Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hongan as Merton's Description of Love

For the November 28 dialogue event at our temple (held on Shinran’s memorial day), I invited Rev. Brandyn Simmons of Christ Church of Chicago. At the church’s website you can see Rev. Brandyn’s blog “Apophatica.” Before the event, I saw that Rev. Brandyn blogged about his stay at Gethsemani Abbey, so I thought I’d find some Thomas Merton quotes to open up the dialogue between our two organizations (interested people of other religious groups also attended). From this 2014 Huffington Post article Thomas Merton Quotes To Celebrate The American Monk's Birthday” I found this passage from The Way of Chuang Tzu:

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.

[photo of Merton’s grave by Rev. Brandyn Simmons from blog “Apophatica”]
At first I thought it was a great way to describe “love” that would relate to the Buddhist concept of compassion. Then it struck me – the passage is hongan, the innermost aspiration expounded in the Larger Sutra.

In the story Shakyamuni Buddha tells of the seeker Dharmakara, whose teacher directs him to confront his own heart/mind and question why he keeps categorizing other beings as “good” versus “bad.” To overcome his judgmental habit, Dharmakara makes a series of vows, but they can be distilled into the main, primary – “Primal Vow.” That is the aspiration that wells up from the depths of his being to embrace all with no exception, to show utmost respect (Namu) to each and every being beyond any categorization (Amida) and completely identify with all (Butsu).

Unlike the “love” I spoke about in an early blog post (that still gets occasional views) which indicates the negative notion of possessiveness, the love that Merton describes is our truest aspiration for Oneness. That love is the opposite of the ego’s drive to control and hang on to other beings for the benefits we crave. To let all living beings be “perfectly themselves” is the command of the Buddha in Shandao’s “two rivers, white path” story to “come immediately, just as you are.”

The numerous vows of Dharmakara in the Larger Sutra are all resolutions to stop twisting others into how we think they should be, our ideas of what pleases us. It may seem most of the time that we lack the will to really love others, but Shinran documents for us that the heart/mind of entrusting (shinjin) is a gift that is already given to us. All we need to do is become aware of it – to hear its calling (nembutsu).

In the news these days, we find plenty of examples of conflict from humans trying to control other lives and seeing others as dangerous because they don’t fit our image of goodness. There are no purely evil people – only people who think they are justified in harming and destroying others for not fitting into their idea of propriety. The way to take away that sense of justification is to keep listening to the teachings of all-embracing Oneness, the teachings that make us see that there is no “they” as opposed to “we.” To hear the nembutsu is to hear our deepest wish to see our self and each life as perfect just as we are, inextricably part of one great flow of life. This is Shinran’s radical solution to the terrorism which we all are guilty of promoting.

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