We are an outpost of Nyorai’s Pure Land. We, the misfits, fit here. We are trying to live a life that is genuine — a life free from spin — while recognising that we are just ordinary, unenlightened beings.
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.
Authenticity & Freedom I have been reading some existentialism. One of the key concepts in existentialism is authenticity. This goes with another key idea, which is freedom. These ideas reached a high pitch in the work of Sartre who had lived through the experience of the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. At that time staying alive often depended upon acting in inauthentic ways and there was an acute sense of loss of freedom. Sartre, however, maintained that a person always inherently has freedom, even in the most dire circumstances. Whatever befalls us, we still choose how we respond.
Hypocrisy This led the existentialists to a critique of bourgeois society, where even without the threat of gestapo violence people still spend much of their time and energy on posing in hypocritical ways. Of course, this is not a new observation. The Taoists, the Stoics and the early Christians had all made similar observations. The existential twist was to say that the reason for such inauthenticity was fear of freedom. When we realise our freedom we experience the anxiety of choice. Much of the time we would rather either operate on habit, or pretend that we have no choice.
Vulnerability Along with freedom comes risk. If I am free to choose then I am vulnerable to making mistakes. In other words, I may betray myself as a fallible, foolish, human being. This seems awful and unacceptable, so we pretend that we are not so vulnerable and that any mistakes are due to factors beyond our control. We will go to considerable lengths in this strategy, not excluding alienating from ourselves our own characteristics and failings, as when a person says, “I have to drink because I am an alcoholic,” or “I always lose my jobs because I have an authority problem,” as though the "problem" had an existence of its own.
The pathologisation of many behaviours under the rubric of mental so-called illness has helped to extend this kind of inauthenticity and non-responsibility into many areas of life. People who do not have any serious form of insanity still regularly use such labels as a way of lessening their awareness of the freedom that they have. The impulse to hide is understandable. When we acknowledge our freedom we also acknowledge the hovering presence of panic not far away. Many people go through life hardly ever, if at all, making a genuine decision. The book by Kundera, The Incredible Lightness of Being, is a telling, existential story of a man who lives a socially successful life without ever deciding anything for himself until the Russians come along and invade, when life starts to become more unavoidably real.
Holy Poses Inauthenticity is also rife in the religious/spiritual domain. We do not have to go back to the Pharisees in the Bible to find plenty of examples of people posing as more holy, more respectable or more enlightened than is actually the case. Taking on a spiritual persona can be a first-class strategy for avoiding one’s humanity. If one has some status in a religious group, other members also put pressure upon one to act in sanctimonious ways. Unfortunately this not only deceives others, it is also, all too often, a case of deceiving oneself and this very deception constitutes the avidya that Buddha referred to as the root of all our trouble. One can summarise Buddha’s enlightenment as his realisation that all our poses have their roots in avidya, the refusal to look at the reality of life.
Waking Up Thus, Buddhism, even though it has a different flavour from existentialism, is existential philosophically. It shares the same diagnosis and suggests a rather similar remedy: the diagnosis of refusal to look and the remedy of waking up. What we wake up to is the reality of life and death, joy and suffering, freedom and risk, love and its disappointments; in other words, to our bombu lives in an imperfect world, longing for something better, sometimes glimpsing it and sometimes seeing it slip through our fingers, but much of the time playing posing games, more concerned with how we appear (rupa) than with reality (dharma)..
Thy Neighbour is as Thyself In his early life, Sartre saw the demands of freedom and authenticity in purely individualistic terms. Later he came to see that one has an inevitable responsibility toward others. Buddhism starts from that point, seeing authenticity - vidya - as the foundation for compassion. When I face the reality of my life, I face the reality of all lives. When I see my own fallible mortality, I see that of my neighbour too. Before such an awakening everything seems to be arranged on a vertical scale from worse to better. After it, everything is horizontal - we all walk in similar moccasins.
What is love? We can get some initial sense of the root meaning from the expression “to do something for love”. When we do something for love, we mean that we do it with no extrinsic aim or gain in view. Love is “for nothing”. Thus, love is the abandonment of selfishness.
