Backsliding into apathy


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.

5 responses »

  1. Firstly, I just want to say thank you very much for the website. I’ve only being reading it for a brief amount of time but have already learnt a great deal from it and still have much more to slowly digest.

    In regards to the above post, I was wondering if you could say a little more about the role gratitude plays in Pure land practice, specifically how gratitude for the Universal Availability of Buddha Nature and the Absolute nature of Compassion transforms our evil-seeds of karma or other pieces of conditioning.

    Is it that the gratitude facilitates opening up that space between our karmically conditioned responses and arising circumstances for Amida’s (the Buddha-mind) to then come through?

    In that sense, is it the gratitude itself that melts the kleshas or is it the Buddha-mind that the gratitude creates space for that transforms the kleshas?

    • Hello and Welcome!

      This is a very subtle and complex matter, but I will do my humble best to clarify the issue.

      I would first like to make it clear that if gratitude is already present in your heart of hearts then any answer I can give will be of little value, for the moment you engage the practice (which initially is listening to the dharma with the ears of the heart) you will eventually come to experience the fruit of the path (shinjin – true, or entrusting, faith), and then you may come to learn true doctrine (beyond words) by questioning your experience of the arising of shinjin. Do not put off the sure resolution of the great matter of life and death by seeking intellectual answers to questions regarding religious praxis.

      Be that as it may, here is such an answer as this bonbu can provide:

      If one investigates carefully, one may realize that the establishment of gratitude gives form to the formless. This has great functional value. By establishing the ‘to’ and the ‘for’ we establish a duality. Now this is odd, isn’t it, because most Buddhist teachings and Dharma talks (including many of those on this site) discuss the need to eliminate duality, they seek the gradual or sudden removal of the subject / object dichotomy. Why, then, are we now discussing its establishment? We are doing so precisely because this is the Pure Land Path and not the Holy Path (or Path of Sages).

      The Holy Path is for those of great capacity (in knowledge and virtue) and leisure (to study and practice). It is primarily for monastics, renunciants, home-leavers. In this day and age, if we take a good look around (and within), we fairly quickly realize that there are very few persons with great capacity or leisure (even among monastics), and therefore very few people that can make good use of the rigors of the Holy path to come to a satisfactory resolution of the matter of life and death by eliminating the subject / object dichotomy and thus removing the distinction between self-nature and Buddha Nature, attaining enlightenment in this very body by merging with the Dharmakaya (as did Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamuni). This being so, it is to the Pure Land Path that we must look for such resolution, for it is a path suitable even for those of little capacity or leisure. It is, in fact, for all persons: lay persons and monastics, home-dwellers and home-leavers. Elsewhere we have discussed the over-reification of the difference between these paths and the turning of the distinction into a kind of dogma.

      Now, back to the matter of gratitude and the establishment of a functional duality by giving form to the formless. When we establish a ‘to’ and a ‘for’ we establish a subject, an object, an indirect object and a direct object. Who? I = subject; what? am grateful = verb; to whom? Amida = indirect object; for what? being grasped = direct object. This establishes the functional value of an effective affective fulcrum. Without the implied dualism this involves it would be very difficult to bring about birth, salvation or enlightenment. That is to say, gratitude brings about an affective relationship with the Samboghakaya Buddha, or, Amida with form, which facilitates the arising of deep hearing of the Name-that-Calls with the subsequent arising of shinjin (the crux of this path) which happens as the result of Amida transferring His (English does not have a suitable neuter pronoun) straightforward sincere mind to us.

      So, having said all this, which might seem to stray from the question, we might yet be able to see that gratitude arises before and after the attainment of shinjin. The gratitude that arises before shinjin helps to bring us into relationship with Amida (or Buddha Nature personified). This facilitates deep hearing of the Name-that-Calls, which in turn facilitates the arising of shinjin which occurs simultaneously with the transfer of Amida’s straightforward and sincere mind with its storehouse of dharmic virtue (Amida, when a Bodhisattva, was called Dharmakara, or ‘Storehouse of the Dharma’). It is this sudden transfer of mind and gradual transfer of virtue which causes the gradual replacement of the storehouse consciousness (alaya vijnana) of our self-nature with its tainted karmic seeds, with the Great Mirror Wisdom Storehouse consciousness of Buddha Nature with its pure karmic seeds and resplendent virtues.

      In reading this site it is important to remember that The Pure Land Path, despite its gradual and dualistic aspects, is nevertheless a truly Mahayana / Ekayana path that is categorised, like Chan / Zen, as a ‘sudden’ vehicle. This is because there is a sudden transfer of Great Mind and Great Practice, with a subsequent gradual transformation of our kleshas (‘rubble into gold’).

      For our inter-faith brothers and sisters of Daoist background:

      The Daoists sometimes speak of ‘using effort to arrive at effortlessness’. Setting up a dualism to arrive at the fruit of non-dualism has something of this about it. But, more to the point, one might also turn this on its head and say that shinshu plants the seed of effortlessness so as to arrive at the fruit otherwise expected of effort, and this has a Daoist ring to it as well. For, despite all the apparent anti-Daoist polemics in the last chapter of KyoGyoShinSho, there is much common ground between Jodoshinshu and True Daoism. Like Shinran‘s polemics against Holy Path Buddhism, there was only the desire to point out error. In the latter case, the error of using self-effort to transcend self-nature; in the former, the error of mistaking externals and superstitions as true religion. If either Holy Path Buddhism or Daoism were being practiced and taught well in his time and place, and in a manner such that all people could benefit, then it is my sincere conviction that the Shonin would not have had a single negative thing to say about either.

