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.
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.