The Subjective View of the Student: Angulimāla and Myōhōbō
Even the one who committed evil all their life
If they encounter the wide-vow
Their arrival to the world of peace and nurturing
Is a testament to the result [of that encounter]
一生造悪 Isshō zō aku
値弘誓 chi gu zei
至安養界 shi an nyō kai
証妙果 shō myō ka
--from Shōshinge (my translation)
What was Shinran Shonin like? When we read his own words, people easily get the idea that he was some depressed person with low self-esteem, describing his utter incorrigibility, such as the confession in Kyōgyōshinshō:
How wretched I am! [Shin]ran, the stupid bald-headed one, deeply submerged in the wide ocean of desires and cravings, confusingly lost among the huge mountains of worldly fame and interests, has no aspirations for being counted among the elite of the definitely assured group and feels no pleasure in approaching the really true experience. How deplorable! How heart-rending!
-- “True Faith” chapter, p. 160. D.T. Suzuki et al translation.
Shinran’s Kyōgyōshinshō (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)
In the visual depictions of Shinran (including the kagami no goei said to be drawn directly from observation)[below - from Wikipedia], he seems to be scowling in a bad mood. In a way, I feel that’s how Shinran wanted to be seen by the public, as an unattractive sourpuss, rather than as a stately charismatic hero to be admired.
So when I’m asked “What kind of person was Shinran?” I point to the story of Myōhōbō 妙法房. In that account we get a glimpse of how Shinran was seen by someone who became his student. This subjective view of the student is not something unique to Shinran but it is mirrored in the story of Angulimāla, the serial killer that encounters the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. And it shows us how great teachers of the past were seen by those who initially approached those teachers not with a worshipful attitude but full of murderous intent. And how the encounter with those teachers changed the murderers into dedicated students of the Dharma.
Both the story of Myōhōbō in the Godensho (“Life of Shinran”) and the account of Angulimāla in the Majjhima Nikaya (“Middle Length Discourses”) are told in the third person but the subjective details point to the actual tellers of the tales, who were Myōhōbō and Angulimāla themselves.
Subjective Perception of Time
One characteristic of the subjective view is the perception of time. In Angulimāla’s account, he is chasing after the Buddha but unable to catch him.
Then the Blessed One willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimāla, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed one walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimāla, “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! In the past I’ve chased and seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I’m running with all my might, I can’t catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace.”
(“Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” MN86, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, November 2013 revision. Access to Insight website: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html)
Although the account attributes Angulimāla’s inability to catch up to the Buddha as the Buddha’s “feat of psychic power,” if we hear Angulimāla as the teller of the tale, he’s recalling the feeling of moving in slow motion. Something profound is affecting him, overriding his habitual impulsiveness for instant gratification.
Likewise, in the Godensho (by Kakunyo, translated by D.T. Suzuki and Gesshō Sasaki in Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism. Kyoto: Shinshū Ōtaniha, 1973) if we hear Myōhōbō recounting his story, he says he knew Shinran Shonin frequently (yori-yori 時々) travelled the Itajiki Pass, but as many times (do-do 度々) as he waited there to jump Shinran and kill him, the occasion never occurred (sono setsu 節o togezu). It’s not so much that Shinran had a radar warning system detecting dangers on the pass, but that something was holding Myōhōbō back from being at the pass for as long and as often as he thought he was.
The Stopping Place
In Angulimāla’s account, unable to catch up with the Buddha, he stops in his tracks and yells out, “Stop, contemplative, stop!” The Buddha responds, “I have stopped, Angulimāla. You stop,” and goes on to say:
“I have stopped, Angulimala, once and for all,
having cast off violence toward all living beings.
You, though, are unrestrained toward beings.
That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.”
