In preparing for a talk I’m giving at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin next week, I’m reviewing the classics, the Kyogyoshinsho, the Tannisho, and so on. And I came across the following passage from the latter:
Supposing that followers of other schools ridicule us by saying that the Name is meant for those of low intelligence and that this teaching is shallow and inferior, we should avoid any dispute and reply: “As we are convinced that the ignorant who are poorly gifted and illiterate like ourselves will be delivered by Faith*, for us this is the supreme doctrine, even though it may seem contemptible to those of higher ability. Although other teachings may be superior, we cannot practice them because they are beyond our powers. Since the original intention of all the Buddhas is to free everyone from birth-and-death, we request those of other views not to interfere with us.” If we treat them without malice, who then will harm us?**
This is a really interesting passage, and for some odd reason feels appropriate to my frame of mind of late. In order to best understand this passage, however, I think we need to re-contextualize it. Before we can see how it might be useful in our present, we need to do our best to think about how it may have been understood in its present.
First of all, the Tannisho is a collection of Shinran’s sayings and teachings recorded and commented on by one of his disciples, Yuienbo. Rennyo, the eighth abbot of Hongwanji, added a postscript to this text that says, basically, what’s said in here is so profound and so easy to misinterpret that it shouldn’t read by someone who doesn’t already have deep entrusting or shinjin. Despite that admonition, the Tannisho has been one of the most widely read Buddhist works in Japan for hundreds of years.
When Shinran talks about people “like ourselves” who are “poorly gifted and illiterate,” he’s not actually talking about himself. He was, of course, hugely literate. His magnum opus, the Kyogyoshinsho, contains 376 quotations from sixty-two Buddhist sutras and other sources. But, after his exile from the capital of Kyoto in 1207, he was no longer surrounded by the literati of his day; he was surrounded by people who were, very much so, illiterate. But despite their lack of education, despite the fact they all lived in medieval Japan’s version of the sticks, he recognized that the compassion of Amida Buddha embraced them regardless and without distinction.
At this point in Japanese Buddhist history, Buddhism was not something for the common person. Power and authority was very much consolidated in the capital, and there were close alliances between the Buddhist establishment and the imperial government. It was assumed that in order to attain awakening, one necessarily had to engage in the strenuous monastic practices of the established Buddhist order, something the vast majority of Japanese simply could not do.
So when Shinran, here, says that even these poor and illiterate folks are going to be embraced by the Buddha’s compassion, are going to attain awakening, without engaging in the lofty, difficult practices of the monks, that’s revolutionary stuff.
But I’m not particularly interested, here, in talking about the complex mechanism by which we attain awakening though Amida’s compassion. I’m more interested in talking about what this passage reveals to us in terms of how to deal with the world around us, in the here and now.
In some sense, Shinran’s proposing a hypothetical situation: say someone comes up to you and tells you that the style of Buddhism you’re practicing is worthless, false, and that you’re a fool for following it. What do you do? How do you respond? What if we expanded on this hypothetical situation to include criticism coming our way from non-Buddhists? Obviously, this isn’t just a hypothetical situation. Other Buddhist schools were very critical of what Shinran and his followers were up to. And that’s as much true today as it was over seven hundred years ago.
So what do we do?
At first blush, Shinran’s response seems to be little more than a radical humility and acceptance of one’s limitations, of what one is capable of attaining. But there’s something more going on here. It’s not simply that we’re not capable of attaining awakening, but that this doesn’t even seem to be the issue. The issue, for Shinran, appears to be that one is already grasped by Amida Buddha’s compassion. And the compassion of the Buddhas does not make the distinction between inferior people and superior people. That’s not something the Buddhas are worried about; that’s something we, as foolish or unenlightened beings, are worried about.
Shinran then goes on to deflect the conflict altogether by granting that others’ practices may be superior, but, please, leave us be. Allow us to practice what we are without interference. Rather than engaging in heated and probably pointless debates, he seems to be suggesting that if we adopt an attitude of compassion and mutual respect, both us and our critics would be better off.
My wife was reminded of an old South Park episode the other day, so we promptly downloaded it: “Starvin’ Marvin in Space.” Without getting too far into the details of the episode, the final scene finds the boys from South Park on the distant planet Marklar with a host of proselytizing Christians, Sally Struthers, and Ethiopians looking for a new home. When the Christians tell the Marklars that their souls are going to burn in hell, the Marklar leader replies, “That’s nice, thanks for stopping by.”
Shinran’s response may be one step further. “Yeah, I may be going to hell anyway, and there’s not much to be done about that if I am. But thanks for your concern. Have a good day now.”