There are two exceedingly dangerous aspects to praxis on a spiritual path: striving and apathy. Shinran Shonin has taken the utmost care to make sure that we are aware of the danger involved in ‘striving’ – self-power calculation, subtle-mercantilism, elitism, appropriation of religion by the self, etc. However, while the Shonin also spoke of the danger in apathy, he often did so indirectly so as to avoid any possibility of seeming to encourage ‘striving’.
I have sadly seen Jodo Shinshu practitioners backslide into apathy; or worse: strive for it as if it were a virtue. I would like to humbly suggest that between striving and apathy, in the tension between them, we find true practice.
Buddhism, in all its forms, is ultimately a path in which we dissolve our attachment to an illusory independent self, and replace it with compassion for all life and an understanding of dependent co-arising (Skt. Pratītyasamutpāda).
We must avoid climbing the ladder of striving. Striving inflates and reinforces the sense of being a discrete and independent self because when we do ‘good’ by striving, we tend to appropriate the ‘good’ so done as merit for the self, believing that “I am good”. We then establish a mercantile relationship with reality by thinking we have earned some sort of award for the ‘good’ which we think we have done. Ultimately, we tend to set up a ‘hierarchy-of-the-good’ by comparing ourselves with others, thinking: “I am better than them because I have done ‘good’ and they have not”.
Likewise, we must also avoid the free-fall of apathy . Apathy destroys any sense of personal responsibility for our actions. We are thus encouraged to turn a blind eye to injustice. We tend to start committing evil because we have the excuse that we cannot help ourself. In the end, we develop the pseudo-piety and secret arrogance of a false humility.
Or, even worse, and partaking of both striving and apathy, we rationalize the commission of evil by thinking that since the ‘evil’ person is the object of the Primal Vow, we should then actively commit evil so that we may be fully embraced by that Vow.
The problem with each of these courses is that we ignore the real limits of human nature, and accept false limits. We assert that our commission of ‘good’ is truly the result of ‘our’ own ‘good’ (Self-Power). Or we believe that our not-doing good exhibits true reliance upon the real Good of the Primal Vow (Other-Power). Or that our commission of evil (and this is the most complex) is truly the result of ‘our’ own ‘evil’ (Self-Power) and exhibits true reliance upon the Good of the Primal Vow (Other-Power).
When I contemplate the matter, I am forced to the conclusion that the facts are quite otherwise. While it is true that, as humans, we are limited beings full of passion and moved by the marionette strings of individual and collective karma, this is not the whole of the truth, just a very obvious aspect of it. We cannot, with our ratiocinative intellects, fully trace any of our thoughts, words or deeds to their ultimate cause. We simply do not have the brain-power to handle the amount of data or the complexity of the interactions required to calculate and comprehend the vast web of causation which —in each and every moment— influences our thoughts, words and deeds. Be that as it may, we are not merely the slaves of causation.
Shinran Shonin made it quite clear that self-power striving fails even in the light of favorable karma because we cannot truly know ‘good’ or ‘evil’ sufficiently (as Amida knows good and evil) before we have attained the state of Buddhahood (Skt. AnnutaraSamyakSambodhi, or Supreme Perfect Enlightenment). We are unable to calculate the causes and effects of actions, or to accurately assess our own motivations. He also made it abundantly clear that this basic fact of human nature is not to be used as an excuse for the willful commission of evil.
Much of the confusion in the early Jodo Shinshu community was involved with misunderstandings of this sort. This is all revealed and recorded in Tannisho.
Given such incapacity as is endemic to the human condition, how are we to understand our situation and respond appropriately?
When I humbly reflect upon all of this, I am made to realize that while we are indeed human beings with limited capacities and burdened with a vast storehouse of karmic seeds of evil, we may still avoid apathy and striving by:
- realizing that any real Good we (or another) may do is not the result of our (or their) own ‘good-ness’ but the result of a vast web of causation (resulting in so-called ‘good karma’);
- understanding that the ‘good’ we think we (or another) do, may not in fact be Good at all, but may only seem so because we (or they) cannot understand the effects of the causes we (or they) sow, nor our (or their) motivations for acting (or not acting) in a certain way;
- being grateful for the fact that the vast web of causation may occasionally permit us (or another) to do real Good, quite in spite of our (or their) incapacity to do so by design;
- realizing that any evil we (or another) may do is not the result of our (or their) own ‘evil-ness’ but the result of a vast web of causation (resulting in so-called ‘evil karma’);
- understanding that the ‘evil’ we think we (or another) may do, may not in fact be evil at all, but may only seem so because we (or they) cannot understand the effects of the causes we (or they) sow, nor our (or their) motivations for acting (or not acting) in a certain way;
- being grateful for the vast web of causation that occasionally prevents us (or another) from doing evil, quite in spite of our (or their) incapacity to refrain from doing so by design;
- being aware that any real or perceived good we (or another) may do does not merit our (or their) ‘salvation’, and is not causative of ‘enlightenment’;
- being aware that any real or perceived evil we (or another) may do, cannot prevent our (or their) ‘salvation’, and cannot prevent our (or their) ‘enlightenment’;
- recognizing that our (or another’s) heart-felt gratitude for the Universal Availability of Buddha Nature and the Absolute nature of Compassion, serves to transform the seeds of evil-karma in our (or their) storehouse consciousness (Skt. ālāyavijñāna);
- allowing —in every moment— for the possibility that, through our gratitude for the Universal availability of Buddha-Nature through the Other-Power of Amida and the absolute compassion of the Primal Vow, the karmic seeds of evil-karma may have been transformed such that we (or another) may no longer feel compelled to act upon a given evil impulse when we (or they) sense it’s arising;
So, to sum up: we may avoid the errors of striving and apathy in our religious praxis by neither being completely passive, nor willfully active. Our active-passivity consists simply in the deep-hearing of the Primal Vow of Amida which embraces all, without discrimination. and allowing —in every moment— for the possibility that we may no longer be bound by the old karmic ties through our increasingly sincere gratitude for the universal availability of Buddha Nature and the absolute compassion of the Primal Vow as well as the dependent co-arising of all life which allows us to appreciate both fully.