Honen’s Despair

Modern people make the same mistake that people made in Shinran Shonin’s day, when it comes to the Dharma concerning Amida Buddha’s Vow to save all beings.

They approach it from an intellectual point of view first - which simply does not work. Period.

No - in order to gain the inconceivable benefit of SHINJIN - the faith-mind of Amida Buddha which is freely given to any and all who listen deeply to this dharma, and entrust their karmic destiny ENTIRELY to Amida Buddha - we cannot simply listen with the HEAD.

We must listen with the HEART.

The karmic preparation of the human heart for the dharma is twofold - and simple to explain. First, a deep and abiding desire arises for authentic enlightenment - the end of suffering - the end of delusion and obscuration - the end of the three poisons of greed, anger and fear - the deepest yearning of the human heart…the yearning for BUDDHAHOOD.

If that desire - that aspiration to Buddhahood - is still dormant, you can have all the understanding of all the scholars who ever studied the sutras - and it will mean NOTHING.

But there is one other part of this karmic preparation: you become acutely aware of just how immense the journey to Buddhahood really is - and how ill-equipped you are to complete it. You become sensitive to the depth of darkness in every human heart - the persistence of what is sometimes called “our reptilian brain” - our common capacity to regress to a state of atavism, individually and collectively. You live with the pain and anguish the comes from knowing that the veneer of civilization - in your life and in all our lives - is thin and fragile indeed.

This two-fold karmic preparation sets up a tremendous sense of tension in some people…bringing sincere seekers to a state of profound existential despair.

This despair - however it is expressed - is at the root of what people experience as they begin to awaken to the unsurpassed dharma teaching of Amida Buddha’s Person and Work as presented in the Larger Pure Land Sutra - and expounded most completely in the Dharma teaching of Shinran Shonin.

While it was Shinran’s karmic destiny to become the greatest expositor of this Dharma, unfolding it’s implications for all of humanity in the very pinnacle of Pure Land teaching as first described by ancient Pure Land masters, beginning with Nagarjuna…he grew up in a great Buddhist monastery entirely ignorant of this teaching.

At age 29, he had his personal existential moment of despair - yearning for Buddhahood, and convinced beyond doubt that he was entirely unsuited for the journey. And then, he was directed in a dream, to seek out the man who would become his own teacher - the Dharma Master Honen.

Some forty years prior to that, Master Honen had his own moment of great despair. Here is his description of that moment - along with the account of how Amida Buddha himself led Honen through that moment to the same blessed state of SHINJIN as his student Shinran talks about over and over again - a state of simply entrusting his karmic destiny to Amida Buddha, knowing that he too was grasped, and would never be abandoned - and gain Buddhahood in the Pure Land in the life to come.

I invite you to listen deeply to Master Honen as he talks about his own karmic preparation: his yearning for Buddhahood, and the depth of his own despair at his inability to eliminate his blind passions - and then, finally, the moment that changed his life:

The Buddhist doctrine has many facets; however, its basis ultimately lies in the Three-fold Discipline; that is, precepts, meditation, and wisdom. The Three-fold Discipline are embodied in Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and in the tenets of exoteric and esoteric Buddhist teachings.

Upon introspection, I realize that I have not observed a single precept, neither have I succeeded in the practice of meditation.

Concerning wisdom, I have not possessed the ‘right’ wisdom to eliminate evil passions and to realize the truth.

A precept master once said, ‘One will not enter samadhi (the ultimate state of meditation) unless one becomes pure of body and mind through the observation of precepts.’

Further, the mind of the common man is easily distracted by conditions around it. It is like the monkey that flits from branch to branch, confused, vacillating, and unable to concentrate.

In what way does undefiled wisdom emerge? Without the sword of undefiled wisdom, how will we extricate ourselves from the fetters of unwholesome karma and evil passions?

Unable to sever ourselves from these fetters, how will we deliver ourselves from the bondage of transmigration through birth-and-death in the delusive worlds in order to realize emancipation?

This is indeed lamentable and disheartening.

I do not have the potential here to observe the Three-fold Discipline; namely, precepts, meditation, and wisdom.

Although I have asked various wise and learned men if teaching and practices exist which are more attuned to myself than the Three-fold Discipline, no one was able to teach or guide me.

