What Is The Purpose of the Dharma?

This post is a continuation of a dharma dialogue that began with this post of August 21. In that dialogue a dharma friend named Woody, a sincere seeker who is already a self-described Pure Land Buddhist, asked me a critical question:

What about the vinaya pitaka? What about the 5 and 8 precepts? Is there no call to morality and goodness? Is there no room for these things in true entrusting”?

In order to provide good ground for an answer that is in accord with Shinran’s teaching, I asked Woody (and everyone who might be reading this blog) to consider deeply with me this most fundamental question in return:


Let’s listen deeply together, and see where Amida Buddha is leading us to, each and every one.

What is the purpose of the Dharma (Buddha’s teaching)?

The purpose of the Dharma is to teach the Sangha how to become Buddhas.

There it is - the Triple Gem in a nutshell. I have to thank Professor Eiken Kobai for that precise and powerful statement. When I first read it in his books, it hit me like a dharma BRICK!

Of course! That’s WHO the Dharma is for! It’s for the SANGHA - all those who have taken refuge - or want to take refuge - in the Buddha Shakyamuni and ALL the Buddhas.

Of course! That’s WHAT the Dharma is for! It is the set of teachings that can lead us from our current state of being non-buddhas to the state of being Buddhas, at last.

That’s what I want to focus on here, Woody - in this current part of our dharma dialogue. I’m going to start with some ideas that are probably familiar to you - and see if we can listen to them more deeply than perhaps we have before. And then I am going to move into the Dharma of Shakyamuni and the Seven Pure Land Masters who Shinran calls upon - and Shinran himself - to listen even MORE deeply.

As it all unfolds I believe the sincere question you have will be answered. Whether or not you believe the answer, or agree with it, is not up to me. My job is not to convince you of ANYTHING. That’s Amida Buddha’s job. My job is only to give you a clear and cogent explanation that answers your honest questions just as honestly.

As I do my best to do that, please remember: my words, and my ideas, are WORTHLESS - and mean NOTHING; Shakyamuni’s and Shinran’s words and ideas are PRICELESS - and mean EVERYTHING.

I’d like to start with a fresh look at the basic foundation stones of the Dharma - which Shakyamuni came to fully grasp as he sat under the great tree of awakening from which he emerged as the true Buddha of this world.

Under that tree, he came to the inescapable conclusion that life as we know it is essentially unsatisfactory - DUKKHA. For sentient beings who are not FULLY awake, suffering is something we simply cannot escape. Shakyamuni’s first revelation of this fact came seven years earlier, when he was first exposed to an old person, a sick person and a dead person.

In that moment as a young Prince, he had what I call “the great negative epiphany”. His sense that “all’s right with the world” was forever shattered. His vision of human suffering and sorrow sent him upon his quest - a quest that ended under the Great Tree as he penetrated the mystery of suffering - the very heart of darkness - at last. Let’s listen once again to Shakyamuni Buddha:

What is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering: in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering.

There is this Noble Truth of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

This Noble Truth has been penetrated by fully understanding suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

[Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11]

Then Shakyamuni Buddha, piercing the veil as he sat under the Great Tree of Awakening, saw through to the origin of suffering - the very ROOT of all the pain and sorrow of non-Buddha life:

What is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering?

It is craving which renews being and is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and that: in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being. But whereon does this craving arise and flourish? Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it arises and flourishes.

There is this Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering:such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

This Noble Truth has been penetrated by abandoning the origin of suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

[Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11]

It is right here that most Buddhists have a shallow view of Shakyamuni Buddha’s words. Shakyamuni identifies the ROOT cause of our problem. We call it “attachment” or “desire” or “craving”. But we fail to see how DEEPLY the problem goes. Its roots in our lives are thick and dense, built up in layer after layer of karma from our transmigrations as non-buddhas from one suffering life to another.

Our attachments - the very causal factors of our suffering - are all those things we are emotionally attached to - either because we CRAVE them, or because we are AVERSE to them.

If, for example, you are a normal parent, you have an HUGE bundle of cravings and aversions concerning your children - no matter who you are, or where you live.

You CRAVE these things for your child:

  • Health
  • Happiness
  • Success

And you are equally AVERSE to these things for your child:

  • Sickness
  • Sadness
  • Failure

I have yet to meet a parent who is actively involved in raising his or her children who is not carrying the karmic burden of these cravings and aversions.

