Our monthly study group at the temple has started reading the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra and I hoped to receive a lot of useful material at the all-day symposium on “Shinran and the Sutra of Immeasurable Life” at the Jodo Shinshu Center. There were six speakers with very knowledge-filled presentations but by far the most moving for me was Father Jim Fredericks. The title of his talk doesn’t sound that exciting: “Shinran, the Larger Sutra and the Hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer.” But unlike the other speakers delivering an exposition, Father Jim was opening his large heart to show us Shinran’s and embrace each of ours.
So here I’m not going to explain who Hans-Georg Gadamer was, but in that scholar’s hermeneutics framework, a reader approaches a classic text with many things in his background called “presuppositions” which affects how he interprets the text. In listing seven presuppositions that Shinran had in his mind as he read the Larger Sutra, Father Jim touched on Shinran the person and why he speaks to us so poignantly. The first four dealt with Shinran’s time and place and his training as a Tendai monk. But then in the fifth presupposition Father Jim pointed out that Shinran spent almost as many years as a “pastor” as he spent in the Mt. Hiei monastery. For some of us “pastor” doesn’t seem an appropriate term for Buddhist teachers, but Father Jim explained that what Shinran did in eastern Japan was pastoral work – “the care of souls,” using skillful means “to let truth arise.” He said Shinran wasn’t dumbing-down the Dharma for the uneducated farmers, but was conveying the full meaning of the Larger Sutra to them. So for any of us who are touched by the Buddhist teachings, it’s not a matter of learning them for benefitting only our own lives, but learning the universal application of those teachings through our sharing them with others.
The sixth presupposition was what Father Jim called “the metanoia at Rokkaku-do,” Shinran’s “existential realization of Dharma” in his dream of Avalokitesvara. In the seventh presupposition, Honen’s teachings are what made explicit what was implicit in Shinran’s Rokkaku-do experience – “grasped never to be abandoned.”
[photo by Janis H.]
Maybe it’s just my personal history of being rejected that made that phrase so striking to me throughout my study of Jodo Shinshu – “grasped never to be abandoned.” Now I heard it from a Catholic priest in Berkeley but then I found myself remembering being back in Kyoto (during my time at Otani University in the mid-1980s) making a pilgrimage to the Rokkaku-do after a disturbing dream about being condemned for my defiled longing for the one who had rejected me. I was brought back to the moment when Father Jim called me by name to translate “hakarai.” Other people in the room responded “Calculation!” before I realized he was addressing me. Such is my hakarai – yet despite my deserving to be condemned (for that one old defilement and many, many new ones), I am grateful for being led to hear “grasped never to be abandoned” in the hongan, innermost aspiration described in the Larger Sutra.
The upcoming three days is the conference on “Subjectivity in Pure Land Buddhism” but yesterday I couldn’t escape my own subjectivity. Yet in witnessing Father Jim’s humility and open-mindedness, I am made aware of the great power of that which takes in all and excludes none. Who says a European-descent male Catholic can’t be one of the buddhas who enable us to hear the Name of Namu Amida Butsu?