Monday, February 26, 2018

The so called “exclusion” in the Primal Vow: „excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right Dharma."


-  updated and revised on 26th February 2018 - 


"If,when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten quarters who sincerely entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and say my Name perhaps even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the supreme Enlightenment. Excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right Dharma."
(The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha)

Many people that come in contact with the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha experience two types of reactions: they are happy when reading the all-inclusive message in the first part, but they get unsure right after reading the last sentence: "excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses[1] and those who slander the right Dharma”.
Something seems wrong at first reading, an "exclusion" still exists, so after all the Primal Vow is not quite universal, there are some people that aren't embraced by the Compassion of Amida. But is this the way things really are? In my first days as a Jodo Shinshu follower, when I still did not have a direct contact with anyone from our tradition, I was trying really hard to understand the purpose of this "exclusion". I admit that I got really frightened every time I read that part. It was like a lump in the throat, like I never managed to really enjoy my meeting with Amida. "What if I committed one of those grave offenses?", I kept asking myself over and over again. I had met with Amida’s Primal Vow in a very difficult time, when I felt like I couldn't handle my own life, and now, after the joy of a hope, I kept hitting against this phrase that was refusing to go away. However, it wasn't long until the calm got in my heart for good - "everything is all right, how could you doubt me?" seems that Amida would have said.

We all have been admonished at least once by our mothers while we were kids and our behavior got unbearable. Maybe we were afraid in that moment that she will leave us or who knows what she will do if we do not behave properly, but in the end she was always there, no matter how we acted, admonishing us, trying her best to change us, but always  welcoming us with her love.  In the same way, Amida Buddha's Compassion is like a mother's love, and the "exclusion" in the Primal Vow is just an admonishment addressed to some stupid and crazy kids, that are always ready to make mistakes. It's not an "exclusion" in its own way, but a warning: "some actions are very serious, do not commit them, or else ...". But that "or else.." remains unfulfilled because of the first part of the Vow that proves the unconditioned salvation of a real mother.

So, let’s ask ourselves, when reading this so called „exclusion”, what is the real purpose of the Primal Vow? Shinran said in Tannisho:

„If it were only by observing precepts and upholding rules that we should entrust ourselves to the Primal Vow, how could we ever gain freedom from birth-and-death?”[2]

In chapter sixteen of the same writing, while correcting the erroneous view that nembutsu followers must go through a change of heart every time they get angry or do something bad, Shinran said:

“Suppose that attainment of Birth were possible only by going through changes of heart day and night with every incident that occurred. In that case - human life being such that it ends even before breath exhaled can be drawn in again - if we were to die without going through a change of heart and without abiding in a state of gentleness and forbearance, would not Amida's Vow that grasps and never abandons us be rendered meaningless?”[3]

If Amida Buddha has Endless Compassion and sees every being as His own child, wouldn’t be absurd to abandon them because of their ignorance? Such an attitude would be against the Bodhi Mind and the most elementary Mahayana vows. A Buddha can't make a statement and deny it immediately after, or state its contrary, something like: "I will save you all even if you just say my Name ten times ...but actually, I changed my mind and I impose some hard conditions that you won't be able to cross"...
The truth is Amida Buddha knows the real capacities of unenlightened beings and He didn't created His Vows for those capable of reaching Enlightenment through their own power:

“To rid yourself of  blind passions is  to become a Buddha and for  one who is already a Buddha, the Vow that arose from five kalpas of profound thought would be to no purpose.”[4]

In Shinran's opinion, this "exclusion" actually shows that even the worst beings are included in the salvation of Amida, especially those who committed the five grave offenses and slandered the right Dharma:

„By showing the gravity of these two kinds of wrongdoing, these words (the exclusion words) make us realize that all the sentient beings throughout the ten quarters, without a single exception, will be born in the Pure Land."[5]

I think that the mentioning of these gravest offenses is a clue that they are not wanted in the behavior of the disciples but in the same time the effects of those offenses are annihilated by the Compassionate Power of Amida Buddha when we genuinely entrust ourselves to Him.