And of course, these are only a few of the COUNTLESS cravings and aversions that each and every one of us has.

Each and every one of us - including those who are given honorifics like “sensei”, “tulku”, “venerable”.

Having been around the block as a Buddhist for some time, I could tell you stories that are part of the public record, and stories from my own experience - that prove beyond a doubt that to actually extinguish fully one’s cravings and aversions is a task that in our day and age is well-nigh impossible to accomplish. And that goes for those who have taken vows in childhood (as Shinran did) and have lived a full monastic life ever since.

This INABILITY to break free of cravings and aversions by all the precepts, study, vows and practices one could imagine - in any and all of the various schools of Buddhism - is universal in our day. The HONEST teachers admit it. The others have it proven publicly, and often shamefully, as karmic circumstances ripen, exposing what Shinran calls our common BONNO - blind passions. In many Buddhist communities, just like in religious communities of non-Buddhist paths, that BONNO manifests in unquenchable lust for the usual suspects of sex, money and power.

I don’t say this to be harsh and judgmental, Woody - but only to be direct - even BLUNT - about the TRUE state of affairs we all find ourselves in. There’s truly no point in beating around the bush. In our day, even though we know the Four Noble Truths, we can’t PRESS THROUGH to the solution side of the mountain, represented by Truths #3 and #4 - even if we practice as if our hair is on fire, as at least one famous dharma teacher suggests we do.

Let’s listen again, deeply and honestly, to Shakyamuni Buddha’s declaration of the Third Noble Truth:

What is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering? It is the remainderless fading and cessation of that same craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. But whereon is this craving abandoned and made to cease? Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it is abandoned and made to cease.

There is this Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

This Noble Truth has been penetrated to by realizing the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

It is here that Buddhists of all the 84,000 Paths of the Sages begin to talk about the Dharma of Impermanence. Look deeply into the very essence of things (they all say) and see that everything that arises is subject to ceasing - all things as we know them are impermanent.

The idea is that if we truly penetrate this teaching, this dharma of impermanence, we will loosen our death grip of cravings and aversions that creates all the suffering we experience. Somebody actually wrote me a brief and dismissive note after reading the blog - and apparently knowing something about Shinran. “What about the Dharma of Impermanence?”, he said.

Here’s what I say in return:

  • Let’s get real, or let’s not play.
  • Let’s be honest enough to take stock of ourselves, and our efforts, individually and corporately as a global sangha.
  • Let’s talk OPENLY about just how good we are - even the BEST of us - at coping with the REALITY of impermanence in our own lives.

Some snapshots to consider as we continue to listen deeply to Shinran’s Dharma:

  • One Buddhist teacher of great renown becomes so overwhelmed during a tour of the death camps of Auschwitz that he is entirely unable to speak for hours after leaving. That’s how shaken he is by the vision he has seen.
  • Another Buddhist teacher, again a man of great renown, is so overwhelmed with angst after his best friend and fellow monk is assassinated by their political enemies that he refuses to come out of his room for months.
  • After 9/11, the Dharma Community in the New York area is so overwhelmed by the horror of what happened that they stumble in fear and anxiety - just like everyone else.

And this is from the BEST OF BREED Buddhists. Then there are the ones who are not best of breed:

  • A great Buddhist teacher publicly drinks himself to death. Meanwhile his anointed dharma heir has unprotected sex with a number of people, knowing he is infected with the HIV virus. Several of them die. Thousands more are disillusioned.
  • A Zen Soto priest publishes two impeccable works of scholarship, showing how the leaders of the Zen Sangha in pre-war Japan were instrumental in teaching the military how to commit atrocities in the samurai spirit of detachment - leading directly to the actions which define the Rape of Nanking.
  • Scores of Buddhist teachers - western and eastern both - misuse their dharma seats to get money, sex and power that would otherwise not be theirs. This has been, and continues to be, an ongoing situation in ALL the various branches of Buddhism - as well of all other religions.

I don’t say this to put myself - or ANY man - in a place of moral superiority to those who have fallen. And I certainly can’t claim to have as much equanimity in facing life’s difficulties as those great Buddhist teachers who, despite their best efforts, found themselves overwhelmed by a direct view into the pit of hell that life can become for any of us - at any time. And I am not singling out one branch of the Sangha, either. The effects of BONNO - blind passion - have been just as severe and debilitating in the Shin Buddhist sangha as anywhere else, over the course of its history.

