Through the benefit of the unhindered Light
We realize shinjin [entrusting heart] of vast, majestic virtues,
And the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts,
Immediately becoming the water of enlightenment.
-from Shinran's Koso Wasan (Songs of the Pure Land Masters) translation from Collected Writings of Shinran p. 371
This year mostly due to the high price of airline travel, only three of us from Chicago attended the annual summer retreat for the Maida Center in Berkeley, California. Instead of rooming and having lectures in the University dormitories, this year's retreat was held at the new Jodo Shinshu Center of the Buddhist Churches of America. Although the facility was quiet and comfortable, some of us missed the bustle of being in the midst of student life.
To the question "What did you get out of this year's retreat?" the first thing that comes to my mind is, "A whole different way of interpreting Namu Amida Butsu." I couldn't help sitting up and taking note of the interpretation Dr. Nobuo Haneda came up with: "Come to the Light of Unlimited Wisdom!"
The recurring theme throughout Dr. Haneda's lectures was Amitabha - the Light of Unlimited Wisdom. However, the official theme of the retreat was "The Three-Stage (Vow) Transition: Liberation of an Ordinary Person While Fully Possessing Passions" which is quite a mouthful. What Dr. Haneda did was take Shinran's scheme of the spiritual process (San-gan-tennyu = 3-vow transition) and put it into the framework of three stages he called: ethical, religious and "ordinary person."
First we begin with the secular "ethical" stage where we just want to be a "good person" and believe our basically good self can eliminate our bad traits (bonno = blind passions) with dedicated effort. Then after some disappointing results, we enter the "religious" stage where we believe some supernatural power will wash away our bad traits and we can be re-born after death as a good person. But throughout Buddhism's history there were those, from Shakyamuni to Shinran, to Manshi Kiyozawa and Haya Akegarasu, who felt there was something missing in this "religious" stage though many others were happy to remain in it.
What was missing was the challenge to our self-attached way of thinking. Only through meeting with the hugely dynamic force of truth can we be awakened to our deluded way of life. When we are brought into the third stage, we experience liberation as an "ordinary person" fully possessing our blind passions of greed, anger and ignorance.
What is this force of truth that liberates us in the present life if it is not the mystical savior of the second "religious" stage? Shinran knew that he definitely experienced the encounter and he explored ways to express his experience in the words of the sutras and commentaries quoted in his journal-notebook called "Kyogyoshinsho" and in his other works. The key for Shinran was in hearing the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu. It is not like the religious stage where people recite "Namu Amida Butsu" as a mantra to summon up a divine being who will take them to paradise after death. Rather, in the stage of being an ordinary person, we hear the calling "Come to the Light of Unlimited Wisdom!" first as the words from actual teachers (that we encounter in person or through texts) and eventually as the innermost aspiration (hongan) within us.
Dr. Haneda strongly emphasized through the passages written by Shinran and in the Larger Sutra that the force of truth is without any fixed form. Labels such as "Amitabha" (un-limited-light) are metaphors for the working of wisdom (living in truth). In our self-attached way of thinking, we categorize events, experiences, people and other beings as "bad" and "good." But in the embracing Light of wisdom, that is, in seeing reality as it is, as Oneness, there is meaning in all things, even in the anger, greed and stupidity we want to eliminate from our self.
When Shinran listened to "Come to the Unlimited Light of Wisdom," he entered the path of Oneness, looking to wisdom (embracing, non-discriminating) instead of his self-attached thinking (limited and biased). He had no choice but to give up his previous striving to be something special because he recognized he is nothing more than an ordinary person. From that deep awareness (shinjin = entrusting heart), he can identify with all beings, even those who are shunned in society for being poor, uneducated and criminal (as the aristocrats at that time looked down on fishermen, hunters and farmers for breaking the Buddhist precept of taking life).
In the question and answer session, someone asked Dr. Haneda, "What about compassion?" since it seemed he was only emphasizing wisdom. He said "great compassion" is what we receive from a true seeker of wisdom. That seeker is too focussed on learning from all beings and identifying with them to have any sense of "I am helping you." In a way that comment brings me back to my usual interpretation of Namu Amida Butsu but with a twist. The true seeker is listening to and respecting (Namu = bow down) all beings (Amitayus = un-bounded-life) for their wisdom (Butsu = enlightenment). Until I can be that true seeker in the third stage of being an ordinary person, my saying "Namu Amida Butsu" has little worth, but my listening to "Come to the Light of Unlimited Wisdom" will have great consequence for me and all the lives interconnected with mine.
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