The term bonbu (凡夫), or a person of “delusions and passions” comes up a lot in Japanese Buddhism, particularly in Pure Land Buddhism. So on the heels of my criticism toward Pure Land for being too pessimistic, I found this nice explanation of what bonbu means in the Pure Land context. In particular:
In Mahayana Buddhism, this notion is applied to oneself, and the common sense of the Chinese and Japanese terms is perjorative, but within the Pure Land tradition the sense is quite different. The common meaning comes from a more relative, social stance, while the Pure Land meaning comes from a more subjective and personally religious one. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is an extremely important notion in that it describes the situation of the sincere practitioner who nevertheless finds him or herself totally incapable of avoiding the acts prohibited by the Buddha.
This echoes something said by Shinran at one point in the Tannisho:
In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited. Only the saying of nembutsu manifests the complete and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere.
Here it’s interesting to note that Shinran isn’t denying that people have good intentions or do good acts, but that they are limited or inconsistent. Sometimes we help others, while other times, when we’re feeling grouchy, we would rather tell them off. I think we’ve all observed this behavior in ourselves, but it interesting that Shinran would hit upon in his own experiences.
Food for thought.