The purpose of Buddhism can be expressed in different ways: buddhahood, nirvana, enlightenment, liberation, and so forth. For our purposes, we will focus on “seeing things as they really are” and in particular, to understand the true nature of human beings so that we can see ourselves as we truly are.
Buddhism teaches us that our lives are inherently influenced, if not driven, by the three poisons of ignorance (not knowing the Buddha-dharma), anger (or hatred), and greed (or desire). With Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment as a model, the earliest practices were meant to change our nature, ridding ourselves of these poisons; and, like Shakyamuni, the earliest sangha members, who had performed such practices, were monks and nuns who had left lay life to devote themselves entirely to their spiritual journey.
By contrast, Jodo Shinshu is a form of “Buddhism of the family”; there are no monks or nuns. Rather than trying to eradicate the three poisons, we cultivate the understanding that we, just as we are, are already embraced and supported by the ineffable, whether we call it boundless wisdom and compassion, suchness or thusness, or ultimate reality. With this awakening or realization, we can live with gratitude and humility, knowing that we are interconnected with all living beings and all things.
We live within a culture which values individuality, independence, and self-esteem. This makes it difficult to appreciate such notions as oneness and interdependence, wherein we are enabled to live because of innumerable causes and conditions, seen and unseen. The simplest of everyday things, whether a slice of apple or a sheet of paper, involves many people and many processes. Where did the seed for the apple tree come from? Who planted the seed? What nourished the seed? Few people grow their own apples, so how did the apples reach our local grocery store?
What would life be like if I begin to see that I am not so independent after all? What would it mean to see how insidious my ego is? What can I do to truly see myself just as I am?
What do Jodo Shin Buddhists do?
As members of a sangha, we gather at a temple to hear the dharma, offer incense, and chant together. We participate in study classes and discussion sessions to broaden and deepen our understanding of the dharma. We attend seminars, workshops, and conferences to learn from those with different perspectives of the dharma.
As individuals, our ordinary, everyday lives offer innumerable opportunities for learning about ourselves. Sometimes it is our negative experiences that offer the best opportunities for self-reflection. We tend to look outward and deflect blame away from ourselves when things do not go the way we want them to. For example, what happens when someone criticizes us? Do we thank the other person for trying to help us improve, or do we usually react with anger as if we were insulted? If the latter (even if not expressed), then what does that tell us about ourselves? Most of us can empathize with this person:
When I am criticized, and am not calm, I snap back a sarcastic remark or think of remarks showing the stupidity and self-centeredness of my accuser. I become preoccupied with this, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours and days, and weeks on end—sometimes even in my dreams. The more I lash out, the more I drown in the imagined attack upon my character. Whether the criticism was well-founded or not is not considered—I obsess on the fact that I was criticized. Instead of calming down long enough to be able to consider whether or not the criticism was well-founded or not, I paddle and stroke, drowning in self-righteousness. (Kodani, Masao. “Keep Quiet and Let Go,” Dharma Chatter, 1993, 116.)
It is not so difficult to see that anger can be detrimental to our own well-being and that of others, but what about the idea that “conscious of doing good” may be a hindrance to spiritual growth? This sort of thinking is counter-intuitive, for some, absurd. The subtlety lies in honestly understanding our true motivations for “doing good.” When we donate to temples, schools, or foundations, is our giving pure and selfless? Consider the donor who likes to “make sure my name is listed, spelled correctly, and placed in the right category of giving”:
A simple example illustrates how the calculating ego-self works when it thinks that it is doing something good. The local hospital in my hometown has an annual fund drive at the end of each year. Since I have been a beneficiary of its excellent services several times, I make it a point to send my annual contribution. At the end of each year the final report of their fund-raising campaign is announced with the donors’ names listed according to different categories of giving. Despite whatever gratitude may have helped initially motivate me to give, the first thing I do when receiving this report is to make sure my name is listed, spelled correctly, and placed in the right category of giving.
The author later concludes, “My ultimate concern is not the hospital, but my insatiable desire for recognition.” (Unno, Taitetsu. “Self-Power,” River of Fire, River of Water, 1998, 43-44.)
“To my father, who taught me to see what eyes cannot see”
(Unno 1998, dedication)
Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) is the person whose teachings are the basis of Jodo Shinshu. With profound insight into his true nature as a human being, he used the name Gutoku (gu means ignorant and toku means stubble-haired, implying he was neither a monk nor a layperson). Many of his letters and other writings were signed “Gutoku Shinran.”
The name Gutoku contrasts sharply with the name given to him posthumously: Kenshin Daishi (Great Teacher, Seer of Truth). Ken means see and shin means truth. Shinran was recognized as someone who could “see what eyes cannot see.”
Like Shinran, we too can learn to see ourselves as we truly are. Through ever deepening cycles of learning and experience, we come to see ourselves and our lives with growing clarity. Our lives are expanded through deeply hearing the dharma, leading us to self-reflection and critical self-examination. We come to realize that ultimate reality embraces us in boundless compassion and wisdom, and we naturally respond with great joy and gratitude. Our life becomes one of meaning and growth, and this process begins again on a deeper and more refined level. (See Rev. Seigen H. Yamaoka, The Six Aspects of Jōdo Shinshū, BCA, 1982.)
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