Sunday, May 20, 2018

“Saving All Sentient Beings” - What the {bleep} does that mean?

I just received the Maida Center’s newsletter “The Dharma Breeze” and the whole issue is Dr. Haneda’s essay, “The Mind of a Child – The Mind of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara.” (If you are not on the Maida Center’s mailing list, you can get a copy of the newsletter at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.) It’s a great piece with several examples of stories to parallel the passage in the Larger Sutra where Dharmakara is told that fulfilling his aspiration is like emptying the ocean with a ladle – it will take time and undaunted hope.

[Japanese painting of Kannon – originally this post was going to be about my gender nonconforming form after surgery. Still got two arms though it’s painful to raise and extend them.]
When I first started studying under Dr. Haneda at the temple in the early 1980s, he went out of his way to avoid using the words “salvation” and “saved.” He would describe spiritual awakening as the liberation from the ego-self. In our study class, most of us came from Christian upbringings so we felt the term “salvation” meant the soul being saved from eternal damnation after death and agreed with Dr. Haneda not to use it. In Buddhism the one thing we need to be freed from is our self-attachment – not from “suffering” (disruptive events, physical and mental pain, loss of those we depended on etc.), but from that which makes us feel we are suffering (“Waah, I didn’t get my way!”).

After my three years studying in Japan, I lived in Los Angeles and went to hear Dr. Haneda whenever he was in Southern California or when I had the chance to attend his study sessions in Berkeley. It was a big revelation to me that he presented Dharmakara’s vows in the Larger Sutra as not “I’m bringing spiritual liberation to others,” but as “Now I see how spiritually liberated others already are.” For example, the thirty-fifth vow could be worded as, “My liberation is not complete unless I consider all women as liberated.”

I continue to present the Larger Sutra in that way. As I stated somewhere in an earlier post, when Honen left the Mt. Hiei monastery, he was knocked over to find that the humble working people of the city had faces glowing with awakening, the awakening that seemed only theoretical in the Buddhist texts he intensely studied. When he encountered one after another being (human and otherwise) shining wisdom and compassion upon him, all he could say is “Namu Amida Butsu” – “I am so fortunate to receive the Light shining through you.”

How could Shinran not be deeply moved by Honen, a man with the joyful expression of “Wow!” shown to each and every one? It would take Shinran years of ladling out his deep dark ocean of prejudice and disdain towards others but we see in the accounts of people who encountered him that his aspiration to be like Honen was definitely fulfilled. (From his writings Shinran says he’s under the heavy weight of his ego concerns, but in his hyper-awareness of the continual budding of self-attachment, he is free from its grip.)

In Dr. Haneda’s recent essay and in the works of many Buddhist teachers, there is the phrase “saving all sentient beings” which to me falls in that “problem” category I wrote about in my previous posts.  I cringed when Dr. Haneda wrote of Dharmakara, “He vows that until the last suffering person becomes happy, he will not become happy.” I know what he means, but it can be easily misunderstood if we don’t define “suffering” and “happy” in relation to self-attachment. Otherwise, I could say I’m “happy” if someone gives me a bottle of champagne so I can forget my “suffering.” We should remember the Buddha’s teachings are not about fleeting, material pleasures but finding release from the nagging dis-ease of seeing things in life as miserable to our self.

Another line in Dr. Haneda’s piece that stuck out at me was: “We are moved by the naïve and foolish mind of a child, of the Buddha, who is single-mindedly concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings.” What makes that passage tricky is Dr. Haneda pooh-poohs any of us when we talk about doing social justice and/or charity work – that’s not his idea of addressing the “welfare” of others. I’d like to think that in his mind, he is doing his part to improve the welfare of people by conveying the Shin Buddhist teachings of transcending the self through his spoken and written word. But for someone like me who isn’t out there lecturing and publishing, I feel my concern for others can best be expressed by meeting a variety of people and learning from them – whether marching together at a protest rally or in the hospital being cared for. It’s not that I’m “saving” them but my encounter with each of them widens my awareness of all those who are spiritually liberated.

A great example of someone doing that kind of practice is Prof. Yasushi Kigoshi (see my article at He and the groups of Otani University students who travel monthly to the tsunami-stricken area of Japan know they cannot fix all the damage and put everything back to “normal” by themselves. Yet they feel the spiritual liberation of those people who appreciate that the visitors are listening to them and willing to share experiences with them. I’m willing to risk the criticism for messing with Sino-Japanese grammar and proclaim that the phrase “saving all sentient beings” should be worded as, “I see more and more that I am being helped by others and some day I’ll realize all beings, sentient or not, are bringing about my spiritual liberation.” It is similar to Dogen’s phrase about forgetting your self (Namu) when all things (Amida) move to attain you (Butsu).

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