought forth after five kalpas
find that it was for me, Shinran, alone! How grateful I am to Amida’s
Vow that was created solely to save me, possessed of as many karmic
evils as I
As indicated above, the
Venerable Master looked into the Primal Vow
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
most evil of all, and thus the most in need of such a vow.
Now...to REALLY grasp the nature of what Master Shinran said here, I
to consider a hypothetical situation with me:
You know that the intent of all the Buddhas and advanced Bodhisattvas
save all beings, bringing all of them to Buddhahood. I often
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
Perhaps (just perhaps), you are the very last sentient being in the
universe who is not yet a Buddha or advanced Bodhisattva. Every other
already is - whether your family, or your friends, or your dog or cat,
the insects and the micro-organisms that you see in the world.
Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, using their incredible powers to create this
dream of a Dharmic world, specifically for YOU - the last BONBU
It certainly is possible...is it not?
Now...if it were so, let me ask you this question: Is there
you can do, as the last BONBU standing, to purge yourself of your own
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
and aversions? Is there anything you can do to cut through the
your own delusions and obscurations?
And finally, are you up to the task of eliminating your own intractable
- "the builder of this house", as Shakyamuni called it.
This is it. You're the last BONBU standing. When you have
Buddha, the Great Work will be done. But until you do, the Great
will not yet be complete.
Can you do it? Can you transform yourself into a Buddha?
cut off the root of your own karmic evil? Can you stop thinking
thoughts - whether thoughts of anger, or despair, or fear, or greed -
whatever else it is that BONBUS think because of chattering monkey mind?
That, Dharma friends, is what Master Shinran means when he declares
Primal Vow was made for him alone. If, when he encountered it
teacher Honen, who he considered a manifestation of the great
Avalokiteshvara, he was the last BONBU standing, the Primal Vow would
made just for him.
And I say, too, that the Primal Vow was made for me, Paul, alone.
of you were already Buddhas, taking shape just to support and guide me
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
was made for you alone?
But it goes even DEEPER than that. When we finally understand the
Vow - and particularly the exclusion clause - it blows an IMMENSE hole
very understanding of the nature of karma and rebirth.
Just to recap: We began by talking about how the exclusion clause
actually a teaching device - skillful means - to get us to reflect more
on the Primal Vow. By thinking about its apparent contradiction
Vow itself, it causes us to listen deeply - to ask why such a blatant
We started by affirming - as Master Shinran does - that no one is
excluded. Even those who have committed one or more of the Five
Offenses, or the ultimate karmic offense of slandering the Dharma - are
excluded from Amida's grace, once they have repented, and "turned about
heart". This just makes good sense, because if some were
then Amida's compassion could not be infinite...which of course, it is.
Then we talked more deeply about these offenses - and particularly what
Shinran called the greatest karmic offense - the offense of slandering
Dharma. We explored why it is the greatest offense - even greater
(according to Shakyamuni) than killing one's mother or father.
finally, we concluded part 1 by recognizing that the purpose of this
means teaching was to get us to truly understand what a terrible and
karmic mistake slandering the Dharma really is - and why we should ever
always want to teach and learn only the PRISTINE Dharma - the
teachings of our Dharma masters, without having even one single
"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
ourselves. And we talked about the fact that even if we haven't
any of the offenses mentioned in the exclusion clause, our true
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
still be entirely unable to unchain ourselves from everything that
straps us so
tightly to the terrible wheel of birth and death. And we
thinking about what it means, for each of us, to say as Master Shinran
that the Primal Vow was made for me alone.
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
years as a Shin Buddhist - before I came to SHINJIN - but did not
clear to me until after I received Amida's incomparable gift.
It is from the TANNISHO. I've shared it many times here before,
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
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
Further, the Master once asked, "Yuien-bo, do you accept all that I
"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
we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to
birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the
inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not
do not kill because your heart is good. In the same way, a person may
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
for birth, and if our hearts are evil, it is bad for birth, failing to
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
do good, or to do evil. But the truth is far more complex than
If we are doing good, it is due to the maturation of karmic
from the distant past. And in the same way, if we are doing evil,
ALSO due to karmic conditions from the distant past.
Last week, the whole world was shocked when a US soldier in Afghanistan
the base, and slaughtered 17 people in the local town, including women
children. He may have been drunk. Now, he says he doesn't
remember doing it. But whatever the details turn out to be, it
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
But Master Shinran tells us that such talk is truly foolishness.
If karmic conditions from my own distant past ripened, I could do that
worse. It is not outside the realm of possibility that at some
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
other powerful karmic vectors at work in my life - and in ALL our lives
are pushing and pulling us in one way or another. And if we think
can do something (whether good or evil) or that we cannot - Master
telling us that we are wrong about that. What we can and cannot
whether in this life or some other future life - is driven by a lot
our capacity to make choices.
Master Shinran goes more deeply into this profound topic in his "Hymns
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
practicers, what is he telling them to repent of so deeply?
The answer is, he is telling fellow practicers to repent (change their
about the entire structure of thinking that defines self-power
it comes to the singular question of how to come to Buddhahood at long
And in particular, he is telling his fellow Buddhists of the Hinayana
Mahayana to let go of their attachment to thinking in terms of karmic
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
of blind passions.
The aspiration for enlightenment through self-power taught in the Path
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
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
**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
l.1: the Buddha's power is without limit.
l.2: we should not think the obstructions of our karmic evil to be too
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
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
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
in that passage I shared from the Tannisho: People who are
their karma - whether good or evil - are simply not tuned into the
- the TRUE teaching - the one vehicle that saves all beings everywhere,
good or evil, or in between (as most of us BONBUS are).
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
transformation in our understanding...the understanding many of us got
previous forays into Buddhism, or religious thought in general.
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
think about the exclusion clause - and ask ourselves whether we might
outside of the Primal Vow because we have done one sort of evil deed or
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
become Buddhas because we have not violated one of the evils mentioned
In both cases, our thinking is simply
INCORRECT. We are incorrectly
thinking about the Dharma by considering the issues of karma and
whether good karma leading to a good rebirth, or bad karma leading to a
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
fulfill what you think are your karmic obligations - and it's not about
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
particularly He is calling you - with His infinite arms outstretched,
perfect Mother-Father - ready, willing and able to embrace you just as
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
reasons that it is so very difficult for people to accept it, and come
settled SHINJIN. To many people who are students of the Dharma on
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
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
within bear witness to the TRUTH of this Dharma message, then you will
to accept it as TRUTH for your own life, and your own journey.
NAMU AMIDA BUTSU
THANK YOU, AMIDA BUDDHA