The hunter is one who slaughters many kinds of living things; this is the huntsman. The peddler is one who buys and sells things; this is the trader. They are called ‘low’. Such pedlars and hunters, and others are none other than we, who are like stones and pebbles. (CWS, p. 459)
Very often in Shin Buddhist exegesis, this statement by Shinran Shonin in his pamphlet Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’ is characterised as mere allegory or even hyperbole. In fact, in context, it offers a clarification for people who have an incomplete understanding of shinjin. Earlier in this part of the same work, Shinran says,
‘To abandon the mind of self-power’ admonishes the various and diverse kinds of people – masters of Hinayana or Mahayana, ignorant beings good or evil – to abandon the conviction that one is good, to cease relying on the self; to stop reflecting knowingly on one’s evil heart, and further, to abandon the judging of people as good and bad.
The compassion of Amida Buddha is such that there is no conceivable living being that is outside of its reach. People who know the embrace of Amida Buddha have no contempt in their hearts, either for themselves or others. As Shinran said in a hymn:
The cloud of light is unhindered, like open sky;
There is nothing that impedes it.
Every being is nurtured by this light,
So take refuge in Amida, the one beyond conception. (CWS, p. 326)
Living in the warmth of this same light, how can there be room in our hearts for ‘judging people as good or bad’? It is not ‘some beings’ that are nurtured but ‘every being’. In physical terms the sun serves as an analogy: it does not cast light upon some, withdrawing it from others; its light nurtures weeds and wheat at the same time. Amida Buddha frowns on no one!
It is all too easy to fall into a trap, whereby we hold others in contempt, not least for the reason that one does not want to see or hear the way of nembutsu being abused. And, we also fear that people on the margins, whose work or livelihood is unpopular or regarded with contempt, or who we think are ugly in body and mind, may by mere association, let alone their behaviour, bring the nembutsu way into disrepute.
These seem to be noble aspirations, but what really concerns us is that antisocial people may use the dharma to justify their damaging behaviour. Frankly, I doubt that the nembutsu teaching would have much meaning for someone who was antisocial and revelled in that fact, acting licentiously without restraint. Like all of us, such people come under the governance of the laws that are made by society.
Nevertheless, to hold contempt for others would suggest an incomplete recognition of both the non-discriminating embrace of Amida Buddha’s light and the fact that we are intrinsically no less in need of the Primal Vow than they are. In other words, as frail human beings we are identical with the despised of society. Only the wisdom of the Buddha can enable us to understand the true depth of such an insight as something we know rather than merely believe or repeat second-hand.
For the light of the Buddha inspires a life of Namo Amida Butsu. People of nembutsu, without dwelling on their contemptible side focus exclusively, in Namo Amida Butsu, on the true light of compassionate wisdom, leaving everything else to the wisdom of the Buddha.
For example, the most contemptible of people that one could imagine was the Crown Prince Ajatashatru, the son of Shakyamuni Buddha’s royal friend, the King, Bimbisara. The Crown Prince locked his saintly father in jail and starved him to death. Yet, it was not long before Ajatashatru was filled with such profound remorse for his actions that he developed a shocking psychosomatic illness. It was not until he met Shakyamuni Buddha, who opened to his gaze the deep light of shinjin, previously quite unknown to Ajatashatru, that tears of joy flowed and new life began. Said Ajatashatru,
I committed evils whose recompense spanned past, present and future.
Now, before the Buddha, I repent;
May I henceforth never perform evil again. (CWS, p. 139)
That is the true heart of nembutsu. Embraced oneself in the light of Amida Buddha and living, oneself, in accord with the wisdom that it inspires, we know deep in our heart that, if we can be embraced by the Vow, there is no one who is left out of Amida Buddha’s compassion.
Of course, these considerations seem paradoxical but they are not. As Shakyamuni says,
In this world, you should be islands unto yourselves, your own refuge, depending on no one else, with the dharma as an island and the dharma as a refuge, depending on nothing else. (Sutta Nipata)
The dharma is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, Namo Amida Butsu. Having made our own decision, and taking responsibility for ourselves, we walk the white path of Shan-tao’s famous parable of the Pure Land way, between the Two Rivers of Water and Fire. Our gaze is turned only to Amida Buddha, whose ‘light is unhindered like the sky,’ nurturing every being, without exception.