Although I have taken refuge in Shin Buddhism,
There is no truthful mind in me at all.
Since my being is false, vain, and insincere,
I have not even a fragment of pure mind.
As for my appearance to everyone,
I show the façade of a wise, good, and serious man.
Because I have abundant greed, anger, perversion, and lies,
My being is filled with evil schemes.
My evil nature is difficult to stop.
My mind is just like snakes and lizards.
My religious practice, being mixed with the poison of self-love,
Is called the practice of falseness and vanity.
--Shinran Shonin, Gutoku Hitan Jikkai (in the Shozomatsu Wasan)
Nobuo Haneda in The Evil Person: Essays on Shin Buddhism
By Shuichi Maida)
A few years ago I was reading an article about Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, where he said during the time he taught school in New York he felt like such a fake speaking at the front of the classroom. But he found that students he encountered years later would tell him he was one of their best teachers, sincerely helping them in their learning. It made me think of Shinran – continually calling himself a fake (as in the passages above), yet he was and still is able to compassionately convey to people the truth they need to hear.
I was reminded of the Frank McCourt article because of the recent suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and the PBS Newshour story on Robin Williams. Both men confided to friends and family that they felt full of self-doubt, feeling that their public image as a good guy was fake. I know (especially these days with the crisis at the temple) how crushing that feeling can be, yet the saving grace is always hearing the voice of Shinran, “Yeah, I’m a fake but it makes me awaken to the nembutsu as true. The delusion of thinking I’m purely good and wise is a barrier to realizing how much goodness and wisdom I receive from others.”
The paradox of the true teacher being the one who says “I’m a fake” is conversely true – the false teacher is the one who keeps insisting on his authenticity. One sign of a group based on a false idea of their teacher is that they don’t recognize the teacher had teachers and those teachers had teachers. In the Pure Land tradition of Honen and Shinran, even the historical Buddha had to have teachers. To them it was obvious from reading the Mahayana sutras that the Buddha was frequently expressing his appreciation of the Buddhas of the past – and in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, these past guides are represented in the archetype of Dharmakara/Amida.
It’s sad to think of great people such as Bourdain and Williams who felt so weighed down by self-doubt that they were driven to end their lives. It makes me grateful to teachers such as Rev. Gyoko Saito who showed me that no matter how awful one’s personal life can get, “the nembutsu is here,” as Rev. Saito quoted Akegarasu during the 1994 ceremony in Los Angeles where he was forced into retiring. The nembutsu reminds us that self-doubt doesn’t have to be a life-destroying thing. By seeing how fake our surface personality is, the grip of self-attachment is loosened and we can awaken to the dynamic truth that is all around and deep within us.