The light of purity is without compare.
When a person encounters this light,
All bonds of karma fall away,
So take refuge in Amida, the ultimate shelter.
The poem that I am beginning my article with is one of the wasan that we chant as part of our daily morning services. As with many poems, despite the length of the writing it is often filled with meaning. For example, “bonds of karma” has a particularly important meaning in the wasan. In one version, Shinran Shonin writes the note, “to be tied by the rope of doing bad things” to help us understand the meaning of “bonds of karma.”
When we are tied, we are not able to act freely. Our range of motion is limited. Because the rope is not a physical rope, Shinran Shonin is pointing out that when we act badly it is not easy for us to stop acting that way. For example, if we lie then we have to keep on lying. Unfortunately, if we continue to lie then eventually we will not just be lying any more, we will become liars. In this wasan, Shinran Shonin tells us that when we meet with this light of purity of Amida Buddha that we will change.
Before talking about how we change, I would like to explore why we do bad things like lie in the first place. It seems to me that the reason why do these things is because we think we will gain something positive by doing these bad things. To justify our bad acts, even while knowing we are doing something bad, we say things like, “But, everyone else is doing it” and think, “If I don’t do the same things, then I’m going to get behind” or “I’m going to lose.” We don’t, for example, like to cheat, but if everyone else is cheating then I have to cheat because otherwise it is not fair to me. This is how we fool ourselves. This is how we lie to ourselves. We don’t see the contradiction. How is cheating fair? Is twisting the truth like this smart or is it foolish? And, when was the last time we took the time to think about what we are doing is smart or foolish?
In talking about karma there are some important questions to ask. One of these questions is, “Although it is not good to do bad things, which is worse? Is it worse to do something bad knowing that you are doing something bad, or is it worse to do something bad without knowing you are doing something bad?” The Buddha would answer that it is worse to do something bad without knowing we are doing something bad. If you know you are doing something bad, there is still an opportunity to try to fix it. If we know we are lying then all we have to do is stop. But, if we become a liar then chances are we are not aware of having become a liar and there is no way for us to stop. Similarly, if we know we are cheating, then all we have to do is stop. But, if we don’t know we are twisting the truth, like calling cheating fair, then there is nothing we can do.
The pure light of the Buddha is helping us to discover ourselves. We lie and cheat because we think it will help us. But is becoming a liar and a cheater something we should really strive for? Instead, isn’t is something to avoid? Helping us to see this is part of what the light of the Buddha does. The light also helps us to see that we do sometimes lie, and we do sometimes cheat. But the light of the Buddha keeps us from hiding this truth about us from ourselves and helps us to see that the Buddha does not need us to be perfect. The Buddha wants us to understand, and from understanding comes change.
Rev. John Iwohara