On the assertion: People who are unafraid of committing evil because of the inconceivable working of the Primal Vow are in fact impudently presuming upon the Vow and therefore will not attain birth. (CWS, p. 670)
No one is excluded from Amida Buddha’s compassionate light.
In contrast to the last two chapters of A Record in Lament of Divergences, the author Yuien-bo turns his attention to a prejudice about the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. The previous two chapters dealt with intellectual questions about doctrine but this problem is far more emotional and visceral. It is natural for us to think of ourselves as morally superior to others, and that makes it hard for us to accept that people we may not like, find disagreeable, or who do not behave well in our eyes are embraced by Amida Buddha’s compassion nonetheless.
Everyone carries two bags around, one in front and one behind, and both are packed full of faults. The bag in front contains the faults of others, and the one behind our own. Hence it is that we do not see our own faults, but never fail to see those of others. (‘The Two Bags’ from Aesop’s Fables)
Others’ faults are easily seen, but one’s own are difficult to see; one airs others’ faults like blowing chaff but hides one’s own faults as a crooked gambler hides dice. (Dhammapada, 252; Buddha Dharma, p. 441)
We are inclined to believe that we can earn our own merit; that the Dharma works like an accounting system. We bank good and we get it back with interest in the form of Amida Buddha’s compassion. It is natural to think that way; it is just human. For this reason, we might feel that we are more deserving of Amida Buddha’s compassion. But the Buddha is The Awakened One and has completely transcended any sense of self. His compassion reaches the hearts of all beings, without a shred of discrimination.
Even saintly people who observe these various Mahayana and Hinayana precepts can attain birth in the true fulfilled land only after they realise the true entrusting heart (shinjin) of Other Power. (Shinran, Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’; CWS, p. 458)
Those who see themselves in the light of Amida Buddha know that they cannot really claim any special merit of their own that would disqualify anyone else from the working of the Vow. So it would be impossible to suggest that there is anyone who is seemingly less worthy of the Buddha’s embrace.
The reason why we behave considerately and honestly is often because we do not want to contribute to social chaos. That is a prudent attitude. We know that it will redound to us, and to our ultimate disadvantage. Even so, the great Confucian scholar and commentator Mencius used the example of a man watching a child at risk of falling into a well, to demonstrate that empathy and fellow-feeling is natural to us. The man could not resist the impulse to save the child. Nor could we.
In this chapter of A Record in Lament of Divergences, Shinran engages Yuien in a conversation that demonstrates that Yuien was also a man of empathy and kindness. But it is not that, which makes him worthy of Amida Buddha’s Vow. Only entrusting heart (shinjin) is needed.