      For our inter-faith brothers and sisters of Judeo-Christian background, one can appreciate this teaching within the terms of your own tradition(s) by turning to Isaiah 64:6-8 – to wit:

      For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on Your name; who arouses himself to take hold of You… But now, O LORD, You are our Father, we are the clay, and You our potter…

      Hinduism, Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have self-power and other-power rhetoric involved in their projection. Such is human nature. For Buddhists, if one is not trapped by the rhetoric, one can clearly see self-power and other-power elements in both the Pure Land Path and Holy Path.

      If we do no good, may we at least do little or no harm.

      Are you answered?

      P.S. Establishing the gap between stimulus and response is not directly related to gratitude, though in practice it can be indirectly related to it. It is not really a/our practice. Like saying the nembutsu it can be a thing of self-power or Other-Power. When it is an Other-Power thing, it is a matter of ‘naturalness’ (jinen-honi), a thing that arises of itself. When it is a self-power thing it will be something one does with calculation until such time as the arising of naturalness in the aftermath of true-entrusting (shinjin) will have made it otheriwse.

  2. Thank you very much for your very thorough answer, and especially for the reminder to not put off the sure resolution of the great matter of life and death by seeking intellectual answers; I absolutely needed that.

    I can now see how gratitude serves to make a fulcrum by creating an upaya based dichotomy to help facilitate the development of a connection with the formless dharmakaya, and after reading the ‘Shinran’s trans-dualistic approach’ post this makes even more sense to me now.

    In terms of then practising gratitude, should we initially actively try and give rise to gratitude through remembering Amida’s vow and that limitless compassion, even though this is still a limited and self-willed action and the goal is to get to the stage where a deep sense of gratitude naturally of itself arises, which from my limited understanding seems to arise from a direct experience of shinjin?

    In fact, I think this is really just reflecting a broader question I have in regards to pure land practice, as from my experience at trying to practise it recently I have wondered how much I should ‘try’ to do anything. As I recite Amida’s name, should I try to remember the infinite compassion and bring my mind back to the mantra when it wanders, or should I just let go of all self-willed actions? This connects with what you were saying above, about the pure land path having parallels with Daoist practice of using effortlessness to arrive at the fruit otherwise expected of effort. I found it very interesting that you mentioned this, as I was wanting to ask to what degree practice of the pure land path is then similar to the Daoist practice of wei wu wei (为无为).

    Many many thanks


    • Shinran Shonin, when looking back at his life saw that his own realization of shinjin was a gradual process of conversion from the Provisional path (covered by the 19th vow) to the True path (covered by the 20th vow) and ultimately to the Absolute path (covered by the 18th or Primal Vow). This conversion process is known in JodoShinShu circles as Sangan Tennyu.

      In the 6th and final Chapter of Shinran‘s Ken Jodo Shinjitsu Kyogyosho Monrui, we are informed about this process which begins in a variety of self-powered ethical pursuits and meditative practices very much like those of the Path of Sages. This preliminary phase is where many if not all of us begin. Then we may enter a phase characterised by fervent devotion to the single practice of saying the nembutsu. This is still a self-powered endeavor with gross or subtle expectations of merit acquisition. Many people never make it beyond this phase. Ultimately, and beyond all calculation or expectation, there may occur a sudden release from the bonds of self-power machinations and self-serving calculations, and a welling up of gratitude and joy for having been grasped just as we are, never to be abandoned. From this arises, gradually, a life of ‘naturalness’ (jinen) characterized by experience of the transcendence and immanence of the Infinite Light and Life of Amida Butsu, and we thus enter the station of the truly religious life which is utterly without expectation or calculation … a gratefulness and joy that we cannot but feel whether or not this means we experience hell or heaven now or in the hereafter.

      This is all to say: be not overly concerned with the fact that you may yet need to “try and give rise to gratitude through remembering Amida’s vow and that limitless compassion, even though this is still a limited and self-willed action.”

      At some point while calling the name, you may come to hear the name-that-calls. This will occur naturally, of itself. At that moment Amida is the active agent and you are the passive recipient of His directing of merit (Eko). The passage from self-power to Other-power through the 19th and 20th vows to the 18th occurs at the fulcrum of deep hearing, when our calling the name suddenly transforms into hearing the name-that-calls which transforms into Amida calling the name through us as our gratitude and joy overwhelm us.

      So employing effort and arriving at effortlessness is an example of that effortless effort of non-doing of which the Daoist’s often speak and which Shinran‘s own mentor, Honen Shonin referred to in the phrase, “No-working is true working.”

      Do understand that, properly speaking, the nembutsu is not a mantra (which is a word or phrase repeatedly uttered in expectation of some salutory effect). The nembutsu, again properly speaking, is not even our practice and is not a source of merit.

      Namu Amida Butsu


  3. Thank you very much for your response. That helps clarify the trajectory from self-willed cultivation to opening ones self up to the naturalness of entrusting in Amitabha.

    I feel at this stage I need to continue to read and re-read the other posts on this site, digest them properly, and perhaps most importantly, continue to practice before I ask any further questions.

    Amitabha 🙂

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