Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Tariki; Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace
By Hiroyuki Itsuki
Kodansha, New York, 2001.

'There is nothing I can do'

As Buddhism grows in the West, the number of spiritual autobiographies providing inspiration and affirmation for those attracted to the Dharma continues to grow. Most focus on the meditative or psychological/ethical aspects of Buddhism. It is wonderful, then, to have "Tariki", a frank exposition of one man's spiritual search, and its fulfilment in Jodo Shinshu faith.

This book though, embodies the paradox and difficulty of Jodo Shinshu spirituality for modern Westerners and Japanese and a difficulty perhaps always inherent in the Pure Land way. That is, that the Pure Land is easy to get to, but hardly any go there, or put another way, shinjin is freely given by Amida to all that will listen, but to hear the call requires a deep change in one's habitual outlook.

Itsuki writes of his difficult early life as a child of Japanese colonists in Korea and the upheavals in his life at the end of World War 2 that shaped his outlook. He concludes that he is the world's most negative thinker. The 'negative thinking' that he comes to is really a version of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. When his secure world was swept away, his mother dead, his father ruined, Itsuki lived the First Noble Truth, that existence is characterized by suffering. Later he came to see that no expectations of other people or of life are justified. This is an insight into the Second Noble Truth, that suffering is caused by desire. Later he embraced Jodo Shinshu faith, and so lived with the Third Noble Truth, that there is 'something' beyond samsaric suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth that the Buddhist path leads beyond.

'Tariki', thus, takes the reader through the whole Buddhist path by way of Jodo Shinshu spirituality and using a structure which is, like the Jodo Shinshu way itself, outwardly simple, but actually at the same time deeply sophisticated. The book is divided into broadly themed chapters, with the chapters divided into sub-titled one or two page 'thoughts'. Each 'thought' is material for contemplation. Ideas and themes recur, illuminated from different angles.

Itsuki returns repeatedly to his view of himself as the ultimate negative thinker, yet he is a successful man in the world. He is leading the reader to the fundamental Jodo Shinshu insight, that we are all foolish beings full of karmic evil, that we are unable to help ourselves or others in any ultimate sense, unable even to truly know what is good and what is evil, unable to save ourselves even if we are capable, intelligent or successful people. 'Negative thinking' is a lovely way to put this. Positive thinking, the mind of self-power, deafens us to the voice of Amida. Positive thinking on a spiritual path too easily leads to 'spiritual materialism' and goal-oriented practice which is, I feel, the negation of the Buddhist path.

In his reflections on the key figures in the development of the Jodo Shinshu way, Itsuki has a special appreciation of Rennyo. This is a refreshing and useful perspective. Many people will come to Jodo Shinshu by living through a version of Shinran's experience - the years of spiritual search and struggle ending in a disillusion with one's ability follow any spiritual path, then the encounter with the kalyanamitra (good spiritual friend) who opens the way for one to hear Amida's calling voice, then a deepening of faith and knowledge. Rennyo's example is different. At first Rennyo seems more distant - a man deeply involved in worldly problems in his own difficult personal life and in his role in leading the propagation and defence of the Jodo Shinshu way against religious and secular opponents. However, as Itsuki teaches us, Rennyo is actually intimately approachable through his letters where he emphasises again and again the core of the life of the Nembutsu. Rennyo had, and transmitted unshakable faith in the Nembutsu while engaging with the world and struggling with his difficulties, exactly as must each one of us today.

'Tariki' is full of deep insights. I will quote just two.,

'..cults that worshipped individuals [...], that promised forgiveness of sins for a fee, reward in the afterlife based on contributions in this life. Others conducted strange initiation rites at midnight deep in the mountains.

These sham religions spread like an epidemic among the people, shaken as they were by feelings of impermanence and hopelessness.

Isn't that precisely our present situation?" (p111-112)

This requires no comment.

'We cannot know that we are illuminated by a great light simply by looking up into the sky. But if we lower our heads and look down at our feet, we can clearly see the long dark shadow that stretches out from us. We know that the darker and blacker the shadow is, the brighter the light that shines upon us. Shinran and also Rennyo told us to look at our own black shadow.' (p126)

Again, Itsuki's "negative thinking" that is, in the end, anything but negative, for true insight into our evil nature allows us to know the light of Amida.

From the rich fabric of this book, for me one thought shines through as the culmination of Itsuki's spiritual insight - "There is nothing I can do." We know that Itsuki has lead an active and successful life; he has poured forth his feelings for the active Rennyo, so we know he does not mean that we should not act in the world. We must act, though, without expectation of others or of life; without unrealistic expectations of ourselves. There is nothing I can do because I am incapable of saving myself, but wondrously, there is nothing I can do because Amida has already done it all for me.

'All this the Buddha already knew.'

Read this book!

- Mark Healsmith.

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