Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Big News: Revealed as a Big Bombu (Total Fool)

“Cutting off the root of all deluded ideas, which is thinking as if one were a sage*,” said the World-honored One,

“And eliminating any craving that exists within,

He should keep on learning always with clear awakening.”

                        --Sutta Nipata, Chapter “Quickness” (Sn 4.14 v. 916)

*Adapted from the translation by Nobuo Haneda (unpublished manuscript of Face to Face With Shakyamuni by Shuichi Maida). Dr. Haneda had used the word “saint” but in our discussion in the February 10 sutra study class, we felt that for those of us raised in a Christian-based culture, the word “saint” implies moral purity and altruism. In the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation on the accesstoinsight.org website, he uses the phrase “I am the thinker.” What Shakyamuni is pointed out is the basic error of our believing we can think based on pure wisdom when in reality our thinking is clouded by the egocentric duality of “me vs. everything else.”

Every picture tells a story – but not necessarily a true one. The pictures of me in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine are all posed – I’m not actually doing the things they depict. And those things are what I’m most clumsy at – chanting, lighting candles (matches don’t like to cooperate and forget about lighters) and ringing the outside hanging bell, the ritual called the “kansho” (sounding the invitation to enter the temple). Usually it’s our head minister Rev. Ashikaga or my husband who does the kansho before temple services and for the past year it’s been our newest lay leader, Rodel. Even when Rodel hesitantly started out in the Sunday morning routine, he rang the bell much better than I ever did.


(Detail of photo by Chicago photographer John Faier for Tricycle Magazine)

Those in the know will see in the kansho photo that our wooden mallet for hitting the bell is damaged. A couple of years ago the piece that holds the head on the handle broke off, so we jury-rigged the head and handle together. In a way, the mallet is a metaphor for my fifteen minutes of fame in Tricycle – everyone now sees I’m messed up but they also see I’m functioning and carrying on.

The Chinese Pure Land teachers such as Daochuo (Tao-cho, Jpn. Doshaku) described the Path of Sages as the stage of our spiritual search where we want to devote ourselves to the religious teachings and practices that bring us to the state of sagehood, far removed from our greed, anger and stupidity. But at some point we realize we are damaged goods that can’t be made spotlessly new. We can’t be fixed and made whole. For me as an individual there is no “closure,” no “getting over it” – but in entrusting to the Power Beyond Self, I become aware that I am and always have been participating in the wholeness of life itself.

One who makes the error of believing he is the sage, the purely objective thinker, is cutting himself off from the intricate fabric of ever-changing designs – the life which flows deep inside and all around him.

In Maida’s commentary on the above Sutta Nipata verse, he says “eliminating any craving” really means to honestly confront them instead of wishing them away. Maida feels Shinran would hear the verse as Shakyamuni’s confession that he is watching the various cravings that keep arising in him.

The Pure Land path is for those of us who are messed up, broken and damaged, morally incontinent (unable to control the leaking out of greed, anger and stupidity in our thoughts, words and actions) – that is, we’re “bombu,” the complete opposite of a sage. In this awareness we go forward, functioning the best we can, grateful to keep learning of the people, events, organisms, elements etc. that attest to our interconnection with the Unbounded Life, the Limitless Wisdom. Namu Amida Butsu.

(revised 3-8-13 - one of my new year's resolutions is to use the pinyin spellings of Chinese Buddhist names but I got Daochuo wrong in my original entry. I double-checked with Daochuo expert Michael Conway)


  1. Thank you for "Path of the Useless Person" - a PDF of your presentation for the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies I found online. You hit the nail right on the head. When I read Shinran's word "evil", I can definitely recognize myself in it. But it's not the main word in my life. The central world would be precisely "useless". That' how I feel. Spending time reading, thinking, or saying the Nembutsu - so many "useless" practices! The great 20th Soto Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki said "zazen is good for nothing" - basically, that it's useless. Some people replied: "In that case I'll stop doing zazen." - But then he said: "what is dancing good for? What is chasing your desires good for? It's all good for nothing. So it makes more sense to just sit in zazen and practice what is really good for nothing." - Well, as for me, I'm not even able to practice that good-for-nothing zazen. I'm too lazy for that. What can I do? It's not that I'm not trying. Fortunately, Amida Tathagata doesn't require me to be useful. At least somewhere we don't have to be useful .. the Primal Vow doesn't ask us to be useful. In fact, we have to be completely useless, since "no working is true working" ... how wonderful that even we useless people are embraced, never to be abandoned!

    Thank you,

    Jure from Slovenia

    1. Jure - Thank you for your comments. I'm glad you found "useless" to be useful as a related word to "evil" as in the "evil person" Shinran talked about. Namu Amida Butsu