9/11 or Nirvana?

It’s the fourth anniverary of the destruction of the Twin Towers - a place I used to work - a mile from where I grew up, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My mother was still living there - and she actually saw the second plane go in. A few short weeks ago, it was the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima. And as we watch, the destruction of New Orleans unfolds before our eyes.

All are examples of what we call “The First Noble Truth” taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the truth that life is, ultimately, not satisfactory - that it is marked by suffering.

And - make no mistake - it is suffering that we simply cannot make sense of - in human terms.

Buddha taught much about suffering - about the causes of suffering - and the cure for suffering. in his teaching about suffering, he spoke of the fact that we all transmigrate in some way from life to life - and that each life is ultimately unsatisfactory. The experience of life we each have - including it’s essential quality of suffering - Buddha attributed to the inexorable force of KARMA.

Several things must be said about KARMA.

  • First, KARMA is INPENETRABLE. It is an inpenetrable MYSTERY for a plain person - a bonbu - someone who cannot yet see with a Buddha’s eyes. It is impossible to listen to the names being read today, in the 9/11 memorial service, and say anything real or true about why they died and others lived. The same can be said about the 100,000+ who died from the Christmas Tsunami last year, or those who died in New Orleans.
  • Second, KARMA is INEXORABLE. The effects of KARMA transcend our ability to engineer our lives to suit our desires. Sickness and death, Buddha teaches, await us all.
  • Third, the effects of KARMA are ENDLESS, in this age of Dharma Decline. Dharma Master Shinran says, in the plainest terms, that no one is able to escape the terrible wheel of birth and death by virtue of their own efforts on any of the Buddhist paths, or the non-Buddhist paths either.

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.

Today, with the Shin Sangha in terrible decline in the English speaking world, where are the True Teachers of Shinran’s Teaching, who are willing to teach what Shinran taught, just the way he taught it?

Where are the True Teachers of Shinran’s True Teaching who are willing to say, in a way that is powerful and relavant, that there are only two choices for each of us: 9/11 or Nirvana?

  • 9/11 - meaning that truly “the ocean of birth-and-death, of painful existence, has no bound”.
  • Nirvana - meaning the end of drowning in this terrible ocean, in life after life after life.

Shakyamuni Buddha himself said this, to his disciple and cousin Ananda, that fateful day on Vulture Peak when he revealed the full truth about Amida Buddha and the Pure Land:

The reality of birth-and-death is such that the sorrow of parting is mutually felt by all generations. A father cries over the death of his children; children cry over the death of their father. Brothers, sisters, husbands and wives mourn each other’s death.

According to the basic law of impermanence, whether death will occur in order of seniority or in the reverse is unpredictable. All things must pass. Nothing stays forever. Few believe this, even if someone teaches and exhorts them. And so the stream of birth-and-death continues everlastingly.

Because they are stupid and callous, such people do not accept the teachings of the Buddha; they lack forethought, and only wish to satisfy their own desires. They are deluded by their passionate attachments, unaware of the Way, misguided and trapped by anger and enmity, and intent on gaining wealth and gratifying their carnal desires like wolves. And so, unable to follow the Way, they are again subject to suffering in evil realms in an endless cycle of birth-and-death. How miserable and pitiable this is!

In the same family, when one of the parents, children, brothers, sisters, husband or wife dies, those surviving mourn over the loss, and their attachment to the deceased persists. Deep sorrow fills their hearts and, grief-stricken, they mournfully think of the departed.

Days pass and years go by, but their distress goes on. Even if someone teaches them the Way, their minds are not awakened. Brooding over fond memories of the dead, they cannot rid themselves of attachment.

Being ignorant, inert, and illusion-bound, they are unable to think deeply, to keep their self-composure, to practice the Way with diligence, and to dissociate themselves from worldly matters. As they wander here and there, they come to their end and die before entering on the Way. Then what can be done for them?

Because they are spiritually defiled, deeply troubled and confused, people indulge their passions. Hence, many are ignorant of the Way, and few realize it. Everyone is restlessly busy, having nothing upon which to rely.

Whether moral or corrupt, of high or low rank, rich or poor, noble or base, all are preoccupied with their own work. They entertain venomous thoughts, creating a widespread and dismal atmosphere of malevolence. Subversive activities are planned, contrary to the universal law and the wishes of the people.

