Back in August, I took a too-short trip to New York. On the plane, I had a copy of The Buddha’s Wish for the World to keep me company (and only now do I have the time to write about it).* It’s a new book written by the Monshu Koshin Ohtani. “Monshu” is usually translated as “abbot,” in this case, the abbot of the Nishi Hongwanji, the head temple of the denomination of Shin Buddhism under which the Buddhist Churches of America falls. So, in a sense, he’s the head guy of our denomination. But “abbot,” of course, is a lousy word that does not quite capture the nuanced nature of this inherited position or its responsibilities both symbolic and administrative.
Be that as it may, the Monshu has written a cogent and accessible account of Shin Buddhism. The recurring theme is all about heightening our awareness of our inherent interconnectedness to the whole of the universe and, of course, gratitude. On the one hand, it’s a series of reflections on the spiritual path and the Buddha Dharma. And it’s filled with little bits of wisdom such as “If you never question what you are doing, the process of spiritual rebirth cannot begin.”
On the other hand, he has some interesting things to say about evil, like so:
[Shinran] extolled the view that it is the ordinary people afflicted with klesa (afflictions) that is, those of us who live out our lives drifting on the sea of blind desires, unable to stem the tide of our blind passions who, through an epic encounter with the compassion of Amida Buddha, are truly brought to our senses and made to realize the negative tendencies of our ways. Such a person is the one who at last comes to be liberated. This is the teaching that the evil ones are the true objects of the compassion of the Buddha.
He goes on, however, to suggest something rather radical. While this idea that Pure Land Buddhism is for the “evil person” has always seemed to me to suggest that it’s “not for us” (since, presumably, we’re better than that), Shinran makes it pretty clear that he’s not talking about a special class of people. He’s talking about all of us. As the Monshu writes:
When we come to our senses and take a good hard look at ourselves, we find that there is no one who is not afflicted with blind passions. When we delve into our own past, we know there is no one who is truly a good person, no one who is innocent and totally pure.
This type of language may be off-putting to some. It may remind some of that familiar, Catholic-guilt-like, refrain of “everyone’s a sinner!” The choice of the word evil may, itself, rub people the wrong way. Personally, I like the word evil. But, then again, I’ve been know to rub people the wrong way unapologetically. (My podcasting co-conspirator, Harry, went to a lecture by Mark Blum recently where he talked a great deal about evil. According to Harry, Prof. Blum thinks we should translate the word differently, but I can’t now remember how we should be translating it.) So, in a vein attempt at correcting my own (dare I say it?) evil behavior, I’ll say the following: I think that at bottom all Shinran is attempting to do is to force us to be honest. All Shinran wants to say is, look. Nobody’s perfect. Each of us has had moments of spectacular clarity. But each of us has also had spectacular lapses in moral judgement. We’ve all had thoughts that were not reflective of our better selves, and I’m sure each of us has at least one memory that makes us shudder thinking about how we should have behaved.
The point, though, is not to get hung up on that. The point isn’t to recognize our transgressions and then fall into a pit of despair and guilt and self-reproach. Like I said, I think what Shinran’s on about is actually something quite radical. To see it, you just have to take that next metal step. If the compassion of the Buddha is directed at the evil person, and if the evil person is really all of us because no one is free from klesa, then the compassion of the Buddha is directed at everybody without discrimination.
The compassion of the Buddha is directed at everybody. Without discrimination.
If that’s true, once we have that “epic encounter” and “come to our senses,” I think it behooves us to start behaving better, to start treating one another with a bit more bodhisattva-inspired compassion than we usually do.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I was sent a copy of this book, for free, from the publisher to write about it. I probably would have gotten a copy of this book regardless; it’s all over the place after all, being promoted with some vigor by everyone in my immediate community. And I don’t think getting a free copy of the book from the publisher really changed my opinion of it, beyond a tiny feeling of obligation to say something anything about it on my blog. Regardless, however, it really is a pretty good book. Not the Most Amazing Book That Will Change Your Life Forever; but good. And there are regrettably few really good works in English on Shin Buddhism, so I’d probably recommend almost all of them just on general principle. Anyway, I felt obliged to say all of this because of something FTC did this week. (Hi, Feds! I’m a law-abiding citizen!)