(Ibid. Access to Insight website)
In hearing this, Angulimāla can come to rest after realizing how driven his life had been. He was named Angulimāla “finger-necklace” because he sliced off a finger from each of his victims and collected them on a necklace. Although there are commentaries speculating on why he was driven to commit murder after murder, attacking large groups on the road or laying towns to waste, his basic motivation is the same as all human beings. We are deludedly attached to our ego-self and feel we must destroy any being that gets in the way of our survival and flourishing. The Buddha calls out to all of us to just stop – stop being blindly pushed into destroying everything around us for the sake of enhancing what we deludedly think is a permanent, separate self. “You stop” is the Buddha calling us to examine that delusion and deconstruct the fears and anxieties it has built up.
Myōhōbō feeling foiled in his attempts to ambush Shinran on the road decides to go where Shinran is staying. The place is Shinran’s contemplation room, zen-shitsu 禅室. Having missed his chances to attack Shinran in transit, Myōhōbō comes to Shinran at a place of stillness. As in the case of Angulimāla, Myōhōbō is forced to stop running, being pushed around by his blind desires and finds himself in a place where he can contemplate his own heart/mind.
Called Forth in Welcome
For most of us, if we are faced with a person holding a weapon fully intending to kill us, our fear would overcome us. But what is fear but the expression of exclusively loving our ego-self, wanting it to survive and thrive and hating all other lives that seem to thwart our desire. The Buddha in his many teachings shows us the way to overcome the delusion of the separate, permanent self and to realize the interdependency of our life with all lives, that is, the teachings of no-self and oneness.
When Angulimāla approaches the Buddha with the intent to kill him, he sees a person without a trace of fear, a person whose face is full of loving-kindness (such as the moon-loving face the Buddha shows Ajatasatru in the Nirvana Sutra). Instead of “Get away from me, you monster!” the Buddha says to Angulimāla, “Come, bhikkhu.” The Buddha totally accepts Angulimāla as his fellow practitioner – they are brothers in seeking the Dharma.
Upon entering the contemplation room, Myōhōbō is welcomed by Shinran. Shinran is calm and shows Myōhōbō an expression of respect (son-gen 尊顔). Myōhōbō is overcome with regret over his murderous intent as he feels completely accepted by this man who sees everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy.
Abandoning the Weapons
In both stories, swords and arrows are broken and discarded and the men dedicate themselves to a new life of learning the Dharma, no longer at odds with the world and wishing violence on anyone. It is unlikely that either the Buddha or Shinran recounted these stories to the other students - “All I did was smile at him and he threw away his sword. Boy, I can really turn on the charm, right?” Rather in both these stories, we hear the protagonist giving their subjective view of what happened.
Probably in Shinran’s case, he would see himself as having no role in anyone’s complete change of life. We see that attitude in Tannisho, chapter six, “If I could make others say the nembutsu through my own devices, they would be my disciples. But how arrogant it is to claim as disciples those who live the nembutsu through the sole working of Amida’s compassion.” (Taitetsu Unno translation, Tannisho: A Shin Buddhist Classic. Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center Press, 1995) For Myōhōbō, his encounter with Shinran was the experience of the “working of Amida’s compassion.” In his subjective view, Shinran was exerting a tremendous power to turn him around – making time slow down and stop and calling him to a deep level of identification with all beings.
If there was a security camera video of Myōhōbō meeting Shinran, we would see nothing happening with Shinran. We would only see Myōhōbō brandishing his weapons and then throwing them down. We would ask, “What happened?” Only by entering Myōhōbō’s subjective view of Shinran can we get a glimpse of how the nembutsu teachings manifested themselves in Shinran’s effect on people.
Shinran calls himself wretched and deplorable because he has no good ego-self worth holding on to. So what if he’s threatened with imminent death? He already feels settled in the wide-vow, the great aspiration of Being Itself which takes in all of life, excluding none. He sees the man pointing weapons at him as just another friend in the Dharma, ondōbō御同朋, ondōgyō御同行. For Myōhōbō this encounter brought him to the world of peace and nurturing and it is “a miracle, indeed” or as voiced in Angulimāla’s story, “It’s amazing, it’s astounding.”