Injustice and vice inevitably follow and are allowed to run their course unchecked until evil karma accumulates to the limit.

Before they expect their lives to end, people meet sudden death and fall into evil realms, where they will suffer excruciating torments for many lives. They will not be able to escape for many thousands of kotis of kalpas. 

How indescribably painful! How pitiable that is!

Where are the dharma teachers in the Shin Buddhist temples who are willing to speak in such stark and startling language to the people who are lost in meaningless ritual behavior, who say NamuAmidaButsu without comprehending the plain meaning of Shakyamuni and Shinran that is the context behind the sounds?

The three great pillars of the True Pure Land Way - Dharma Masters Honen, Shinran and Rennyo - spent their lives making sure that regular people as well as those of great education could understand this dharma teaching - and so entrust themselves entirely to Amida Buddha.

Where are Dharma Teachers of that caliber today? They are few, and far between.

Rather than this plain talk for plain people about suffering, you hear gobbledygook - talk about “mutually sustaining life”, about “the mythos of amida”, and about the fact that most “modern” Shin Buddhists don’t concern themselves over questions about re-birth.

And thus, people come into a Shin temple, or join a Shin Study Group, online or offline, and don’t get to hear the True Teaching that can lead them to settled SHINJIN that is the gift of Amida Buddha to all who listen deeply and truly to the final dharma for this age of Dharma Decline. I’ve been to Shin temple, and seen it with my own eyes. And I’ve seen it online, too - over and over again.

Master Rennyo explained that it was very important to encounter a True Teacher in order to receive the Dharma Transmission of Shinjin. Listen to what he says:

Pertaining to the conditions existent towards the realization of rebirth, I (Rennyo) shall establish the Five Conditional Steps here:

  1. The culmination of related past conditions and circumstances leading one to the Dharma.
  2. A “Good Teacher of the Dharma.”
  3. The Light of Amida Buddha.
  4. Faith - ‘Shinjin’.
  5. Amida’s Name.

It appears to me that without the presence of all the conditions in these five steps, one will never obtain rebirth.

Therefore, a “Good Teacher of the Dharma’ is a bearer of the message, “Place your reliance on Amida Buddha!

If conditions materialize where there is a culmination of related past conditions and circumstances without the meeting of a “Good Teacher of the Dharma,” rebirth will not be realized.

I am so sad to say that I have seen this happen, over and over, in the Shin Sangha. People are led to find Shinran, as I was after 30 years of seeking in this lifetime - but then are diverted by false teaching about Amida Buddha rather than being given Shinran’s True Teaching. As a result, they remain filled with doubt and confusion, and never come to settled SHINJIN - True Entrusting.

To address this terrible problem in the Shin Sangha - and to be a part of the SOLUTION to this problem - is one of the primary reasons for the SHIN UGLY blog. The other primary reason is to provide someone who is first encountering Shinran’s teaching with a clear and firm foundation into what he does and does not say. And both of those have one and only one goal - to serve as a resource so that people can LISTEN DEEPLY - and thereby become people of the same SHINJIN as Shinran himself.

To anyone looking for a True Teacher of Shinran’s True Teaching, there are very few people who I can recommend without reservation. A pre-eminent teacher, one who teaches Shinran’s message with clarity and precision, is a Japanese professor of Shin Buddhist studies named Eiken Kobai. You can get his two translated books as downloadable PDF files, right from this site HERE. And right now I am working on a project that will put his material on a website that will be even more user friendly for reading.

Another source of clear and unambiguous Shin Buddhist teaching that is in accord with Shinran’s True Teaching is Reverend George Gatenby. His site, Notes on the Nembutsu, consists of commentaries on Shiran’s Hymns (Wasan). He too is a True Teacher who makes no compromises with modernist thought in his explanation of Shinran’s teaching, and how it fits into the larger context of the Buddha-dharma.

You will never hear either of these men talk about Amida Buddha as “fictive” or “mythic”. I know, because I asked them both directly.

Why is this all so very important? Not because I want to be contentious - but because I want to make sure that you who are reading understand: there really IS a profound difference between the True Teaching of Shinran - and false teaching that is being offered in his name.

