The inconceivable [power] of the declared aspiration of Unbounded Light/Life is helping me,
And when I am made aware of being born anew,
The thought arises in my heart/mind to vocalize the remembrance of awakening;
This means definitely receiving the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned.
These words of Shinran at the start of Tannisho have meant a lot to me – in Japanese. How to convey them in English is still a struggle for me, so the above translation is just my latest attempt.
It was two years ago when I was one of three guest speakers at the annual Women in Buddhism conference at the Seattle Buddhist Church that I started to make the case that Shinran is talking about “help” not “salvation” in this Tannisho passage. My presentation was on “Care-Receiving,” how the Jodo Shinshu teachings provide support for those who are care-givers, particularly the baby-boomer aged women who are caring for disabled family members (e.g. parents, spouse, child).
In Japanese “tasukete” could mean “save me!” if you are trapped in quicksand and need your life saved. But “tasukete” could also mean “help me” when you need to request assistance getting across a hazardous street that you must traverse frequently. “Salvation” or even “spiritual liberation” (term favored by Dr. Haneda) sounds like a “won and done” event, whether accomplished at a past moment or a time in the future (e.g. one’s death). But if daily or several times a week you’ve got family responsibilities to fulfill, heaven and hell don’t mean much when you’re more concerned about keeping up your energy and strength, somehow juggling a long list of demands on your time and staying focused when subjected to verbal abuse and distrust.
Now that my health is so poor (if cancer doesn’t kill me, the side effects from treatments probably will) and I’ve witnessed the deaths of my parents, sister and so many temple members, the idea of securing a cushy cubbyhole in the afterlife seems so abstract. The more urgent concern is getting by day-to-day, moment-by-moment, while one still has life and responsibilities to others. One of the things I’m so impressed with when visiting people near death is how seriously they perform their duties towards you as their guest. At a time when they are in much physical discomfort, they express their thanks and concern for you and others – “Have some candy,” “How’s your husband?” “I wonder how Mr. So-and-so is doing after his accident,” etc.
That’s the help I need and I’m grateful for when I’m aware of receiving it. When I as much and more so than anyone else am so self-centered, it really must be a great inconceivable power working to enable me to interact effectively with others.
Maybe when I was younger I was like the strivers in Buddhism and other religions, trying to do all the “right” things so that the final judgment on my life will get me to the “better place.” Now the ideas of eternal damnation or heaven forever just sound like fantasies like living happily ever after with the handsome prince. What I get from Shinran and the Kiyozawa lineage of teachers is that my “self” is of no consequence once my physical life ends. If I have some soul or mind-matter that has to burn in hell for eons, it’s no big deal in the larger scheme of things.
For now it’s help that I need and help that I receive from the working of Unbounded Light/Life. (This working manifests itself through the teachings, through the cooperation and opposition of other people, through the many natural and artificial influences in the environment.) Though my predominant tendency is to mess things up for myself and everyone else and I wish I could just chuck it all and go into hiding, there’s that call of the Innermost Aspiration (hongan) reminding me that I and all beings together are grasped, never to be abandoned. Whether we can get along or not most of the time is a matter of transient phrases – what is going forth unobstructed is each of our lives interdependent with all other lives, into joy, into sorrows, into wisdom and compassion.