That was Honen’s despair. Now listen deeply as he describes how Amida Buddha brought him out of that moment - to the blessed state of SHINJIN - the state of TRUE ENTRUSTING that is the gift of Amida Buddha’s own faith-mind:

In despair I (Honen) entered the repository of Buddhist scriptures and in grief I gazed upon the holy texts, taking a volume into my hands. It was the Commentary on the Meditation Sutra, authored by Master Zendo. In this volume I found the following passage: ‘…to recite single-heartedly and intently the name of Amida Buddha while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, without regard for length of time; to engage in the recitation of Nembutsu without cessation for one’s entire life… this is called the Rightly Established Act because it is in accordance with the Original Vow of the Buddha.’

On reading this passage I was convinced that ignorant people like myself should earnestly revere this passage, rely exclusively upon this teaching, and continually recite the name of Amida Buddha for one’s entire life in order to meet the causal karma for certain attainment of Birth.

Not only was I led to believe in this teaching bequeathed by Master Zendo; I was also led to follow earnestly the Original Vow of Amida Buddha. And that passage, ‘….because it is in accordance with the Original Vow…’ was etched deeply into my heart.

Scholars often make much of the differences between Honen and Shinran…but both men declared plainly and boldly that they were teaching the exact same thing. What they taught- and teach to this day through their writings - is the so-called “Easy Path To Buddhahood” for plain people who simply do not have the capacity for self-powered transformation by the threefold disciplines commonly associated with Buddhism: precepts, meditation, and wisdom.

The Dharma Path of depending ENTIRELY upon Amida Buddha’s so-called Other Power is for those who have come to see - like Honen - that they have NO CAPACITY for any Buddhist pathwork whatsoever.

  • No desire, nor ability, to commit to a lifetime of keeping PRECEPTS.
  • No energy to commit to a lifetime of concentration of mind concentration in MEDITATION.
  • No ability to transform reams of Buddhist knowledge into an integral part the mind so that it could rightly be called true WISDOM.

That is why the “easy path” is so difficult for human beings to grasp. Most people simply don’t awaken, in any given lifetime, to their fundamental yearning for Buddhahood. And for those who do, most of them never get to the point where they realize how impossible it is to fulfill their yearning in this life - or in a hundred more lives just like it.

And for those who do have SOME measure of dedication to the threefold discipline of Buddhism - and are committed to taking the path from one life to the next - most have no clue how precarious the journey is - and how easily even an advanced Buddhist can wreck his own little dharma raft - as we have seen many teachers do since Buddhism has come to the West.

The good news in the Dharma is that all of us - the best of us and the rest of us - get an unlimited number of “do-overs”. Buddhism is a religion in which EVERYONE ultimately triumphs over darkness and death - EVERYONE ultimately becomes a Buddha. During his lifetime on earth, Shakyamuni Buddha himself showed over and over again that underneath the worst monster’s twisted thoughts and feelings and actions lay the incorruptible seed of True Buddhahood.

It’s just that for someone like that - and for someone like you and me also - there could be another million lives of suffering before that incorruptible seed became a tree of true enlightenment in that sentient being’s life.

A million lives…a billion lives…a trillion lives.

Who knows how many lives…with how much suffering in each…awaits any of us who depend upon our own power to deal with the threefold discipline of precepts, meditation and wisdom?

It is a long, arduous journey through the unknown.

There is no need to take that terrible trip, dharma friend. If you are reading these words - and are not entirely certain that the end of this life is the end of suffering for you at last - then I urge you to ask Amida Buddha personally and directly to guide your mind into his very own EASY PATH for plain people like us.

There is only one thing you need to do: listen deeply to the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow. Listen deeply, with open mind, open heart and empty hands. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, a good person or a bad person, someone from the East or someone from the West.

Just listen deeply, and the light and life of Amida Buddha - which extends completely throughout the entire universe - will enlighten you as well.

That is the PROMISE of the Primal Vow Amida Buddha made countless ages ago even before he became a Buddha - as he contemplated the challenges all of us face.

May you come to share in the same experience of Honen, of Shinran, and countless others who yearn for Buddhahood, but cannot accomplish that which they yearn for…and then find in the OTHER POWER of Amida Buddha the way to Buddhahood at last.

Inconceivable SHINJIN - the faith-mind of Amida Buddha himself given in THIS life - and then Buddhahood in the next life as we complete our journey in the Pure Land where we can at last embrace the threefold discipline without distraction from within or without.

Those who have come to know this - even for one thought-moment - experience the great gratitude that comes out of our minds and hearts and mouths as NamuAmidaButsu - thank you Amida Buddha - for making a way for me who had no way of his own.


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