Who is evil?

Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.

Though it is so, people commonly say, ‘Even an evil person attains birth, so it goes without saying that a good person will.’ This statement may seem well founded at first, but it runs counter to the intent of the Primal Vow, which is Other Power. This is because people who rely on doing good through their self-power fail to entrust themselves wholeheartedly to Other Power and therefore not in accord with Amida’s Primal Vow, but when they overturn the mind of self-power and entrust themselves to Other Power, they will attain birth in the true and fulfilled land.

It is impossible for us, who are possessed of blind passions, to free ourselves from birth-and-death through any practice whatever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the evil person’s attainment of Buddhahood. Hence, evil persons who entrust themselves to Other Power are precisely the ones who possess the true cause of birth.

Accordingly he said, ‘Even the good person is born in the Pure Land, so without question is the person who is evil.’ (A Record in Lament of Divergences, 3; CWS p. 663)

This is the third chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences. It is very well known and often quoted. Its purport is simply to state the fact that Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow was made for the evil person. But it needs to be understood in the light of a statement in the opening chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences, where we read these words:

Know that the Primal Vow of Amida makes no distinction between people young and old, good and evil. (CWS, p. 661)

In other words the person of evil, who is the subject of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow is not discerned by ordinary social or moral categories. ‘Young and old, good and evil,’ is a phrase that speaks of the ordinary characteristics of human beings in relation to each other; and the changing, mutable values of life in the realm of birth-and-death.

In this case, judgements of who is good and evil depend on circumstances, tradition and changing public values. These are constantly evolving, hopefully for the better. For example, due to the fact that we live in a world where communication is immediate, easy, and transcends traditional boundaries and borders, many human beings are tending to be more humane and inclusive in their attitudes to others.

Often these changes develop with such strength of feeling that some old, traditional values are easily transcended and rendered obsolete. This is a relatively new development but it is important because we now need to be able to get along with each other, in spite of differences. There can be no doubt that we should be more inclusive. Nevertheless, Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow does not discriminate in any way whatsoever. If they choose to, all beings, without exception, may live in the embrace of his compassion.

But, then, when we come to the third chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences, the reference to good and evil points to a deep inner aspect of our being. We are all beings of ‘blind passions’. These blind passions, or kleshas, are in fact the very core of our existence. They support the struggle for survival and enable us to live through delusion — by always tending to see ourselves in a good light. In fact, paradoxically, self-esteem and resilience are important to survival.

It is to these deep and immovable ‘blind passions’ that the Primal Vow speaks. It is the person, no matter how good she or he may be in conventional terms, who — living in the light of Amida Buddha’s compassion — can see this truth and know the indescribable gratitude and joy that comes from such awareness. It is a deep, private realisation, and not a dogmatic assertion about all beings. It is discovered in the realisation that my ego is so intractable and subtle that it taints even the good that I do.

For such a person, Amida Buddha made his Vow.

Namo Amida Butsu

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.