i’m goin’ to hell.

I’ve been wanting to write the following rant for weeks. But it’s not coming out right. There’s ideas floating around in my head; how to get them out just right? In a meaningful way? Where to begin?

I’m going to begin in two places. The first, appropriately so, is with my wife, Dana. Several weeks ago we were having dinner over at her folk’s house, and somehow the conversation turned to crime. (It often turns to crime; her father is a criminal defense attorney, we’re all a bunch of bleeding heart liberals, and Dana’s a card-carrying member of Death Penalty Focus.) We were talking about what is fundamentally wrong with the death penalty — issues of inequality in the justice system, violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the usual. And Dana said (and I’m paraphrasing here and being no where near as eloquent as she was), for her, it’s the simple fact that killing people is wrong. That when someone commits a crime, we need to be able to find it in ourselves to accept that something is wrong with that person, that the criminal needs help and is fundamentally able to transform himself and change. That the criminal justice system should be focused squarely on rehabilitation, not petty revenge. (Feel free to chime in here, baby. I hate putting words in your mouth, but it’s for a good cause. You’ll see.)

The other place I’m going to start is here. I know it’s a little presumptuous of me to quote myself, but what the hell. It’s a post written the second summer I taught at San Quentin, so it’s written in the midst of those people that Dana believe are fundamentally capable of being changed. That I believe are fundamentally capable of change. What I wrote then was all very Buddha-inspired. I wrote that all of us — me, you, my wife, our friends, your family, right along with murders and rapists and thieves — are all of the same stuff. It’s the cornerstone of Mahayana philosophy. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

This is what I was really trying the say the other day in my post (and comments) about Buddhist morality and precepts. One of the things I keep coming back to is Shinran’s off-hand comment that he wants to be reborn in hell because the people in hell are the ones who suffer the most, the ones most in need of the Dharma. That’s huge. So huge, an explication is in order.

In the Contemplation Sutra, the Buddha talks about how anyone can be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land (aka, get enlightened), even those who have committed the Five Grave Offenses. I’m not in the office right now, so I don’t have my handy Big Book of Buddhist Lists in front of me, so I don’t recall off hand what those five offenses are. But I know that they’re pretty terrible. They’re pretty grave. I think one of them is, literally, killing a monk. And the Buddha says that even these people, the worst people you can think of, murders and rapitsts and thieves (hell, even George Bush), are going to be enlightened. What’s more, they are already are. Why? Because enlightenment is unconditioned. It isn’t something you go out and find or buy or work up to. It’s the fundamental nature of reality. Of everything. So if the fundamental nature of reality is enlightened, then we’re all enlightened.

That’s huge.

When Shinran picks up this idea, he says, if even those who commit the Five Grave Offenses are going to get enlightened, what makes you think you’re not? If even those people are capable of change, why do you think you’re not?

So I think the first point in Shinran’s ethic is to not worry about it. You think you’ve got problems? You think you drink too much? Need to exercise more? Forgot to buy your wife flowers? Blew your money on an iPhone rather than charity? Whatever. There’s someone out there that’s done things so dark and terrible you can’t possibly imagine. And guess what? Enlightened.

But the second part of Shinran’s ethic, and I think the more important part, is the part about going to hell. I think what he’s on about is the recognition that people are sort of screwed up. He constantly calls himself (and others) “foolish beings” who are incapable of understanding the Buddha’s teachings. But then, in that wonderful turning rubble into gold metaphor, he says that’s okay. You’re already enlightened, just as you are. Just as you are with all your shortcomings and failings and morally ambiguous flaws.

This is not to say that murders and rapists and thieves are “on the right path.” It’s to remember that we, too, are murders and rapists and thieves because we’re all of the same stuff. Emptiness is form, after all, and form is emptiness. As long as there is one murderer in the world, we’re all murderers.

And he says that he wants to go to hell to teach them the Dharma. To teach.

The very definition of a bodhisattva is one who forsakes final and complete nirvana for the sake of others, to help all other sentient beings attain nirvana first. Why? Because the bodhisattva knows that if just one person is unenlightened, nobody gets enlightened.

This is why I gravitate to Shinshu. This is why I keep coming back to Shinran, a renegade monk who gave up precepts. My heart keeps directing me to the weaker ones, the ones who can’t help but break the rules. They are the ones who suffer the most, and they are the ones most in need of the Dharma.

And they, just like the rest of us, are capable of great change.

9 thoughts on “i’m goin’ to hell.

  1. “One of the things I keep coming back to is Shinran’s off-hand comment that he wants to be reborn in hell because the people in hell are the ones who suffer the most, the ones most in need of the Dharma”

    I often hear this ‘quote’ but where does he say actually this? Dharmakara says something similar in the Larger Sutra but as for Shinran I can only recall him saying he is ‘destined for hell’ because of his own karma … not at all the same thing.