Rather, Woody - I’m saying all this to blow away all the romantic notions that we like to hear and tell one another about the Triple Gem. That’s one of the reasons I love Shinran. It is what FIRST drew me to listen deeply to him. Here was a man who said, let’s get real, or let’s not play. Let’s stop kidding ourselves about the Teaching of the Buddha, and our ability to make our own efforts to utilize those teachings in order to find freedom from suffering.

A Shin Buddhist teacher named Zuiken Inagaki was deeply realistic about how the dharma of impermanence manifests to us who cannot shake off our pathetic cravings and aversions, no matter what we do, or how much we practice. For those of us caught in such BLIND PASSION, he declared truly that impermanence is a DEMON:

Don’t expect tomorrow! The deadly demon of Impermanence chooses any time to attack. The law of karma is to be feared. Karma never fails to bring its result.

Let’s get real, or let’s not play.

That’s what happened to my Dharma Master, Shinran - who became a buddhist burnout at age 29. Having entered the great monastery of Mt. Hiei at age 9, he spent 20 years in sincere and dedicated practice. At the end of that time, he was completely and entirely frustrated. He recognized that he had made no REAL progress in rooting out his endless cravings and aversions. He was still a person of blind passions. Though he was entirely serious, and understood the dharma intellectually - he could not actualize his intellectual understanding.

Because Shinran was a deeply honest man - he couldn’t kid himself about that fundamental fact. Self-power Buddhism, whether precept, or meditation, or chanting or study, simply didn’t work in his life. Being celibate, shunning the world, surrendering to his teachers’ direction - none of it really made a dent in his endlessly grasping monkey mind.

That’s when he decided to go see a man named Honen - forty years his senior - who had been in the same position as Shinran forty years earlier - and then found an entirely DIFFERENT path in the Buddhadharma - a path with no precept, no praxis - a path with nothing to do whatsoever, except listening deeply to the True Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Larger Pure Land Sutra, along with the Smaller Pure Land Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra.

When Shinran met Honen, Honen explained to him that the problems Shinran was encountering in his self-powered Buddhist life were not just his alone. They were, in fact, UNIVERSAL problems. They are problems that arise for even the BEST Buddhist because we are living in what is called the age of MAPPO - the Age of Dharma Decline. Therefore NONE could achieve liberation by any of the 84,000 Paths of the Sages. Honen taught this to Shinran, and Shinran taught it the world, because that was his karma. Let’s listen deeply together:

Truly we know that the teachings of the Path of Sages were intended for the period when the Buddha was in the world and for the right dharma-age.

They are altogether inappropriate for the times and beings of the semblance and last dharma-ages and the age when the dharma has become extinct.

Already their time has passed; they are no longer in accord with beings.

(KGSS 6:69)

This, Woody, is where Shinran - and his teacher Honen - so radically departed from the prevailing wisdom about what a Buddhist should and should not “do”. They pierced through the darkness of their own situation - and the situation of us ALL - and recognized that NOTHING was going to help them - or ANY of us - achieve the GOAL of ALL the 84,000 dharma teachings on the Path of the Sages.

Once again, what is the purpose of the Dharma (Buddha’s teaching)?

The purpose of the Dharma is to teach the Sangha how to become Buddhas.

All these teachings, all these precepts, all this praxis - can no longer DO that - because we live in the age of MAPPO - the Age of Dharma Decline.

One of the places where we can read about this most directly is in the Larger Sutra itself. There, Shakyamuni Buddha describes three types of people who aspire for Buddhahood:

The Buddha said to Ananda, “Devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely aspire to be born in that land can be classified into three grades. The higher grade of aspirants are those who leave their homes and abandon worldly desires to become monks. Having awakened aspiration for Enlightenment, they single-mindedly remember Amitayus and perform meritorious practices, aspiring to be born in his land. When they are about to die, Amitayus, together with a host of sages, will appear before them. Then they will follow him and attain birth in his land. At once they will be born by transformation spontaneously from within seven-jewelled lotus-flowers. They will dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression, attain steadfast wisdom and be capable of freely exercising supernatural powers. For this reason, Ananda, sentient beings who wish to see Amitayus while in this world should awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment, do meritorious deeds, and aspire to be born in his land.”

