Thursday, November 10, 2011

Passage to Freedom - appreciating Honen, part two

Honen’s “conversion passage (eshin mon)” – from Shan-tao’s Exposition on the Meditation Sutra (Sanzengi chapter, Shinshu Shogyo Zensho p. 538)

 … to pronounce single-mindedly the Name of Amida alone, whether walking or staying, sitting or lying, whether for a long time or for a short time, to keep pronouncing the Name from moment to moment [is] called the right practice which truly assures (one to be born in the Pure Land), as it is in accordance with (Amida) Buddha’s (Original) Vow.

Adapted from Kemmyo Taira Sato’s translation in Great Living (American Buddhist Study Center, 2010), page 9.

In our Wednesday study class we are still discussing the life of Honen (on our 3rd week now) and I showed them the above passage and asked what they thought was in it that jumped out and hit Honen between the eyes. Honen was around 42 years old (a good 20-some years before Shinran would meet him) when his life was changed by this passage. He had entered the Mt. Hiei monastery as a teenager and thoroughly studied Tendai doctrine. He also travelled to Nara and learned from the older Buddhist sects and he is said to have read the entire collection of sutras and commentaries five times. After all those years of studying, why did this passage of Shan-tao (Jpn. Zendo) move him?

Mr. M who was attending our group for the first time said Honen must have been searching for a practice in Buddhism that would be open to everyone. I said, “That’s what I used to think.” But I’ve come to believe that Honen wasn’t worrying about “everyone” as an abstract concept, but he was going through a personal crisis and desparately seeking the answer for himself, just as Shakyamuni left his princely palace to seek the way out of his own anxiety.

Ms. S and Ms. U together pointed to the sensation Honen probably felt when he read this passage – freedom. Ms. U said Honen was trying to find release from ignorance and defilements, feeling chained and caged by them. And Ms. S said Honen might have felt relieved to find out he didn’t have to do the rigorous practices of the monastery, that there was a way of release that didn’t require such measures. Honen appeared to be capable of doing such practices, but those practices were dragging Honen down further into self-attachment.

Ms. C focussed on the phrase “whether walking or staying, sitting or lying” to mean the activities of everyday life and that the reciting of Namu Amida Butsu could be a meditative form of breathing.

I responded to her comment by focussing on the “Buddha’s Vow” and from that Mr. J pointed to the heart/mind of compassion that includes each and every one. In this sense, through Shan-tao’s passage, Honen finally found the key to what his dying father told him to seek – the realm beyond conflicts and discrimation, seeing the equality and interconnection of all beings.

(I hope the students don’t mind that I only referred to them by gender and first initial – maybe they were hoping their names would become famous through this blog. Also participating in the discussion were Ms. A, Ms. R. and Mrs. Tsuji.)

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