Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wrongly settled, quite rightly

“The important thing,” Tomoko said, “is what it means to you.” Even to the point where you derive meaning which the author did not intend? From the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, to Shinran, to even last Sunday’s Dharma talk by any minister at any temple – their words take on meanings for the listener/reader that these teachers did not intend to convey. When is it necessary to cry out in protest and set the record straight, to be the Tan-ni-sho (“cry over differences tome”)? And when is it okay to be inspired by your misinterpretation of the words you received?


According to my teacher, Dr. Haneda, my reading of Shan-tao (613-681) is completely whack. At the annual Maida Center retreat in Berkeley, I gave a presentation about Shan-tao’s “Song of Encouragement” (Kanshu-ge), also known by Nishi Honganji ministers as Kisambo-ge (“Refuge in the Three Treasures Song”). At the retreat and afterwards, Dr. Haneda let me know my portrayal of Shan-tao was way off-base. I expressed my view of Shan-tao as someone who respected all beings, even those who had not yet seemed to him as very enlightened in their behavior and understanding. I said that at the end of “The Song of Encouragement” (the passage known as Eko-ku, “transferring merit phrases”) Shan-tao expresses the aspiration to receive and share the virtues of all beings:

Gan-ni-shi ku-doku, byo-do se is-sai

During my presentation time, Dr. Haneda pointed out to everyone that in the last verse of “The Song of Encouragement,” Shan-tao is speaking from the view of self-power practice, proclaiming, “I vow to distribute the virtues I’ve accumulated to other people.” Dr. Haneda then added, “Shinran would never say such a thing – to talk of eko (“merit-transference”) as one’s own ability to accumulate virtues and pass them on to others.” It sounded like we’re all wrong to be chanting this passage at our Jodo Shinshu temples. Rev. Paul Vielle of the Spokane Buddhist Church came up with a more palatable translation, “May these virtues be shared will all beings,” by taking out any whiff of anyone taking self-power credit for the merits and for being the one to distribute them.

As they do every year, after the retreat, Dr. Haneda and his wife Tomoko invited everyone to their home for a barbecue lunch. When most people had eaten and already left to drive home or catch flights, I was asked by someone to elaborate on the “not yet” portion of “The Song of Encouragement.” Dr. Haneda then pointed out the verses were not Shan-tao’s confession that he didn’t yet appreciate all the seemingly unenlightened folks, but that it was Shan-tao voicing his respect for only the elite bodhisattvas who were well on their way to enlightenment even though some were not quite there yet.

When Tomoko was dropping me off at the San Francisco airport, I told her how bad I felt about giving a presentation that was so wrong. She said she was so busy at the retreat setting up the meals that she missed my talk and most of the lectures by her husband. She asked me if I thought the retreat topic of eko (“merit-transference”) was “too heavy.” I said it was hard to understand, but I wouldn’t call it “too heavy,” that is, too much over everyone’s heads as to be a waste of time. That’s when she said, “The important thing is what it means to you.”

So maybe Shan-tao was an elitist puffed-up blankety-blank. But I’m the one who hears his words in “The Song of Encouragement” as the call of Oneness, the reminder to me of the complete equality of all beings. The heart/mind of seeking (bodhi-citta) is aroused in all of us together. No one, not even Shakyamuni or Shinran can claim they’ve managed to be a jump or two ahead of the rest of us. Together – we start our new life in Sukhavati (“realm of flowing”).

Do hotsu bo-dai shin, o-jo an-raku koku

1 comment:

  1. Aug. 4, 2012 e-mail from Frederick Brenion (published with permission)
    Allow me to share a short story or two. There is a famous rabbinic story, “that when Moses was miraculously transported into the school of Rabbi Akiba [1500 years later] he was at first dismayed that he was unable to understand what Rabbi Akiba was teaching. But when a disciple asked Akiba how he knew something and Akiba replied: "It is tradition from Moses our teacher," Moses' mind was set at rest.” And now a more recent story about one of my favorite science-fiction and science writers, Isaac Asimov, who “once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher's interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn't what he had meant at all. The teacher's response was 'Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it's about?'” Asimov came to write a whimsical short-story, “The Immortal Bard,” where Shakespeare comes to our time and takes a college course on his writings. I'll let you seek it out and enjoy the outcome and the message!
    The bottom line is that Shan-tao is not the final word on Shan-tao. Causes, conditions, and effects, allowed the text to pass to you with new meanings to unfurl in new situations. Interpretations tell us more about the interpreter than about the interpreted and that is probably as it should be. To fix Shan-tao's meaning as to be this and only this is in a way to give him a permanent self, and that would be very unbuddhist!! No. Shan-tao is part of a larger flow of the movement of Dharma which we are part of now and which ever-flows and changes. To see a different light in Shan-tao now is to be expected. Otherwise he would be just a rock in the river that will soon wear down to dust. It is the water of Shan-tao that flows. And besides, we have the noble example of our Shonin, Shinran. We know for a fact that he played fast and loose at times with quoting and interpreting the Sutras to get his points across. If you are to be taken to task for finding things in Shan-tao that another says isn't there, then how much more must we take Shinran to task! You found the rubble in Shan-tao and brought out the gold. Go for it!

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