In the weekly study class we read the story of Mimi (“Ears”) Shiro, the thief and murderer who became a devoted follower of Honen. For years after he encountered Honen and spent time listening to the Buddha-Dharma, Shiro continued to work as a thief. It is recorded that Honen said to him:
Since [the karma] we are born with has to play itself out, there is no way we can abandon the ways we make our livelihood every day. But what I want to ask you to do is this: when you feel your bad karma getting worked up and about to overpower you, say the nembutsu, and I assure you that the solemn promise [Vow] that Amida Tathagata made out of great pity and great compassion will come to your rescue.
(from The Life of Honen Shonin compiled by Kakunyo Shonin, translated by Wayne S. Yokoyama)
What is striking (and didn’t sit well with some of us) is that Honen doesn’t tell him to give up his criminal ways and become a law-abiding citizen. I think this reflects Honen’s own experience struggling as a monk for nearly thirty years—learning that it is very difficult and probably impossible to consciously change your self in a substantial way. Rather than tell Shiro to change his outward behavior, Honen wanted to open Shiro up to dealing with the basis of all destructive behavior (whether dubbed criminal or not by society) which is our deluded self-attachment. In “Namu Amida Butsu,” Shiro is reminded of the larger life that embraces him and all lives in an interconnected equality. What is called “the great compassion of Amida Buddha” is the acceptance of each and every being for who they are at this moment without any hint of condemnation (sesshu fusha).
In time “Ears” Shiro gave up his outlaw ways, just as we have seen in other narratives of criminal converts in Buddhism such as the Angulimala Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 86, see accesstoinsight.org). We could easily condemn the “monsters” we hear about on the news, but on reflection we see their destructive behavior (exerting power to harm others) comes from not knowing they are already accepted by the great compassion of the universe (unbounded Light and Life).
(Next, I will be reporting on the Nov. 17 interfaith events at Northeastern Illinois University.)