Falling Down Into Real Life:
Report on the 2005 Maida Center Summer Retreat
By Rev. Patti Nakai

The theme of the 2005 Maida Center retreat was “What is Birth in the Pure Land (jodo)?” but it could just as well have been, “What did Shinran clarify as the true essence (shinshu) of Shakyamuni’s teachings?” In all cultures, there is a concern about what happens to people after they die. In Shakyamuni Buddha’s time 2,500 years ago, the prevailing religion in India was Brahmanism (predecessor of what is now called Hinduism) which taught that a substance called atman (“soul”) moved out of one life form at death and into another at birth. Your atman was promoted (to a human or heavenly body) or demoted (to a hell-dwelling or animal body) according to how you lived up to the accepted standards of good behavior. However, Shakyamuni discovered in his thorough examination of his body and mind that there was nothing he could call the soul. His own self along with everything else in the world was a continually changing combination of elements coming together and falling apart according to causes and conditions. When someone asked Shakyamuni about reincarnation, he brushed off the question with the story of the poison arrow. To speculate about whether there are past and future lives is to be like the man who was hit by a poisoned arrow and wanted to know all kinds of details about the arrow, distracted from the more immediate concern of how to get the arrow out before its poison spread into his body and killed him.

Dr. Haneda pointed out that although Shakyamuni stressed that we should not lose our focus on this life, we still are greedy for another “better” life. After Shakyamuni’s death, Buddhist followers returned to the comforting notion of reincarnation with its rewards and punishments for doing good and bad deeds. Some seventeen centuries later in Japan, Shinran started out believing in this “Hinducized Buddhism” and thought of the Pure Land as a calm, luxurious place for our soul to go after death as a reward for doing good deeds. For those who found it difficult to be as good as they should be, there was the reciting of “Namu Amida Butsu” as a way of calling on a powerful divine being to get our undeserving soul into a cushy position in the Pure Land [in Chicago politics, that’s what we call “clout”].

In the same way most of us start our spiritual search, Shinran was initially concerned with how to get his soul out of this world of suffering and over into the greener pastures of some “other place.” But when he met his teacher Honen, he encountered the real spirit of Shakyamuni’s teachings – to transcend the shackles of self-attachment and awaken to the true reality of life here and now. Through his focus on the Larger (Sukhavativyuha) Sutra with its story of Dharmakara Bodhisattva, Shinran realized that “birth in the Pure Land” was actually a symbolic expression for the experience of spiritual transformation in this life, not some imagined after-life.

“Birth in the Pure Land” as described in the Larger Sutra symbolizes our becoming a part of the Sangha, the community of seekers, learning together how to get past our self-attached delusions and see life as it really is. Only in this Sangha and not outside of it, can we meet the Teacher and the Teachings. The “Pure Land” describes the world of non-discrimination that takes in all beings without judging them as good or evil, clever or stupid, beautiful or ugly according to one’s self-serving criteria.

As a modern example of describing the symbolic “birth in the Pure Land,” I presented Manshi Kiyozawa’s essay, “Liberation Through Power Beyond Self.” Kiyozawa’s life was full of painful, humiliating experiences, yet he was able to encounter the real essence of Shakyamuni’s and Shinran’s teachings. As Kiyozawa testifies in his poetic piece, there are not two separate realities. Instead, there is but one true life. Because of our self-attachment, we often forget the teachings of Oneness and see the world as dark and defiled. But when we remember the teaching of awakening to Oneness, we can appreciate the world as a serene, beautiful place despite our personal problems.

One important point Dr. Haneda made about the Pure Land is that it does not mean a state of complacency, of resting on our laurels. “Birth in the Pure Land” is the beginning of a new dynamic life where we recognize more and more living beings as our fellow learners and as our teachers. Rather than staying secluded in a cozy little paradise, those born in the Pure Land are active in expanding its borders, to discover more learners, more teachers.

At the very end of the retreat, Dr. Haneda told a story to poignantly illustrate many of the main points of his presentation. A friend in Japan had given him a videotape of a television program where a host is interviewing a Mr. Hideo Nishimura. Mr. Nishimura converted to Christianity during his college student days. He advanced in an academic career and became a professor at Tokyo University. He was serving in a position handling student affairs when the student strikes of the late 1960’s erupted. The strikes started out as protests against the Vietnam war but grew into violent clashes with police and the university had to close down for nearly a year. One of Mr. Nishimura’s sons was participating in the student movement and tried to have a dialogue with his father. Mr. Nishimura understood that his son seemed to be struggling with finding meaning in his life, but when Mr. Nishimura offered advice, his son snapped back, “Dad, come down to my level! You’re just talking from idealistic concepts.” The next day, when Mr. Nishimura learned that his son committed suicide, he realized he had been talking down to him, preaching from a position on high.

This realization was reinforced by a quote from the Old Testament sent to Mr. Nishimura from one of his Christian friends. It said, “Put your lips to the dirt and you will discover hope.” The words admonishing him to come off his high horse did not really sink in until much later when both Mr. Nishimura and his wife had to be hospitalized for treatment of severe depression.

The hospital had separate floors for men and women, but on one occasion, Mr. Nishimura needed to speak to his wife, so he sneaked onto the women’s floor. Not knowing who he was, a nurse saw him and was alarmed. “What are you doing here!” she shouted. Mr. Nishimura reacted by dropping to the ground and at that moment a feeling of relief came over him. Until then he had thought of himself as someone important, a full professor with high-level responsibilities. But to the nurse, he was just another mental patient caught breaking the rules.

Dr. Haneda said that moment described by Mr. Nishimura was “birth in the Pure Land.” His deluded view of himself as high above other people, including his own son, was shattered by the nurse’s scolding. He was forced to put his lips to the dirt, to come down to who he really was: just another foolish ordinary being.

This, Dr. Haneda said, is raku-zai, “droppingly-exist,” the term used by Kiyozawa when he lost his health, his job and his respected status as a priest and became a useless “fan in December,” a dependent at his in-laws’ temple. What the incident described by Mr. Nishimura does is give us the answer to “What is Birth in the Pure Land?” It is “falling down into real life.”

In his new perspective of knowing himself as just another mental patient, Mr. Nishimura started to become aware of his fellow mental patients and their sufferings. After his release from the hospital, he quit his post as a professor and became an activist to improve conditions for the treatment of mental illnesses in Japan. It was probably for the prominence of his compassionate work that he was asked to be the subject of the television program.

Dr. Haneda said there are theoretical differences between Buddhism and Christianity, but in this story of Mr. Nishimura, a Christian, the human experience of being born in the Pure Land was the same as the Larger Sutra and Shinran described it. “Falling down into real life” may sound disappointing to those who want their Buddhism to take them to fantastic realms far away from the dust beneath their feet. But who would not want this “birth in the Pure Land” after learning what it really means?

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