I used to play tennis when I was younger. In the scoring of tennis, when one has no points it is called “love”, so if the score is love-forty, then one player has forty and the other has nothing. Love is thus strongly associated with emptiness or nothingness. It is a void, a blank sheet. Traditionally, a bride wore white to symbolise that she was willing to take on whatever colour her new husband and his family required. Love is open.
Love thus has much to do with availability and willingness. I am talking here about the original and traditional sense of it. Nowadays people talk about loving themselves and protecting themselves, but this is a reversal of the original meaning. The modern person thinks in terms of rights and entitlements, sometimes in terms of personal profit and sometimes in terms of equality. All these modern ideas, however, are derived from the needs of mass society, not from the intimacy of family and community. As our lives have become more and more public we have started to lose the distinction, and increasingly our supposedly intimate lives are governed by rules and principles that were originally designed for the courts, both legal and political.
A century ago, the sociologist Tonnies made a useful distinction between “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft”. Gesellschaft refers to social relations based on impersonal ties, usually regulated by explicit rules, such as participation in a contract, society or organization whereas gemeinschaft refers to those based on close personal and family ties or a sense of community, largely formed by implicit bonds and sentiments. Gemeinschaft is, for its participants, an end in itself and they see themselves as the means to that end, whereas, in the case of gesellschaft, it is the gesselschaft that is the means and the aim is personal gain and achievement. In the modern world gessellschaft has, for a long time now, been gradually displacing gemeinschaft and people become correspondingly more self-seeking. The world becomes more rational and in the process less centred on love.
The original sense of love was connected with joy. When one does something that is intrinsically satisfying one feels joy. When one loves something or somebody one takes joy in them. Their happiness and successes are directly satisfying to ourselves. In their failures and disasters we experience distress, but, more than that, we experience the need to be strong for them. This is the sense of the “four immeasurable qualities” in Buddhism: love (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksha). Love wishes the other all success and happiness. Compassion wishes them freedom from failure and woe. Joy arises when this happens. Equanimity is what is demanded when it does not. These four, therefore, spell out the anatomy of love through the vicissitudes of life.
These four are sometimes called “the four immeasurables” and sometimes “the four divine dwellings”. These two terms also tell us important things about love. Firstly, that it is not measurable. In essence, love has no limits or bounds and cannot be measured out. Secondly, love is divine, the divine is love; by loving we participate in the divine and dwell with the gods.
Of course, a person - a mother, say - may have to divide her time between her children, her husband, her parents, and so on, but this does not mean that she measures out her love. Her love for all, if it is real love, is not limited. Only her physical being is limited. There is a phenomenon in which this woman might wear herself out trying to make her bodily ability match the supposed limitlessness of her love, but when we look at this syndrome carefully we generally find that the woman in question is more concerned with sustaining the appearance of being a loving person than with the reality. For sure, there are times when love will drive us to the limit in trying to serve our loved one, but these occasions, when the loved one is truly in extreme jeopardy, are rare. We can see, therefore, that there are any number of “games” and manipulations that can go on, motivated by the challenge to demonstrate love, yet in all of these the real love has been compromised by a desire for appearances. When people are wedded to appearances, as in the case of King Lear, they do not see where love really lies and tragedy lies in wait.
True love is limitless, measureless and divine, yet we are limited, conditioned mortals. Thus true love may touch us from time to time, like an angel, but between times we go on living our mundane lives, struggling to balance inner impulses with outer realities, juggling diverse imperatives and often falling short. Love, therefore, is the object of our worship. When occasionally it fills our heart and being we celebrate and remember those times. Though they may fade or become occluded by the mists of multiple follies, still, somehow, the love remains, perhaps distant, perhaps barely glimpsed, yet somehow an undying flame.
The paradox here is that if we were not such vulnerable and fragile beings, love could actually have but little expression. It is in feeling for one another’s frailty that the beauty of our most divine sentiment appears.
I'm a Minister with Amida Shu, a Pureland Buddhist Order. Now semi-retired, I teach on-line and hold Pureland Buddhist sangha gatherings in Perth, Scotland. This site is mainly Buddhist in content. I share the teachings of the Head of our Order, Dharmavidya David Brazier