Although the so called „exclusion” appears in the Larger Sutra, in the Contemplation Sutra the situation is completely different. Here Shakyamuni Buddha tells Ananda and Vaidehi that a man lying on his death bed and who committed such evils as the five grave offenses, the ten evil acts, and all kinds of immorality”[6]  and who, if left to the mercy of his evil karma, hewould fall into the evil realms and suffer endless agony for many kalpas”[7], can be born in the Pure Land if he meets a good spiritual teacher, listens to his advice and says Namo Amida Butsu even ten times:

„When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging him to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by pain to do so. The good teacher then advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate (meditate) on the Buddha then you should say that you take refuge in the Buddha of Immesurable Life ’. In this way, he sincerely and continuously says, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha of Immesurable Life (Namo Amida Butsu) ten times. Because he calls the Buddha’s Name, with each repetition the evil karma that would bind him to birth and death for eighty koṭis of kalpas[8] is extinguished. When he comes to die, he sees before him a golden lotus flower like the disk of the sun, and in an instant he is born within a lotus bud in the Land of Utmost Bliss.”[9]

This is a hint at the Primal Vow, where to say Nembutsu even ten times is mentioned as the assurance of birth in the Pure Land! Thus, we should look to the above passage as a proof that those who did the five grave offenses are not really excluded from Amida’s salvation.

After presenting the same passage as the above from the Contemplation Sutra, Master T’an-luan explained it as follows:

„From the evidence of this sutra, we clearly see that ordinary people of the lowest grade are all enabled to be born in the Pure Land through faith in the Buddha, if they do not abuse the right Dharma”.[10]

Attention here please, as this is extremely important! Those who made the five grave offenses are enabled to attain birth in the Pure Land if they have faith in Amida Buddha, but only if they do not abuse or slander the right Dharma! So, it seems that slandering the right Dharma is even worse than the five grave offenses. Let’s continue to read Master T’an-luan’s explanations which were also quoted by Shinran Shonin in his Kyogyoshinsho, chapter III:

“Question 1): The Sutra of Immeasurable Life states,
‘Those who aspire for Birth are all brought to attainment. Excluded are those who commit the five grave offenses and those who slander the right Dharma.’
The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life states,
‘Those who have committed the five grave offenses and the ten transgressions, and who are possessed of various evils also attain Birth.’
How are these two sutra passages to be reconciled?

Answer: The first sutra speaks of committing two kinds of serious evil act: the five grave offenses and the slander of the right Dharma. Because of committing both these two kinds of evil act, a person is unable to attain Birth. The other sutra speaks only of committing the evil of the ten transgressions and five grave offenses; nothing is said of slandering the right Dharma. Because a person has not slandered the right Dharma, he attains Birth.[11]

So, again, Master T’an-luan stresses that birth in the Pure Land can be attained even by those who made the five grave offenses, on the condition that they do not slander the right Dharma. Another question is then addressed, to obtain a more clear answer on this matter:

„Question 2): Suppose a person has committed the five grave offenses but has not slandered the right Dharma. In the sutra, it is granted that such a person can attain Birth. Further, suppose there is a person who has only slandered the right Dharma but is free of the five grave offenses and other evil acts; if he aspires for Birth, will he attain it or not?

Answer: Although he has only slandered the right Dharma and has not committed other evil acts, he will definitely be unable to attain Birth.”[12]

The answer is clear –  birth in the Pure Land for those who slander the right Dharma is impossible. But why is this so? Let’s see the explanation of Master T’an-luan:

„This is because slandering the right Dharma is an evil act of extreme gravity.

Further, the right Dharma is the Buddha-Dharma. Such a foolish person has already slandered it; how can it be reasonable to think that he would aspire to be born in the Buddha-land? Suppose the person aspires for Birth merely because he craves to be born into happiness; this is like seeking ice that is not water or fire without smoke. How can it be deemed reasonable that he attain it?

Question 3): What are the characteristics of slandering the right Dharma?

