Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The following Dharma message was given by Rev Mark Healsmith
on the occasion of Hanamatsuri in April 2010


Never one to shrink away from the big questions, today I'd like to ask 'what is real?'

This question implies an obvious answer from anyone versed in Shinran's teachings, and I will return to that in due course, but various experiences, things that I have been reading recently and simply the passage of time bring me back to this question again and again.

Western thought and Buddhist teachings offer a wide variety of answers to the question. Everyday experience offers its own. Of course this lectern is real! It is a simple matter though to analyse any object out of existence. Chemistry will reduce this solid wood to its component molecules and atoms, and physics will deconstruct the atoms to sub-atomic particles and then indeterminate aspects of matter or energy. The lectern may be real to my hand, but who said my hand was real anyway. From a Buddhist perspective too the reality of this lectern can be considered as a conventional and convenient fiction as it is a thing composed of other things and has no permanent or substantive reality and the same goes for my hand and indeed for me.

What of the self then, can that be considered real? Of course it cannot. That there is no such entity as an eternal self is a fundamental insight transmitted by Shakyamuni Buddha. I have previously spoken of this and I don't want to consider in depth the Buddhist analysis of the personality today.

Prior to any formal philosophical or religious analysis though, reflection on the nature and content of memory can tell us much about the insubstantial nature of the self. When you think about it, much of what we remember is simply wrong. Our memories are made up of emotionally charged highlights, things we have been told and think we experienced, fragments of dreams and things we wish were so. Yet, memory makes us what we are, and what we are therefore has no substantive reality.

What of dreams? Of course the narrative of a dream is not real, but a dream is a real mental experience. How is a memory more real? What of dreams that predict the future or which give authentic guidance. Each individual's experience will form their personal opinion on these matters.

Throughout its historical and geographic spread, the various schools of Buddhism have had their own answers to the question, 'what is real?' The problem is that the answer has varied form 'everything' to 'nothing', with many complicated variations in between. Even within the Mahayana there are different views. For example, the Yogacara School emphasises the reality of mental states over any external reality while the Madhyamika School accepts the apparent reality of the world as a provisional truth, but the supreme truth is that all things are empty of a permanent self and therefore are not real. I confess to having read a good deal about Buddhist philosophy but for me in the end it is like eating a tasty meal the experience is satisfying at the time but is of no particular long term value. Worrying about the reality of the real does not bring one closer to Nirvana unless the answer is an integral part of one's religious practice, and that kind of practice is of the Path of the Sages and is beyond me.

Years ago I came across a teaching from Chan Master Yuansou who was active in 14th century China which ends:

'This is why Buddhism came into being, with its many expedients and clever explanations, with temporary and true, immediate and gradual, partial and complete teachings. These are all simply means for stopping children from whining.'

(Zen Essence - The Science of Freedom. Thomas Cleary translator, pp 76-77)

So much for philosophy! Shakyamuni Buddha came into our world, the event we celebrate today, not so as to establish a thing called 'Buddhism.' He wanted to teach each of us how to remove the arrow that is killing each of us, not the details of who shot the arrow and what it is made of. In his major work, Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran Shonin quotes the Flower Garland Sutra (Collected Works of Shinran, p237)

'The Tathagata, out of great compassion, Appears in this world, And for the sake of all sentient beings universally, Turns the wheel of supreme dharma.'

Turning the wheel of the supreme dharma does not mean simply satisfying our intellectual curiosity. Shakyamuni Buddha taught many things, each appropriate to each individual He met, but the teachings most enduring and most valuable to we ordinary bonbu are the Pure Land teachings. Shinran Shonin wrote in 'The Lamp for the Latter Ages':

The shinjin of the selected Primal Vow has nothing to do with either 'thought' or 'no-thought'.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p524)

'Thought' and 'no-thought' have to do with philosophy and difficult meditative or non-meditative practice and are irrelevant to the shinjin that Amida gives each of us who hears His call and which will save each of us. This is not to say that Shinran Shonin does not discuss philosophy in his writings, but the philosophy is always practical because it is always aimed at opening the reader's eyes to Amida's light and his ears to Amida's call.

In 'The Lamp for the Latter Ages' it is recorded that the Shonin wrote:

'I recall hearing the late Master Honen say, Persons of the Pure Land tradition attain birth in the Pure Land by becoming their foolish selves. Moreover, I remember him smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, without doubt their birth is settled. And I heard him say after a visit by a man brilliant in letters and debating, I really wonder about his birth.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p531)

So, as I need to keep reminding myself, there is no need to brood on what is real and what is not. We cannot truly know and dwelling on the question will only confuse us or fill us with intellectual pretensions. A