“Listening-Awakening”: The Meaning of Shinjin
A Report on the 2009 Maida Center Retreat
By Rev. Patti Nakai

This year the Maida Center retreat had fifty attendees, a jump from the attendance of thirty to forty people at past retreats. There were four of us from the Buddhist Temple of Chicago: myself, Dennie Okuhara, Jane Ike, and first-timer Adam Kellman. Also attending for the first time was our long-time study group member, Suzie Lippold, and her husband Mark Rosseter, who recently moved to Phoenix. The retreat covered a lot of content, too much to summarize in a couple pages, so I will only mention a few points that I discussed in my recent Dharma talk.

The retreat theme was “What is Shinjin?,” a question that Maida Center director, Dr. Nobuo Haneda, answered from various angles. One phrase that struck me as a description of shinjin was “listening-awakening.” In Buddhism, we often talk of “awakening” so why do we need the “listening” part?

Awakening would be easy if each of us was like a jewel (Buddha-nature) with just a thin layer of dust (defilements) to brush off through self-discipline. But as described in a passage by Soto Zen master Dogen that Dr. Haneda referenced, our deluded ego-self is more like a thick stone that can barely be penetrated no matter how hard we scrub and scrape. In his twenty years as a monk on Mt. Hiei, Shinran began to think he was nothing but a hardened mud-ball, with layers and layers of rock and no jewel to be found. Yet when he met Honen, something happened to break through the stone and reveal the jewel that was hidden deep within. For many years, Shinran tried to figure out what had happened and how it happened. He found his answers in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra.

I think the Larger Sutra was compiled because too many people thought Shakyamuni’s enlightenment came about purely from his own efforts. Those people saw themselves as jewels that just needed to be dusted off and buffed up through meditation and ascetic discipline. To point out that this is not the case, in the Larger Sutra, Shakyamuni recounts his own encounter with a teacher (through the story of Dharmakara), who was the beggar with the serene, joyful face that he saw after witnessing old age, sickness and death. To express concisely what he wishes all people to experience, Shakyamuni has his story’s character, Dharmakara, come up with a way for people to hear the voiceless voice of truth. It is in hearing his new name, which is “Namu Amida Butsu.”

In another illustration, Dr. Haneda said our ego-attachment was like a large deposit of gunk inside a drain pipe. Although the water flows around the deposit, it does not penetrate or dislodge it. Only a powerful chemical solution can break up the deposit so it can wash away. As Dr. Haneda put it, “Namu Amida Butsu” works like Draino.

Getting back to the earlier illustration, the Name (referring to what Dharmakara aspires to be known by) of “Namu Amida Butsu” is the sound that penetrates the thick stone and reaches the jewel hidden deep within. Shinran saw that in the Pure Land tradition of China and Japan, there was an emphasis on saying “Namu Amida Butsu” and some people believed it was a prayer to an external power to take them to enlightenment in an afterlife. But Shinran went back to the teachings of the historical Buddha and saw that the Larger Sutra is telling us to listen to the Name as a calling to that jewel deep within us, the seed of shinjin.

We think our commitment to the Buddhist path begins with our saying “I go to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha for refuge,” but our real encounter with the truth starts with hearing the calling to come to the path. Dr. Haneda dismissed the usual translations of “Namu” as in “I bow down to,” “I go to for refuge” and “I am one with.” He said all of those are declarations with “I” as the subject. He said “Namu” in the Name is an imperative statement, someone telling us what to do. Instead of me saying, “I go,” the Name is saying to me, “Come!”

And it is saying, “Come as you are—right now,” telling us to drop our efforts to polish up our thick stone layer and our wishes for a paradise after death. Paradoxically, we are called not to a far-off different realm, but to return to our original life, the dynamic flow of all lives in Oneness.

Without listening, there can be no real awakening because we are trapped in our thick stone ego-self and deludedly think that is the jewel we must keep polishing. But Shinran showed us that when we listen, we are penetrated by the meaning (not the mere sound) of “Namu Amida Butsu.” The thick stone layer starts to crack and with more and deeper listening, we enter the realm of awakening, without our being conscious of it. To self-consciously declare, “I have shinjin,” could still be our ego-attachment talking. But the real person of shinjin is the one who continues to listen to and contemplate on the teachings. This is the path, the path of “listening-awakening,” that I am able to more clearly see when I attend gatherings such as the Maida Center retreats.

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