Answer: Saying there is no Buddha, no Buddha-Dharma, no Bodhisattva, no Bodhisattva-Dharma. Deciding on such views, whether through understanding thus in one's own mind or receiving the ideas from others, is called slandering the right Dharma.”[13]

The Master’s answer is very logical. To negate the existence of transcendent Buddhas, including Amida, with their various manifestations is, according to him and Shinran who quoted him, the most evil act of slandering the right Dharma. This means that those who consider the story told by Shakyamuni in the Larger Sutra, of Dharmakara Bodhisattva becoming Amida Buddha, to be a fictional story, and Dharmakara or Amida to be fictional characters, symbols or metaphors, are actually saying, “there was no Dharmakara Bodhisattva” and “ there is no Amida Buddha”. Their act of denying the existence of Amida Buddha in His transcendental form (Dharmakaya of Expediency/Sambhogakaya aspect) or the Body (Aspect) for the sake of saving sentient beings, is abusing the right Dharma[14]. For this reason, those who spread such distorted visions automatically exclude themselves from birth in the Pure Land. More than this, when their present life is over, they will be reborn in the Great Avici Hell, as T’an-luan explained:
                                                                       
“He who has committed the transgression of abusing the right Dharma will not be able to attain Birth, even though he has not committed any other evils. For what reason? The Mahaprajnaparamita[15] sutra says:

‚Those who have slandered the right Dharma will also fall into the Great Avici hell. When the period of one kalpa comes to an end, they will be sent to the Great Avici hell of another world. In this way, such evildoers will consecutively pass through a hundred thousand Great Avici hells.’

The Buddha thus did not mention the time of their release from the Avici hell. This is because the transgression of slandering the right Dharma is extremely grave.
Further, the right Dharma refers to the Buddha Dharma. Such ignorant persons have slandered it; therefore, it does not stand to reason that they should seek birth in a Buddha-land, does it?[16]

The Larger Sutra is the Amida Dharma or the right Dharma taught by Shakyamuni Buddha with the intention of helping sentient beings to be born in the Pure Land of Amida. Those who do not take this sutra and Dharma as being genuine, but call it a fictional or mythological story, how can they be reborn in a Pure Land of a Buddha whose existence they actually deny? Indeed, as T’an-luan said, it does not stand to reason”, isn't it ?

Now, please pay attention, as it is extremely important! Both the Larger Sutra and Master T’an-luan talk about slandering the true Dharma in the present momentthe right Dharma refers to the Buddha Dharma. Such ignorant persons have slandered it; therefore, it does not stand to reason that they should seek birth in a Buddha-land, does it?”

"Have slandered it" refers to a slander that still goes on in that person’s mind, but it does NOT refers to a situation in which he slandered it in the past and now, through a change of heart, he understands the evil he did and repents about it.

It’s logic to say that a person who still slanders the Dharma, denying the actual existence of Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, and spreading such perverted views to others, cannot have a true faith and sincere aspiration for birth in the Pure Land, so he is self-excluding from Amida’s Primal Vow. Attention here! Not Amida is excluding such a person, but he excludes himself from the salvation oferred by Amida. As I previously said, Amida Buddha wishes to save us all, but He doesn’t take us to His Pure Land by force, so if we do not wish to go there or we do not accept the existence of that enlightened realm or the existence of Amida, then we’ll not go there. Nobody can go to a place which he thinks it doesn’t exist and can’t be saved by someone whom he considers being an imaginary person. This is logical, isn’t it? However, the exclusion or self-exclusion sentence in the Primal Vow has no effect  if slandering the Dharma becomes a mistake of the past, a mistake which is now repented. So, the one who slandered the Dharma in the past, but goes through a change of heart in the present time, admits his mistake, feels sorry for his act and relies with sincerity on Amida Buddha's Compassion, will attain birth in the Pure Land. Its logic to be this way.

As Shinran said, „'excluded' reveals how grave the evil of slandering the Dharma is”[17], but doesn’t mean that one who has repented and now accepts the existence of Amida Buddha and entrusts oneself to Him, is not saved!

