Monday, June 6, 2016

Dealing Rather Than Denying: Learning from Honen Shonin

As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes I’ve done funeral-memorial services for people who identify with a Japanese Buddhist sect other than Jodo Shinshu. The other day I did a funeral for a woman who was a long-time member of Jodo-shu (“Pure Land sect,” the group founded by Honen Shonin long before Shinran met him). After the local Jodo-shu minister passed away, she and her children asked me to do the annual memorial services for her husband – small family gatherings that didn’t warrant calling the overseeing minister from Los Angeles to do.

For her service in place of Rennyo’s “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) which is read at Jodo Shinshu services, I chose to read two excerpts from An Anthology of the Teachings of Honen Shonin (trans. Joji Atone and Yoko Hayashi, Los Angeles: Bukkyo University, 1998). One selection “Life is Fleeting” (p. 33 from Chokuden, Chapter 32) has similar wording about the transience of life as Rennyo’s letter, but ends with the departed soul facing King En’ma, Lord of the Realm of the Dead, asking, “Having been born in a world where the teachings of the Buddha prevailed, why did you leave there without having practiced them?”

I felt I needed a passage that described some of those teachings to put into practice so I chose an excerpt from “The Genuine Heart” (p. 56 from the Shichi-kajo kisho-mon):
Satisfy greed with small gratification.
Mitigate anger by venerating your elders and nurturing your descendants.
Overcome ignorance by rejecting the delusive worlds, aspiring for birth in the Pure Land, and devoting oneself to a life of service.
The cultivation of these attitudes will rid us of a heart filled with falsity
And result in the emergence of the truly genuine heart.
To shun the myriad evil passions of this delusive world
And to recite the Nembutsu are the true practices of the genuine heart.

I made some slight modification to the wordings to the two quotes I used and I have yet to see the original Japanese passages. I won’t go into all my spiel here, but many of you know I can go on and on about how Shinran is more faithful in quoting Honen than Honen’s Jodo-shu disciples who had their high-profile butts to cover due to the persecution of the Nembutsu followers for daring to suggest all lives are equal in dignity. But I’d like to think the passages I used in the service are fairly accurate in conveying Honen’s teachings.

What strikes me is that Honen realistically knew from his own experience as a monk on Mt. Hiei for over thirty years and then as the monastery dropout mingling with the various classes of people in Kyoto that it is a delusion to think one can be rid of the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance by one’s own efforts. To say, “Yeah, I got rid of those poisons for good,” is to be in complete denial about their continual bubbling up in our heart/mind and showing up in our thoughts, words and deeds. But the monasteries perpetuated the idea that they were special places away from the defiled everyday world where people could devote themselves to the practices that achieved victory over the barriers to enlightenment.

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Honen found what worked for us in the defiled everyday world of having families, working for a living and getting along with other beings is to deal with rather than try to deny our three poisons. You feel driven by desire for this and that? How about telling yourself, “Yes, you can have a taste of it at least.” Whether it was eating meat, having sex or getting drunk, Honen felt it was okay for people to get it out of their system by indulging just a bit, so they could go back to putting their heart/mind on the Buddha (nen “to think, remember,” butsu “the Buddha, awakening”). Are you filled with anger? Take a little time to remember those of the past who made your life possible and to think about your hopes for those who’ll bring the world into the future. Maybe you’re still angry for their sake (such as the outrage expressed by the late Muhammad Ali in the above quote) or maybe you’ll see how futile it is to get mad over something that looks petty and selfish in the grand timeline of the generations. What about that bothersome ignorance that keeps sprouting up out of the depths of darkness? Can’t do much about it but in the meantime there’s lots you can be doing to help others and make the Pure Land more evident in the perception of your surroundings.

I can’t say I knew the departed very well, having only gotten to know her in her 90s. But it was nice to hear from the family that my explanation of Honen’s words helped them see how she was a person who truly followed the Buddhist teachings. As Honen and later Shinran saw, it is those ordinary folks who show us how to live lives of “small gratification,” “veneration” and “nurturing,” “service” to others in their family, business and social lives. They show us that dealing with the three poisons is a far more effective strategy than trying to get rid of them. They have let go of the job of trying to be their own saviors – and so they were freed up to be “just as they are,” selflessly doing what has to be done.

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