Even a good person …

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. (The Tannisho 3; CWS, p. 663)

This passage from The Tannisho is very well known because it discusses a paradox, the truth of which is not immediately apparent. The reason for this is quite straightforward. We are inclined to put a positive slant on our own virtue and take it as self-evident. We think of ourselves as ‘good’. Indeed, in a conventional sense, we should strive to behave well, without causing pain to ourselves or to others.

Nevertheless, in this context we assume that, because we are good, we are somehow worthy of birth in the Pure Land. But that assumption makes it harder to be born–and to become buddhas–because it is the assertion of our own ego. People who are clear about their dire need of the working of Vow, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they may be, have surrendered their ultimate destiny entirely to Amida Buddha and relinquished their self-centredness in that very moment.

The transfer of Amida Buddha’s virtue that comes with unconditional trust in the Primal Vow–that is, the Name, Namo Amida Butsu—is the only fact that makes it possible to attain birth and become buddhas at the end of this current life. So, the fact that we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any conventional sense is irrelevant.

This fact clearly opens the way to people who are regarded as pariahs in society. In a Buddhist context such people maintain life-styles that conflict with the usual expectations of Buddhists. They are engaged in proscribed occupations – hunters, fishers, butchers, wine merchants, soldiers, sex workers, and so on. But this teaching about the deliverance of the evil person extends well beyond such superficial observations. They make no difference to the compassion of Amida Buddha because he sees us all in the same light.

Shinran Shonin, who was once a monk and later a family man, would be seen by others as a ‘good’ person. But, living within the light of Amida Buddha’s dharma, he came to see with clarity that he was no different from those who live on the margins of society.

‘Shackled’ describes us, who are bound by all our various blind passions. Blind passions refers to pains which torment the body and afflictions which distress the heart and mind. 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 peddlers, hunters, and others are none other than we, who are like stones and tiles and pebbles. (CWS, p. 459)

In the matter of deep karmic evil, bound by ‘various blind passions’, we are no different to anyone else. And certainly not inherently superior or ‘better qualified’ for birth in the Pure Land.