In Buddhism there are no eternal „punishments” except for a mind locked in mistake, which in fact punishes itself, but the mind that changes its ways can not be the same as the old one. This reminds me of a thing that happened during Shakyamuni's time. A man offended the Buddha really bad, throwing in His face with every kind of harsh words, but the next day he felt sorry and asked for forgiveness. Going before Him, he kneeled and asked forgiveness. Buddha said: "Get up, the person who stays now in front of me is not the same as the one offending me yesterday."

The nembutsu follower who has genuine faith in Amida Buddha cannot slander the Buddha Dharma and so, if he did that before receiving faith, the karmic effects of such a slander have been purified, as he is now a new man, a born again person in the light of Amida Buddha's Compassion, completely separated from the old man of this life or the past lives.




[1] "Concerning the five grave offenses:
According to Tzu-chou, there are two traditions concerning the five grave offenses.
One is the five grave offenses of the three vehicles: 1) intentionally killing one's father; 2) intentionally killing one's mother; 3) intentionally killing an arhat; 4) disrupting the harmony of the sangha through one's inverted views; and 5) maliciously causing blood to flow from the body of the Buddha. These acts are termed grave offenses (literally, 'contraries') because they go against the field of benevolence and run athwart the field of merits. Those who give themselves to these grave offenses, when they deteriorate in body and die, unfailingly plunge into Avici ('uninterrupted') hell, where for one great kalpa they undergo pain without interruption; hence, these offenses are termed 'acts resulting in uninterrupted pain.'

The Abhidharma-kosa lists five acts of uninterrupted pain similar to those above. A verse states:
‚Violating one's mother or a nun of the stage of nonlearning [equivalent to the karmic evil of killing one's mother]
Killing a bodhisattva who abides in meditation [equivalent to the karmic evil of killing one's father]
Or a sage of the stage of learning or nonlearning [equivalent to killing an arhat]
Destroying the cause of happiness in the sangha [equivalent to the karmic evil of disrupting the sangha],
And smashing stupas [equivalent to causing blood to flow from the body of the Buddha].’

The second tradition is the five grave offenses of the Mahayana. The Sutra Taught to Nigranthas states:
1) Destroying stupas, burning sutra repositories, or plundering the belongings of the Three Treasures. 
2) Speaking evil of the teaching of the three vehicles, saying they are not the sacred teachings, obstructing and censuring it, or attempting to hide and obscure it. 
3) Beating those who have abandoned homelife, whether they observe precepts, have not received precepts, or break precepts; persecuting them, enumerating their faults, confining them, forcing them to return to lay life, putting them to menial labor, exacting taxes from them, or depriving them of life. 
4) Killing one's father, harming one's mother, causing blood to flow from the body of the Buddha, disrupting the harmony of the sangha, or killing an arhat. 
5) Speaking evil by saying there is no cause and effect and constantly performing the ten transgressions throughout the long night of ignorance.

The Ten Wheel Sutra states:
1) Killing a Pratyekabuddha out of evil intentions; this is destroying life. 
2) Violating a nun who has attained arhatship; this is an act of lust. 
3) Stealing or destroying what has been offered to the Three Treasures; this is taking what has not been given one. 
4) Disrupting the harmony of the sangha with inverted views; this is speaking falsely”
Shinran Shonin, Kyogyoshinsho, chapter III, The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.149-150

