Shinran (1173–1263) was born into the aristocratic class and spent 20 years at the monastery on Mount Hiei in Japan. During this time both the aristocrats and Buddhists looked down on the common people. Just as monks believed they could work their way up toward enlightenment through practicing purity in thought, speech, and action, the aristocrats believed they earned their privileged position through their morality. The common folk were called akunin, evil persons, because in the course of their work they broke the Buddhist precepts and so they deserved to live lives of misery and deprivation.

Shinran, in meeting his teacher Honen and receiving the Pure Land teachings, came to see how wrong that attitude of the monks and aristocrats was. Just as we are taken into the heart/mind of nirvana, receiving this great gift that we don’t deserve, we also realize how little we have done to deserve the lesser gifts of material wealth, comfort, and health. There is no real basis for our privilege—we didn’t earn it, but came into it largely through causes and conditions beyond our control.

Today in American society there is a demonization of the poor and disadvantaged, much like during Shinran’s time. We are their oppressors if we look at them as akunin, as deserving to be miserable because they aren’t working hard enough or upholding morality. In Shinran’s confession of being a foolish ordinary person full of defilement, his declaration of being an “evil person,” we see how wrong we are to think we can look down on others.

From the blog “Taste of Chicago Buddhism.” Reprinted with permission of the author. 
Rev. Patti Nakai is an ordained minister in the Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji) branch of the Jodo Shin sect. 

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