The Buddha said to Ananda, “The middle grade of aspirants are the devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely desire to be born in that land. Although unable to become monks and cultivate much merit, they awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment, single-mindedly think on Amitayus, perform some good deeds, observe the precepts of abstinence, build stupas, donate Buddhist statues, give alms to mendicants, hang banners, light candles, scatter flowers, burn incense, and so forth. They transfer the merit of those practices to his land, aspiring to be born there. When they are about to die, Amitayus will manifest his transformed body, which is fully possessed of the same radiance and physical characteristics and marks as those of the real Buddha, and make it appear before them, together with a host of sages. Then they will follow this transformed Buddha and be born in the Pure Land, where they will dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. Their virtue and wisdom will be next to those of the higher grade of aspirants.”

The Buddha said to Ananda, “The lower grade of aspirants are the devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely desire to be born in that land. Although unable to do many meritorious deeds, they awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment and single-mindedly concentrate on Amitayus even ten times, desiring birth in his land. When they hear the profound Dharma, they joyfully accept it and do not entertain any doubt; and so, remembering the Buddha even once, they sincerely aspire to be born in that land. When they are about to die, they will see the Buddha in a dream. Those aspirants, too, will be born in the Pure Land. Their merit and wisdom will be next to those of the middle grade of aspirants.”

Shinran’s great insight - one that he makes over and over again - throughout his formal apologia in the KyoGyoShinShu, his letters, and his hymns, is this:

  • In this age of MAPPO we’re ALL people of the lower grade of aspirants.
  • We’re ALL plain people, unable to complete the perfect praxis which is the core requirement for each and all of the 84,000 Paths of The Sages.
  • Therefore, our ONLY hope for Buddhahood is to take instead The Path of the Foolish, because that is who we are.

Here is a brief selection of Shinran’s hymns (WASAN) which were written for simple people, rather than for those who were scholars, so they could learn this simple dharma of the Path of the Foolish. Once again, I invite you to LISTEN DEEPLY to Shinran’s Dharma given through these brief and simple verses:

The ocean of birth-and-death, of painful existence, has no bound;
Only by the ship of Amida’s universal Vow
Can we, who have long been drowning,
Unfailingly be brought across it.

Through the benefit of the unhindered light,
We realize shinjin of vast, majestic virtues,
And the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts,
Immediately becoming water of enlightenment.

Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues

Without entrusting themselves to the Tathagata’s compassionate Vow,
No sentient beings of these times - the last dharma-age, and
The fifth five-hundred year period since Sakyamuni’s passing -
Will have a chance of parting from birth-and-death.

When sentient beings of this evil world of the five defilements
Entrust themselves to the selected Primal Vow,
Virtues indescribable, inexplicable, and inconceivable
Fill those practicers.

Through the words of the witness and protection
Of the countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters,
We should realize that the mind of self-power aspiring for supreme enlightenment
Is incapable of reaching fulfillment.

It’s important for me to say, Woody, that Shinran and his teacher Honen were not half-baked in their understanding of the dharma. Honen had read through the entire body of Sutras five times! And Shinran was also a great scholar throughout his long life. These men KNEW the Dharma in a way you and I never will.

Shinran advised his students to read several key works in order to better understand his Teaching. One he referred to a LOT was a tract by Seikaku (another student of Honen’s) called Essentials of Faith Alone. Shinran thought this such pure and excellent Dharma Teaching that he actually wrote extensive notes on it to be circulated to his students. Both the tract, and Shinran’s notes are available as part of Shinran’s Complete Works online.

Here’s an excerpt. I invite you, Woody (and all) to listen deeply with me to this great Dharma teacher Seikaku, who Shinran himself so deeply appreciated:

From Essentials of Faith Alone:

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna states in his Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages:

In practicing the Buddha-way there is a path of difficult practice and a path of easy practice. The path of difficult practice is like going overland on foot; the easy path is like receiving a favorable wind upon the sea-lanes. The difficult path consists in seeking to attain the stage of nonretrogression within the world of the five defilements; the easy path consists of being born in the Pure Land by virtue of simply entrusting oneself to the Buddha.