[2] The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.671
[3] The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.676
[4] Shinran Shonin, Tannisho, The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.672
[5] Shinran Shonin, Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls, The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.494
[6] The Three Pure Land Sutras, translated by Hisao Inagaki, BDK English Tripitaka 12-II, III, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003, p.98
[7] Ibidem.
[8] „Eighty koṭis of kalpas” is used here to mean, all evil karma he did from the infinite past till present.
[9] The Three Pure Land Sutras, translated by Hisao Inagaki, BDK English Tripitaka 12-II, III, IV, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003, p.98 and   The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life as Expounded by Sakyamuni Buddha, translated and annotated by by Ryukoku University Translation Center,  Kyoto, 1984, p.109
[10] T’an-luan’s Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure  Land (Ojoronchu), a study and translation by Hisao Inagaki, Nagata Bunshodo, Kyoto, 1998, p.195
[11] Master T’an-luan Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure  Land (Ojoronchu), The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.144
[12] Master T’an-luan Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure  Land (Ojoronchu), The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.144
[13] Master T’an-luan Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure  Land (Ojoronchu), The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.145
[14] Many nowadays false teachers who are slandering the right Dharma, often use the formless Dharmakaya (Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature) which is the Buddha nature of all beings and of Buddhas themselves, as an excuse and argument to reduce all transcendent manifestations to mere symbols or metaphors, or even go so far as to blame “folk Buddhism” for their presence in the canonical writings. But surely, Master T’an-luan did not share such distorted views when he clearly said that exactly because Dharmakaya is formless, there is no form which it cannot manifest.

“Unconditioned Dharmakaya is the body of Dharma-nature. Because Dharma-nature is Nirvanic, Dharmakaya is formless. Because it is formless, there is no form which it cannot manifest. Therefore, the body adorned with the marks of excellence is itself Dharmakaya”.   

“The body adorned with the marks of excellence” is the specific transcendent manifestation of each Buddha for the sake of saving sentient beings:

“The Dharmakaya has no form of its own and yet manifests various forms, corresponding to the conditions and capacities of sentient beings.”

In the case of Amida Buddha, this is the Form He has taken in the Pure Land; it is Amida as described in the Larger Sutra by Shakyamuni, and as seen and heard by the audience gathered together on the Vulture Peak to listen to this sutra. It is Amida who always accompany us, sentient beings who entrust to Him.

Ultimate Dharmakaya or Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature is beyond time and form, so it cannot be perceived as an object of faith. In this ultimate Dharmakaya we dwell only after we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land, but here and now ordinary unenlightened people like us cannot relate to it, nor understand it. This is why Amida Buddha does not remain secluded in His ultimate - formless Dharmakaya, but has manifested himself in the form described by Shakyamuni in the Larger Sutra, and has established His Pure Land. 

Even if Amida Buddha in Form and Name is inseparable from His formless Dharmakaya, it doesn’t mean that He is non-existent or just a symbol or fictional character. As the saying goes, even if the two Dharmakayas are inseparable, they are different; they are one, but not the same. So, while we accept that Amida has the aspect of ultimate formless Dharmakaya, we relate in our faith and teaching to Amida in Form and Name, to Amida as described in the Larger Sutra and to Amida who now resides in the Pure Land. Those who do not understand this difference, but continue to negate the existence of Amida Buddha in Form and Name are not practicing in accord with the Dharma, as T’an-luan explained:

“What is the cause of not practicing in accord with the Dharma, or in agreement with the significance of the Name?
It is due to failure to understand that the Tathagata Amida is a Body of ultimate Reality and a Body for the sake of Living Beings.”

When we say the nembutsu, we take as object of our faith and refuge, the Name of Amida Buddha in His glorious manifestation for the sake of saving sentient beings (Dharmakaya of Expediency/Sambhogakaya):

“The ten repetitions of the Name arise from the unsurpassed faith by taking as object the Name of Amida Tathagata of a glorious body of skilful means that comprises immeasurable merits which are true and pure.”   

To negate the existence of transcendent Buddhas, including Amida, with their various manifestations, is, according to T’an-luan, the most evil act of abusing the right Dharma. This is why he defines the slandering of the right Dharma as to say „there is no Buddha”.

You can read more about the modern heresies and how I counteract them in my book, The True Teaching on Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, Dharma Lion Publications, Craiova, 2015. Also, please reffer to the chapter „The doctrine of the Three Buddha-Bodies and the Two Buddha-Bodies in relation with Amida Buddha and His Pure Land” from page 88 in this book.
[15] Daibonhannyaharamitsukyo.
[16] T’an-luan’s Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure  Land (Ojoronchu), a study and translation by Hisao Inagaki, Nagata Bunshodo, Kyoto, 1998, p.196-197
[17] Shinran Shonin, Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls, The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.494

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