  2. If you’re going to hell, I’ll see you there. 😀

    In any case, I had a hard time reconciling the notion of foolish beings, as taught by Shinran (bonbu), but I think a lot of this is our own stubbornness. On the one hand, we are Buddhas, but we’re unaware of it. On the other hand, we’re so caught up in our karma, our environment and so on that awakening the mind really seems near impossible.

    So I think foolishness is the right term for this: we’re so close, but so far at the same time. That’s where the Light of Amida shines upon our foolishness and makes us confront it. 🙂

  3. GF – yes! I love your take on that. It reminds me of the flight down the Death Star trench in Star Wars… almost there… almost there….

    Kyoshin – You’ll have to forgive me. I fancy myself a Buddhist scholar and Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, but not a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist scholar. So my quips and opinions about doctrine and text are always that — opinions, and not necessarily standard Shinshu teachings.

    At any rate, without being able to recall exactly where I picked up that that “quote,” I think I may be conflating two separate ideas of Shinran’s. First is his statement that you mention that he’s going to hell because of his karma which comes from the Tanisho (in the Collected Works version, page 662). In this context, you’re right, I think he’s talking about tariki and how our present circumstances are the results of past karma. Pretty basic stuff.

    But then, later in the Tanisho, he says that he never recites the nembutsu for his parents’ sake. Allow to quote at length: “I have never said the nembutsu even once for the repost of my departed father and mother. For all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in many sates of existence. On attaining Buddhahood after this present life, we can save every one of them.” He goes on to say, “[When] we quickly attain enlightenment in the Pure Land, we will be able to save, by means of transcendent powers, first those with whom we have close karmic relations [our parents], whatever karmic suffering they may have sunk to in the six realms through the four modes of birth.”

    Taken literally, this is of course all about rebirth and bodhisattva practice in the next life. I have a hard time taking it literally because then I’d have to accept a whole host of other cosmological propositions like the fact that the Pure Land exists a specific number of miles to the west of planet Earth. So, taken metaphorically, I think this passage suggests that the whole point of Pure Land practice is to get enlightened specifically to save other people (i.e., the bodhisattva path) wherever the happen to be (i.e., even in hell) because everyone, “without exception” is related to us.

    Thanks for keeping me honest!


  4. “This is not to say that murders and rapists and thieves are “on the right path.” It’s to remember that we, too, are murders and rapists and thieves because we’re all of the same stuff.”


    Think like this and suddenly you don’t know what is right and what is wrong any more.

    Mother Teresa was the same stuff as the latest suicide bomber?

    A child molester as the same stuff as a protective parent?

    Surely this insults everyone who has ever had to make a tough decision to do the right thing.

    Sure, we’re all human. All have the same potentialities, etc. But it is possible for people to train and develop their good qualities and avoid their evil.

    Didn’t the Buddha summarise His teaching as excactly that?



  5. Thanks for your reply Scott – I don’t disagree with your sentiments per se. I guess I’m just wary of how quickly these misquotes spread. It’s hard enough to find the ‘real’ Shinran behind all the centuries of pious myth-making as it is!

    Take care 🙂

  6. Marcus, what I’m writing here is not meant to be a “this is how we should live our lives and practice” sort of thing. It’s a “this is the fundamental nature of the universe thing.” To the extent that the Buddha also taught us to let go of our discriminative thinking, to see past the divisions we make between self and other, me and not-me, and so on — I think what I’ve written is not incorrect.

    You are absolutely right that people can better themselves and that there is something different in the experience of the Mother Theresas of the world and the child molesters of the world.

    I would simply add that the heart of the Buddhist path is the recognition that the child molester can change and become a saint. And that part of the bodhisattva path is to help him do just that.

  7. Thanks Scott,

    While I still disagree with the idea that “as long as there is one murderer in the world, we’re all murderers” – I totally agree with you that “the child molester can change and become a saint. And that part of the bodhisattva path is to help him do just that.”

    Of course, we’re all the same in that we are made up of the same fundamental ‘stuff’ etc – but the Noble Eightfold path is surely one of choices.

    Anyway, thank you again so much for a thought-provoking post.



  8. One of the things that attracted me to Shinshu was Shinran’s “it’s OK” attitude. The idea that no matter how hard I am on myself – truthfully or superficially – there’s somebody out there that’s a truly evil person, and they, too, are capable and deserving of enlightenment comforts me.

    I try to be a good person, but I have faults and failings. I yell at my kid. I cut people off in traffic. I judge people. I curse. I eat poorly.

    It’s OK.

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