In our Wednesday study class I brought Martin Luther back in the discussion because his views on grace put in perspective for me the significance of Honen’s (and Shinran’s) emphasis on being the recipient of “merit-transference.” In Martin E. Marty’s article “Martin Luther’s Reckless Grasp on Grace” (see religion-online.org) I was struck by the criticism of “cheap grace” – the smug feeling church-goers have about being saved without having to do good works. The real experience of grace comes only from the kind of struggle Martin Luther went through as a monk, confronting the hopelessly irredeemable self. This trembling at truly seeing the defiled self was called “guilt” in the article – a word I’ve long avoided in discussing Buddhism. (In Japanese they use a word meaning “confession,” the interior sense of shame for the “deep realization of the limited self.”) But isn’t what Shinran confesses in the Shin (“True Faith”) chapter of Kyogyoshinsho the awareness of his own guilt?
When Shakyamuni sat under the tree and looked into himself, he saw nothing but miserable murkiness and shouted out his despair “Avidya!” (Oh darkness!). The awakening that occurred was not his conscious doing but the pure gift of grace or as Dogen says, “If ten thousand Dharmas advance and make us learn and attain self, then that is real awakening.”
Mahayana, and in particular Jodo Shinshu, is always questioning the narrative of Shakyamuni as the self-made buddha who pulled himself up into enlightenment by the boot-straps of his superior meditation skills. Our ego loves to project itself into stories of the conquering hero, but the teachings of Buddhism make us see the ugliness of our drive to conquer. The dawn of truth breaks through the darkness of our self-attachment – not the other way around.