It is important to know the limits of human knowledge. Although we like to think our knowledge is extensive, it is very much limited and there is so much we do not know. We are, as it were, seeing the tip of an iceberg; so much is hidden from our sight.
In one of his articles, Dr. Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945, a Japanese philosopher) talks about the inconceivable reality that exists behind our existence:
On one dark winter day when the wind was blowing violently outside, people were talking in a room. Then, a bird entered the room through one window and flew out of it through another window. Where did the bird come from and where did it go? The people in the room agreed that human life was exactly like that.
Dr. Nishida says that just as the people could not know where the bird came from and where it went, we human beings cannot know where we came from and where we are going. We can say the same thing about the law of causation-the basic teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. The law of causation is often called "the inconceivable law of causation (fukashigi-innen)." The adjective "inconceivable" is added because there are limitless causes and conditions behind all existing things. We, however, can see only a small fragment of the causation that exists behind all existing things. For example, although we usually know the names of our parents and grandparents, very few of us know the names of our great-grandparents or other earlier ancestors.
Two Unforgettable Encounters
Here let me talk about a couple of experiences that taught me that I was seeing only a fragment of the limitless reality that exists behind all existing things.
About thirty years ago, not long after I came to this country from Japan, I lived in the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. The temple is located in an area known as Uptown. There were some halfway houses in that area. Near the Buddhist temple there was a street called Broadway, where I often saw many people with mental problems.
Once I saw a middle-aged woman with a mental problem. Whenever she saw a bus on Broadway, she got angry with it and yelled all kinds of four letter words toward the bus. Since I had recently come from Japan and Japanese English teachers had never taught me English swear words, I did not understand what she was saying. But I could tell that she was saying something very nasty. Not only did she orally attack the bus, she also banged the side of the bus with her purse. When I saw her for the first time, I was really surprised by her behavior. Afterward, whenever I saw her doing the same thing, I had a feeling of contempt toward her.
But some time later, my friend told me that there were deep reasons for her strange behavior. I learned that she was so upset with buses because several years earlier her son had been run over and killed by a bus. She became insane because of her son's death. When I heard the tragic story, my contempt toward her turned into compassion. Until my friend told me about it, I could in no way have known that there was such a background there. I realized that I was seeing only the tip of an iceberg, a surface manifestation of the person.
Another incident took place in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was studying at the university. The university campus was sandwiched between two lakes. I used to go out for a walk along one of the lakes. Every time I went to the lake, I saw a middle-aged man standing on the shore. He kept standing there for hours and hours. He did not move at all. He was obviously a mental patient. He looked at one spot in the lake with his mouth open. He looked not only weird but also comical. Thus, every time I saw him, I made fun of him in my mind, "Look, the same old guy is standing there with his mouth open!"
Then, one day I happened to meet a fisherman at the lake. The fisherman and I started to talk. The fisherman told me, "Did you notice that guy standing there all day long? He looks kind of dumb. But, you know, several years ago, the boat that was carrying his wife and children capsized in the middle of the lake and they all were drowned. He became insane after that. You know, he goes to the same place every day. He is looking at the spot where his wife and children perished."
When I listened to this story, I realized that I was seeing only the tip of an iceberg--the surface appearance of the man--and that I was not seeing the causation that existed behind the man.
I have talked about my encounters with two insane people. In each encounter I recognized the narrowness of my perspective. Unless I was informed of their backgrounds by someone, there was no way I could know that there were such backgrounds. I just had a feeling of contempt or sarcasm toward them.
Although we like to think that our understanding is absolute, deep, and certain, our understanding is actually relative, shallow, and uncertain. Our understanding cannot help being that way, because this world consists of limitless causation and our understanding is so limited. We are just interpreting a given situation on the basis of our limited experiences.
The Zen Concept of Ka-hitsu ("Why necessarily so?")
Zen Buddhism has a concept called Ka-hitsu ("Why necessarily so?") that teaches us how we should see all things in this world. The meaning of this concept is as follows. Because this world consists of limitless causes and conditions and our knowledge is so limited, whatever interpretation we come up with concerning the things in this world must be challenged with the question: "Why [is your interpretation] necessarily so?" Although we like to think that our interpretations are absolute, there is nothing absolute about them. We could have totally different interpretations if we had different backgrounds.
Here, to further explain the truth of "Why [is your interpretation] necessarily so?," I would like to talk about the parable of some blind men and an elephant.
Once upon a time a king gathered some blind men about an elephant and asked them to tell him what an elephant was like. The first blind man felt a tusk and said an elephant was like a giant carrot; another happened to touch an ear and said it was like a big fan; another touched its trunk and said it was like a pestle; still another, who happened to feel its leg, said it was like a mortar; and another, who grasped its tail, said it was like a rope. None of them was able to tell the king the elephant's real form.