The difficult path is the gate of the Path of Sages; the easy path is the gate of the Pure Land. Thinking to myself, it seems that those who enter the Pure Land gate and yet endeavor in various practices for birth are like those who ride on a boat on the sea-lanes, but not receiving favorable wind, push oars and expend their strength, going against the tides and forcing through the waves.

In this gate of birth through the nembutsu, moreover, two practices are distinguished: single practice and sundry practice. Single practice is to perform simply the one practice of the nembutsu, awakening the aspiration for the land of bliss and the faith of entrusting to the Primal Vow, never mixing any other practices whatsoever with it. To say the Name of Amida only and think wholeheartedly on this one Buddha, never upholding other formulas or thinking on other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, is called single practice.

Sundry practice, while taking the nembutsu as primary, places other practices alongside it and includes other forms of good acts.

Of these two, single practice is to be considered superior. The reason is as follows.

If one already aspires wholeheartedly for the land of bliss, why include other things besides contemplating on the master of that land? Life is like a flash of lightning, or a dewdrop at daybreak, and the body like the plantain tree or a bubble - yet one seeks in a mere lifetime of religious practice to depart immediately from one’s long abode in the five courses. How can one leisurely combine diverse practices?

For securing spiritual bonds with the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, one must await the morn when one can make offerings to the Buddhas as one wishes; for the essential principles of the Mahayana and Hinayana scriptures, on must await the eve when all the teachings will be illuminated.

Aside from aspiring for the one land and thinking on the one Buddha, there is no other necessity.

  • People who enter the gate of the nembutsu but combine it with other practices are attached to their former practices and have difficulty abandoning them.
  • Those who hold to the One Vehicle or practice the Three Mystic Acts do not change their aspiration to attain birth in the Pure Land by directing the merits of such practices, wondering what can be wrong with pursuing them together with the nembutsu.
  • Without endeavoring in the nembutsu of easy practice that accords with the Primal Vow, meaningless is it to follow various practices rejected by the Primal Vow.

Thus Master Shan-tao declared: “Among those who abandon the single practice and incline toward the sundry, not one in a thousand can be born; among those of single practice, a hundred in a hundred, a thousand in a thousand, can be born.”

It is said:

The land of bliss is the realm of nirvana, the uncreated;
I fear it is hard to be born there by doing sundry good acts according to our diverse conditions.
Hence, the Tathagata selected the essential dharma,
Instructing beings to say Amida’s Name with singleness, again singleness.

That which is rejected as “various good acts done according to one’s conditions” is the attachment to one’s own former practice. In serving as a retainer, for example, one should serve one’s lord, depend on him, and wholeheartedly be loyal to him. However, suppose a person, while evidently serving his lord, in addition harbors designs concerning an unfamiliar, distant person and, arranging to have him meet his lord, seeks to be well spoken of by him. Compared with serving directly, which is superior and which inferior is clearly known. Being of two minds and being of one mind are as vastly different as heaven and earth.

And so, dharma friend Woody - that is the answer that Shinran gives concerning your question:

What about the vinaya pitaka? What about the 5 and 8 precepts? Is there no call to morality and goodness? Is there no room for these things in true entrusting”?

But that is not the end, of course. We’re merely clearing the brush laid before us by the 84,000 Paths of the Sages in our listening so far. Instead of “these things” you have been taught to depend on, we have been given something INCONCEIVABLY greater - Amida Buddha’s gift of INCONCEIVABLE SHINJIN - his own true entrusting. Without that gift, we would remain entirely naked, with no hope of birth ourselves. That is why SHINJIN is the very centerpiece of Master Shinran’s dharma. That is what makes him the singular Dharma Teacher for this age of Dharma Decline.

And that is what I will consider in my next post to you. That discussion is truly necessary in order to provide Shinran’s TRUE answer to your honest dharma questions. I invite you to join me, and Professor Eiken Kobai, and Reverend George Gatenby, and countless others as we sit at Shinran’s feet and continue listening deeply to what this Dharma Master has to say.


Paul R.

WordPress database error: [Table 'netpaul.wp_comments' doesn't exist]
SELECT * FROM wp_comments WHERE comment_post_ID = '143' AND comment_approved = '1' ORDER BY comment_date

Leave a Reply