(9) Understanding from a Mind of Faith
Someone complained to Rennyo of his inability to understand that, “we have repeated the birth and death cycle many times; and during those lengthy times there were already ways and means given to us in the practice of the vow of the other-power.” Rennyo replied, “It is apparent that this response is from a man who has heard, and is knowledgeable—but, has no awakening mind of faith.”
The doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation is one of the most ancient and widespread religious concepts. While typically associated with Eastern religions, it is in fact a view that is commonly held by people the world over. Many people nowadays (and even some Buddhists) regard the teaching of rebirth as antiquated or unfounded, and not something that modern people could reasonably accept or be expected to believe. According to them, one can even be a Buddhist without being required to believe in rebirth.
According to Shakyamuni, however, not believing in the reality of rebirth is one of the marks of the misguided and foolish people of this world, who are described in detail in the second part of the Larger Sutra, one which the Jodo Shinshu tradition is founded. There the Buddha observes,
Thus people of the world do not believe in pursuing good and receiving its rewards or in practicing the Way and attaining enlightenment; neither do they believe in transmigration and retribution for evil acts or reward for good ones, such as obtaining merit by helping others.
Ignorance, whether willful or natural, of death and its consequences is thus regarded by the Buddha as a grave evil. It prevents people from seeking the Way, and makes superstitious beliefs flourish. In the same sutra, the Buddha says, “In this way, such people in the world are all the same at heart. They are ignorant and foolish, and yet they think themselves wise. They do not know from where life comes or to where death leads.”
The teaching of rebirth is inextricably linked to the law of karma. One cannot exist without the other, for without rebirth, there can be no true retribution for evil acts or reward for good ones. If we reject the Buddha’s teaching on this subject, we must turn back to the ancient uncertainty or the ignorance of non-Buddhist ways. We must begin to speculate, with the biblical Job, why good people suffer in this life while evil people get off without a scratch. In short, we must abandon clear Buddhist teachings for the confused thoughts and speculations of unenlightened people throughout the ages.
How much better just to accept the Buddha’s words and believe in the law of karma and rebirth! It is unfortunate that so many people these days belittle Shakyamuni’s perfect enlightenment and “cling to their own views more tenaciously,” while teaching others to do likewise. The question is not at all difficult to decide, however, if one possesses an open mind and is willing to relinquish preconceptions and mistaken opinions. There are, in fact, only three possibilities regarding the afterlife:
1) Nihilism: the view that the individual ceases to exist at death. This is the view unfortunately held by many people in our modern materialistic society, as expressed in the saying, “You only live once.”
2) Eternalism: the view that the individual’s attributes (or “soul”) live on forever after death. This is the view shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other monotheistic religions.
3) Transmigration or rebirth: the teaching based on the law of cause and effect, that all existence (including all individual existences) are inextricably linked by karma.
A thorough analysis of each of the above concepts is beyond the scope and intent of this post. It is also not necessary for Buddha’s followers to have a complete theoretical comprehension of rebirth. Suffice it to say that the Buddha was well-aware of the competing views regarding the afterlife, and clearly delineated the truth regarding this matter in numerous sutras. Of course, He based His teaching, not on the prevailing Vedic scriptures of the era, but on His own personal experience. On the threshold of enlightenment, He said, “Through many a birth I wandered, seeking the builder of this house. Sorrowful indeed is birth again and again.”
The Buddha’s intent is that we will reject wrong views (such as nihilism and eternalism) and embrace right view, that is, the Dharma taught by him. Master Rennyo would say that embracing right views is a prerequisite to a fruitful encounter with the teaching of Jodo Shinshu. It is among the “ways and means” by which Amida Buddha guides us to finally embrace the Vow of great love and great compassion. And it is obvious that without rebirth into another state of existence after death, there is no way that one could be born in the Pure Land. Indeed, belief in transmigration is part of the first aspect of the deeply entrusting mind expounded by Master Shan-tao in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra:
Deep mind is the deeply entrusting mind. There are two aspects. One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha's Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth. (KGSS III.13)
If we are to call ourselves disciples of Shakyamuni, we should accept the Dharma that He teaches without doubt or stubbornly clinging to our own unenlightened opinions. Even so, there is only so much we can do by ourselves to rid our minds of wrong views and deluded beliefs. If we are ever to reach an authentic understanding of Jodo Shinshu, it will never do to engage in endless study of its doctrines and merely accumulate knowledge about it. In the end, it is the wisdom of shinjin alone that transforms our false and inverted minds, revealing the incomparable truth of the Buddha-Dharma and liberating us forever from the endless cycle of birth-and-death.