Continuing the commentary upon Summary of Faith and Practice
TEXT: wishing to practise a religious life in truly simple faith,
Truly Simple Faith
Truly simple faith is a precious jewel that is rarely found. We are talking here abpout a direct trust that has no secondary selfish motive. How unusual this is! Almost always we are caught up in our own desires and ambitions. Yet we can wish for it, we can have a longing for that simplicity that we have somehow lost. Too often Buddhist writings seem to offer some simple way to attain such a state of enlightenment as though once one had grasped this or that idea one would be there, but this is just catering to our spiritual ambition, our spiritual materialism. A person might get involved with a Buddhist sangha because he wants to train to be a Buddhist teacher, rather as one might train to be a school teacher or an architect. Generally such people underestimate the difficulty. However, the real problem is not so much the difficulty of the path or the training, it is that the very ambition to be the one who is going to tell others the truth is it self delusion. It is a desire to be superior when what is really needed is a true humility, a true recognition of one's human state.
Not a Job in the Normal Sense
A true Buddist teacher is not really in the same category as the school teacher, he or she is not a person with a professional job., at least not in the modern usage of these words. There was a time when the term “professional” referred to somebody who professed something and, ideally, professed a simple faith, but in our materialistic age it has come to mean somebody who is paid money for providing a service. Nowadays we have “service industries”. We have not quite got to the stage of having a religious industry, but our modernly educated minds do tend to think in that kind of way. The simple directness that characterises relations of true love only exists, if at all, in the intimacy of the family. Even there, these days, families are all too often really practical arrangements trading services and ruled by thoughts of rights, entitlements and fairness, none of which captures the spirit of love in pure form.
A Non-Buddhist Example
I think of the pedagogue Janusz Korczak who lived in Poland from his birth in 1878 until he died in a Nazi extermination camp is 1942. Korczak worked as a doctor and then as an author and child educator. He started an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw that was run on progressive lines, being a kind of mini children's republic. His life achievements were substantial and he was well known for them, but what stands out is the manner of his death. In August 1942 the Germans came and took all the children to be murdered in Treblinka. Korczak was at least twice offered sanctuary but refused to leave the children. The almost 200 children went to their deaths with much less fear and panic as a result of his calm presence among them. The saving of one's own life was not his priority. Although Korczak was not a religious man in the conventional sense, he was a person of simple faith in the sense that matters.
A Simple Bow, A Single Candle
The truly religious life may or might not be one of performing rituals, but it is one of simple faith that values wisdom and compassion above personal selfish ends. In my life I have met many people who know a great deal about religion and religious traditions. Some Buddhists are extremely erudite. I have become quite learned in this sense myself as a result of a passionate interest in the subject coupled with a love of study. Nonetheless, some of the people who have impressed me most have been simple devotees in countries I have visited who probably know very little of the theory, but whose innoicent simplicity is apparent in the way they offer a vase of flowers or make a bow before the altar. Our rituals can sometimes be elaborate and complex and there is something very beautiful about such correography and a group of people harmonising smoothly together. At the same time, the offering of a single candle is enough. Each moment of purity of heart is like a single flame, an instance of the universal light.
To return to the simple heart of the matter can seem impossibly difficult when one is caught up in all the complexities of modern life. People turn to Buddhism for a bit of peace, and with some justification. However, simple faith does not necessarily mean doing little, nor forgetting the past and taking no heed for the morrow. Periods of solitude and retreat can be wonderful, but true faith renetrates and pervades and is not obstructed by circumstance. Even on a Nazi prison train on the way to the gas chamber it is available. This is the nature of what Buddhists call liberation. It is a light that is unimpeded by worldly concerns. We remember the warrior and the prostitute who came to see Honen near to the end of his life. "Are we not heading for hell?" they asked him. He told them that if they had the means to change their way of life, then of course it was good to follow more moral occupations, but even if they could not (and in medieval Japan people had little choice) it was no obstance to reciting the nembutsu with a pure heart and trusting in the grace of the World Transcending One. Simple faith may be rare in one sense, but it is universal in another: nothing can stand in its way.