Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Mark Healsmith

The following Dharma message was given
on the occasion of Gotan-e 13 May 2012


I thought I would start this talk with a quote from an unexpected source, Australian poet and composer Steve Kilbey.

'At the back of your mind, where you hide your real self'

(from 'Another Earth', Hologram of Baal The Church )

This is a highly evocative fragment, I think. We know that the concept of a 'real' unalterable self is un-Buddhist, but it is also intuitively and logically absurd. And yet, while the self may not be ultimately real and is certainly not immutable, the self to which these lines refer is a reality for all of us. We all know that the face we present to the world is not necessarily - is not always - our 'real' self. Most of the time we can live with this; it is our nature but most of us cannot let go of the attachments and desires that occupy at least part of our minds most of the time, and this is one of the reasons why most people are not suited to the 'Path of the Sages'. It does not seem to matter how fine our intentions may be because, despite our intentions, our minds race on full of passionate desire, prone to anger and clouded by ignorance. We struggle to know or even acknowledge our 'real self' or we know it all too well and hide its socially unacceptable aspects. We have 'feet of clay' or perhaps we are 'outside angels and inside devils'. The English vernacular is full of expressions that exist to remind us that we are – and here is another – 'no better than we ought to be'.

All this can seem sordid and depressing, but it is our nature as embodied beings full of karmic evil – that is of human nature - that we are like this. Cats kill and steal – it is the way that they are – but they nurture their offspring and (we believe) show affection and loyalty to selected human beings and sometimes other animals. Our lives and natures are made up of good and bad, base and noble. While we must act for what our limited perception tells us is the good, we can cause much misery to ourselves and to others if we think we can perfect ourselves and correct others by our own efforts.

Shinran Shonin was well aware of this. All the Pure Land masters confessed themselves to be moral and spiritual failures even when, by the standards of both their day and ours, they were demonstrably the opposite. Honen Shonin’s life is a good example. Despite having a famously broad and deep knowledge of the Buddhadharma, despite the fact that he was a strict keeper of the precepts and probably attained the Pure Land Samadhi, he knew his 'real self'. He knew that despite all these achievements he was not, and by his own efforts would never become enlightened, a Buddha. He did not fool himself. His knowledge and spiritual insight told him that he was, in essence, just like the rest of us poor deluded strugglers.

Insight into our banal secular moral and behavioural flaws, our inability to thoroughly correct them and our deeper and subsequent individual spiritual unworthiness and helplessness is necessary, so that the clamour of our self directed spiritual pride – or to use the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa's apt phrase – our 'spiritual materialism' is quietened so that we can hear Amida's calling voice. Then, of course, Amida will do everything for us, but it is only when we truly know that there is nothing we can do that all is done. This is the 'working of no working'.

Our teacher Shinran Shonin knew all this and in his writings compassionately tells us of it again and again. In 'Gotoku's Hymns of Lament and Reflection' he makes it clear that he too is just like wus poor deluded bonbu.

'Each of us, in outward bearing, makes a show of being wise, good, and dedicated; but so great are our greed, anger, perversity, and deceit, that we are filled with all forms of malice and cunning.'

(Collected Works of Shinran Vol. 1 p421)

That is pretty black and white, and if Shinran Shonin could make that confession, then how much more must each of us. The perfect and wonderful thing – the perfectly wonderful thing is that it doesn't matter.

Of course we must get some perspective on this. I do not mean that we should feel free to act badly and to blithely deny it or cover it up. Both Shinran Shonin and before him his teacher Honen Shonin made it very clear to their followers that the Nembutsu teachings are not an invitation to 'licensed evil'. We acknowledge that in our heart of hearts we are lacking in true goodness. True goodness – perfect good – is something only the Buddha knows and we cannot claim to know it, but knowing we are wretchedly unworthy is not an invitation to further bad behaviour. While we must not feel free to indulge in bad behaviour, we must not neurotically dwell on our faults.

In ‘Gotoku's Hymns of Lament and Reflection' Shinran Shonin further wrote:

'Although I am without shame and self-reproach and lack a mind of truth and sincerity, because the Name is directed by Amida, its virtues fill the ten quarters.'

(Collected Works of Shinran Vol. 1 p421)

Here is the capping declaration. Here is the joyful assurance that we poor fools will be saved by Amida just as we are. Ultimately, as Shinran Shonin says in Tannisho, 'the Nembutsu alone is real and true'. Our minds lack real truth and sincerity. Even if we seem by worldly standards sincere and truthful we must remember that our worldly standards are shallow and false and only the Buddha has true understanding of good and evil. How easily we can delude ourselves into false confidence in our virtue. How easily we come to think and even to act without shame or self-reproach because we think we are blameless.

The truth of our 'karmic evil' – the inevitable consequence of our finite embodied existences – is clear with a little introspection. Knowing this, Amida gives us the Name, His Name, the Nembutsu. The ineffable virtues of the Name fill the ten quarters. That is, Amida’s saving grace is present in all places and at all times. Amida gives us His mind of truth and sincerity as shinjin whatever our moral and behavioural failings. When we hear Amida's calling voice and say the Nembutsu, we need no longer fear the consequences of our unskilful thoughts and deeds. Amida has vowed to save each and every one of us just as we are.


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