As far as these blind men are concerned, there are two ways of touching the elephant: the right way and the wrong way. The right way of touching the elephant is this: if they know that they are touching only small parts of the animal and their definitions are partial, that is the right way of touching an elephant. If they know that there are many other parts that they have not touched and other blind men are touching them and are coming up with other valid definitions, that is the right way of touching the animal. If they know that what they are touching is "Why is it necessarily so?" that is the right way of touching the elephant.
The wrong way of touching the elephant is this: if they think that they are touching the entirety of the elephant, that is the wrong way of touching it. If they think that their understandings are the only right ones and that the other blind men are wrong, that is the wrong way. If they don't know that what they are touching is "Why is it not necessarily so?," that is the wrong way.
If those blind men take the right way of touching the animal, then they will not fight among themselves. But if they take the wrong way, they cannot help fighting among themselves.
We human beings are all precisely like the blind men. Just as each one of them is touching only a fragment of the animal and cannot touch its entirety, we are grasping only a fragment of this world and cannot grasp its entirety.
The Zen master Dogen said, "A fish goes and it looks like a fish. A bird flies and it is like a bird." He says that "looks like" or "is like" is the only thing we can say about our recognition of the things of this world. There is only appearance, phenomenal appearance. What we are perceiving here and now is all there is in this world. If we see a thing that looks like a fish, we call it a fish. Maybe it is not a fish. But if we think it is a fish, it is a fish. If we see a thing that looks like a bird, we call it a bird. Maybe it is not a bird. But if we think it is a bird, it is a bird. Thus, Dogen said, "A fish goes and it looks like a fish. A bird flies and it is like a bird."
In this way, Buddhism teaches us that our cognition is very shallow; it does not have any solid and firm basis. Everything is impermanent and is moving and changing so fast. Our recognition is part of this quickly changing reality. Dogen says we cannot have any absolutely firm basis for our understanding of things and people. This is a tremendously humble way of understanding the manner in which we are existing.
The Meaning of Namu Amida Butsu
The two insights--insight into the limits of our knowledge and insight into the limitless that exists behind our existence--are the two-fold content of the awakening called shinjin, the most important human experience taught in Shin Buddhism. These two insights are the contents of Amida's name, Namu Amida Butsu. The meaning of the three words contained in Amida's name is as follows. Butsu (Buddhahood) means awakening. The other two words--Namu (Bowing) and Amida (Limitlessness)--express the two-fold content of the awakening: when one experiences Namu (Bowing), i.e., when one gains insight into the limits of his knowledge, he simultaneously experiences Amida (Limitlessness), i.e., he gains insight into the limitless reality that exists behind his existence.
The Buddha whose name is Namu Amida Butsu (Bowing Limitlessness Buddha) is a humble and dynamic person. Because he knows his ignorance (Namu), he is eager to learn from a limitless number of teachers. Such a humble and dynamic person cannot help influencing other people. His Namu (Bowing) makes others have Namu too. The person who is Namu Amida Butsu cannot help influencing others and making them become Namu Amida Butsu too.
Honen (1133-1212, the founder of the Jodo School) embodied Namu Amida Butsu. When Shinran met Honen, he was deeply shaken by Honen's spirit of Namu Amida Butsu. Thus, Shinran also became Namu Amida Butsu. That is why Shinran called himself "Foolish-Baldheaded One" when he gained insight into limitlessness (Amida). Only the person who can know himself or herself as a foolish person can know limitlessness. When Shinran recognized the limits of his knowledge, he recognized the limitlessness and inconceivability of the world he lived in.
I can see Namu Amida Butsu in the following story of Isaac Newton, the great scientist. One day Newton was staying at a seaside town. When he was looking at the ocean, one of his admirers approached him and said, "Mr. Newton, you are a really great scientist. You must know so many things about this universe." To this, Newton answered. "No, I don't know anything at all. Although you admire my wisdom, I don't know anything at all." Then, Newton pointed his finger at a boy who was on the beach. "Please look at that boy on the beach. The boy is so happy because he has picked up a couple of seashells there. I am just like that boy who has discovered only a couple of truths. But the world of undiscovered truth is lying there just like the ocean. I know only few things. Although you call me a wise person, I am not wise at all."
Yes, we are seeing only a small part of this world. There is so much that is hidden from our sight. We can in no way say that our understanding is thorough or absolute. Teachers such as Shakyamuni and Shinran teach us that we must know the limits of our knowledge. Goethe, a famous German novelist, said:
The greatest happiness for us human beings is to understand what we can understand and then, having done so, humbly praise what we cannot understand.
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