If you listen deeply to the True Teaching, and are willing to listen with Ananda’s ears, and Shinran’s, and Honen’s and Rennyo’s - Amida Buddha will illuminate you with the CERTAINTY that is the hallmark of what Shinran calls “diamondlike” or “adamantine” SHINJIN. You will be made to KNOW who this Buddha is…and what he has done to secure your release from the chains of birth and death - the very ocean in which you have been drowning over and over again for endless ages.

When you listen deeply, you will be brought to have that one thought moment of True Entrusting - a moment in which you will be sealed for rebirth in the Pure Land at the end of this life. At that time, you will complete your journey, and attain Buddhahood- enlightement- at last

Dharma Master Shinran wrote:

Bodhisattva Maitreya must pass 5,670,000,000 years
Before attaining Buddhahood,
But the person who realizes true shinjin
Will attain enlightenment with the end of this life.

When I write on the SHIN UGLY blog, as I often do, that “karmic destinies are at stake”, I am speaking literally - without hyperbole - about what Shakyamuni and Shinran have been saying to the Sangha and to the world.

Surely, we can’t force people to listen to the Dharma that leads to SHINJIN - and then the end of suffering at last. As Master Rennyo says, people listen because of a “culmination of related past conditions and circumstances leading one to the Dharma”.

But this is no excuse for passivity on the part of those who have been made custodians of the Dharma Gate of Jodo Shinshu. On the contrary, it calls every person of SHINJIN - of the same True Entrusting - to be ready, willing and able to pass along the most precious gift of Shinran’s True Teaching that someone passed along to them.

The True Teaching - not the True Teaching adulterated with human opinion - however refined and sublime. Not the True Teaching diluted until it’s nothing but metaphysical mush. Not the True Teaching deracinated by declaring that it isn’t really true - but only true as MYTHOS.

No one can take adulterated, diluted, deracinated dharma - and make it the foundation of a real life of True Entrusting with the hurricane hits, or the tsunami hits, or the plane hits the tower and the tower falls. That’s the reason Shinran’s true student Yuien wrote The Tannisho - Lamenting Divergences. It is, ironically, a document so widely read and yet so little heeded in the Shin Sangha today.

Yuien begins The Tannisho with this statement:

As I humbly reflect on the past [when the late master was alive] and the present in my foolish mind, I cannot but lament the divergences from the true shinjin that he conveyed by speaking to us directly, and I fear there are doubts and confusions in the way followers receive and transmit the teaching.

For how is entrance into the single gate of easy practice possible unless we happily come to rely on a true teacher whom conditions bring us to encounter? Let there be not the slightest distortion of the teaching of Other Power with words of an understanding based on personal views.

Here, then, I set down in small part the words spoken by the late Shinran Shonin that remain deep in my mind, solely to disperse the doubts of fellow practicers.

Ultimately, it comes down to two choices and two destinies, for each of us and all of us: 9/11 - or nirvana? Endless rounds of birth and death with endless suffering in each and every existence…or Buddhahood at last?

It’s non-trivial. In fact, it is the most non-trivial thing you will ever read or get to think about in this life that you have been given to live.

I don’t say this as scare tactics. We’re all scared already. I say this so you can find a way to stop being scared, once and for all - because you have come to the world of certainty - to the experience where you know you are embraced, never to be forsaken - to the recognition that Amida Buddha has done, can do, and will do it ALL.

We’re all scared already - either scared of losing our stuff, or our health, or our lives or the ones we love. It’s just human to be scared. It’s human - and it’s suffering - and it never goes away….

Until we wake up at last in the Pure Land - a place we can barely conceive of - where there isn’t any suffering - or even any WORD for suffering. And there we complete our journey, because of Amida Buddha’s primal vow. There we experience NIRVANA - the CESSATION of suffering at last - and the beginning of unobstructed life as Buddhas.

And then, as Buddhas, we can do the great work of great compassion - the work of Buddhas who bring others across the ocean of birth and death - not just in this world of 8 billion people and countless other sentient life forms - but in countless worlds waiting to be born into liberation at last.

9/11 - or Nirvana. That’s the deal. That’s the dharma. Accept no substitutes - and LISTEN DEEPLY.

NamuAmidaButsu. I take refuge - completely, utterly, entirely - in the Person and Work of Amida Buddha.

Paul R.

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