Friday, August 21, 2015

No Finger Wagging, Please

Here are two translations of the same passage from Kyogyoshinsho, second chapter (“Gyo” cf. Higashi Honganji Seiten p. 181, verse 59).

When we are such sinners as we are in our present life,
How can we be in accord with the Pure Land?
I say: when the Name is pronounced, sins are effaced,
As a bright lamp is brought into the darkness.
            Translation by D.T. Suzuki et al
            Kyogyoshinsho, 1973 edition page 47, 2012 edition page 79

Question: Countless are the acts of karmic evil in this life that obstruct you;
How can one such as you enter there?
Answer: When we say the Name, our karmic evil is eradicated;
It is like a shining lamp entering the dark.
            Translation by Dennis Hirota et al
            Collected Works of Shinran, page 42 section 35

This passage (Shinran’s quoting of Tz’u-min’s verse on The Pratyutpanna-samadhi Sutra) and the two translations were noted in an article in the June 2015 newsletter of the Shinran Bukkyo Center in Tokyo. I kept meaning to read the issue earlier because my oshiego (“pupil” as in grade school kid) Mike Conway is in it [pictured below] but I just happened to look at it a few days ago.


In these two translations I see the big difference between the “Sunday School” version Jodo Shinshu presented by Nishi Honganji and the “esoteric” version of the modern Higashi Honganji teachers. In the translation made by Team Hirota, there’s a big finger wagging at us, “How can such a person as you enter the Pure Land, dragged down by all your acts of evil? The only option for you is to become one of us, faithfully reciting Namo Amida Butsu.”

Interestingly, the Shinran Bukkyo Center translated Suzuki’s stilted English into contemporary Japanese which says something like: “In this life where we are so deep in this much sin, how can we have a self that is fit for the realm of purity? By the Name being voiced, our sins are pulled out and swept aside, like the darkness broken up by a bright lamp.”

What D.T. Suzuki brought to the translation of Shinran’s words is the Zen sense of personal urgency – this Buddhism stuff is about me, this person here, finding a way out of my suffering, not some hypothetical generalized theory on spirituality. In the Tz’u-Min text and much of Sino-Japanese Buddhist literature, there are no pronouns so it’s the translator’s prerogative to put in “you,” “I,” “we,” “he” (mostly used) and “she” (hardly used). It’s not only Shinran who identifies as “we” in Tz’u-Min’s talking about sinners, but it’s Suzuki as well. Thanks to Wayne Yokoyama’s research, we can see D.T. Suzuki as someone struggling with messy personal problems (conflicts with his wife, son and others). He wasn’t the 24/7 serene sage that Thomas Merton paints him to be (and Merton had his own messes to deal with in his later years). Wayne feels that despite how Suzuki seems to identify wholly with Zen, he must have felt a personal connection to Shin Buddhism, knowing he wasn’t completely exempt from being bonno-gusoku-bonbu, a foolish ordinary person filled with defilements.

It is Suzuki and Shinran letting us hear their question – “What about us guys who’ve done and keep doing a lot of bad things? Won’t we have too much karmic baggage to get through the security checkpoint for the realm of pure-flowingness?” And it is Shinran and probably Suzuki as well who hear in the calling of the Name, “Come straightaway, just as you are, without having to fix yourself up – come forward into this great flow of Life.” In the Higashi presentation, it doesn’t matter who is saying that Name and even how they’re saying it (in Japanese “Namu Amida Butsu” or in a more direct translation in everyday words). The experience of hearing it feels to us as if someone switched on the lamp in a room where it was too dark to see anything. Of course, the acts of evil and their karmic consequences don’t disappear but the burden of worrying about them has been lifted. Those “sinful obstructions” are swept to the side to play themselves out as we are called upon to step forward and participate in the great intricate unfolding of life in the here and now. (The story of Angulimala accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html clearly illustrates that point so I’m thinking of posting my IASBS paper in this blog.)


I’m writing this after my husband expressed his concern that the article just published in Tricycle makes me sound like I’m still a lovesick teenager – he said it will be hard for people to take me seriously. But I don’t need people to take me seriously – if what I say to convey Buddhism makes sense to them or not is up to them, not because I claim any authority, i.e. “seriousness.” I’m grateful for being at that conference in Berkeley – for the reminders that I’m not such a serious authority or serene sage but still just a messy-minded fool which made the teachings sink in more poignantly, like antiseptic into a wound.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate your insights and this passage from Kyogyoshinsho. And I felt your Tricycle article about envy/jealousy is so lovely. I found it to be refreshingly different from many of the Tricycle articles. As a reader of your blog I was very excited to see an article by you in the magazine. And the article itself seemed perfect.

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