Shin Buddhism as been called the easy path to Buddhahood. And it IS easy.
It’s so easy, that Shinran and his teacher Honen were able to share this easy path simply and effectively with unlettered people who were the outcasts of their day. Their sharing of this path opened the door to Buddhahood for many of the most unlikely, and most confused.
These were people who had neither education, nor opportunity, to do any Buddhist practices whatsoever.
They were people who worked six and seven days a week, doing the kind of work that made other Buddhist teachers label them “icchantikas” – people incapable of Buddhahood.
These were people who were spiritually, educationally, emotionally and financially impoverished.
These were people who couldn’t parse a sentence – much less a complex philosophical argument.
These were people who were too rattle-brained and distracted to sit quietly for extended periods of meditation.
They were people with hungry and unruly families - people who could not dedicate themselves 24/7/365 to the life of a fully dedicated seeker of enlightenment – of Buddhahood – by any path.
These were people working jobs that were considered “taboo” for Buddhists –butchers and prostitutes - criminals and lowlifes - outcasts of one sort or another.
Some were people who you might describe as half-wits – the proverbial village idiot.
They were people with no social advantages whatsoever – and no hope, in traditional Buddhist terms – of making any significant progress on the path of awakening from the long dark night of troubled sleep in which they lived.
The young man Shinran, a burnt out Buddhist monk, who’d given up after 20 years of dedicated practice on his dream of making significant progress towards the goal of Buddhahood, watched and listened as his teacher Honen shared this most profound dharma (teaching) – Shakyamuni’s final teaching for an age of dharma decline – with people such as this.
And then – having found at last through Honen’s teaching this easy path to Buddhahood - he himself went and shared what he had come to know.
Countless of their hearers walked away full of gratitude, knowing that they were sealed.
- They were full of gratitude because they came to know that at the end of this life they would take birth in a land called the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
- They were full of gratitude because they came to know that in that Pure Land they would end at last their endless journey’s of suffering and ignorance.
- They were full of gratitude because they came to know that even though they were plain people, with no real chance of walking the Path of the Sages to Buddhahood, they were going to be CARRIED to Buddhahood – and become True Buddhas at last.
To understand what Honen taught Shinran what Shinran taught the world, we do need to blow of a bit of dust – the dust of centuries – of churchy extras - of scholarly misunderstandings - of mis-statements of their teaching – which was really not theirs but Shakyamuni’s.
Blowing off this dust, we can listen deeply as those plain people did – with no religious hoopla, no foreign cultural context, and no obscure philosophical dissertations. If we listen as they did, and hear what they heard, and respond as they responded to what they heard, we will walk away just as grateful, and just certain, as they did - about the end of suffering at last.
It’s a bit of a paradox, but if you come to this dialogue knowing nothing about Buddhism – in some sense like the proverbial village idiot of medieval Japan - you have a distinct advantage as we listen deeply.
Why? Because there’s not going to be any “yes, BUT” floating around in your head based on whatever Buddhist teaching you might have heard before - or any Buddhist practices you have undertaken - and become enamored of.
That’s why, even though this is the EASY path – it took me 30 years to find it - or rather, for it to find me.
Why did it take me so long? Because the hard part of the easy path is coming to the bone-shaking ephipany that nothing we can do will really help us – if we talking about the quest for the end of suffering at last. That rubs our common human egotism the wrong way entirely.
And I, for one, am a VERY slow learner of that particular lesson.
That’s why it’s important to realize that the more you reflexively depend on your own efforts to effect any kind of meaningful transformation towards awakening at last – the less Shinran’s teaching will make sense to you.
If you can drop the “yes, BUTs”, you’ll have more capacity to simply listen deeply to what he shared - and to have its power work its way deep into your life. It’s actually a simple teaching in three parts.
Here is part one:
ASPIRE TO BUDDHAHOOD
Shinran called himself, unequivocally, “a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha”. Said in plain language, for Shinran, the one we call the Buddha was, is and always will be “the Go-To Guy” in order to understand what’s what about the metaphysical nature of things, and our common problems of suffering, and the way(s) to solve that problem.
As a disciple of Shakyamuni he begins with Shakyamuni’s assertion that your fundamental nature is BUDDHA – enlightened consciousness itself – even though it lies hidden under endless layers of delusion and darkness,
He teaches even the unlettered what we all already know reflexively : that the root cause of all our suffering – suffering we cause ourselves, and suffering we cause one another – is our common blind passion – endless cravings and aversions – our unceasing egotism.
He shares Buddha’s assertions that our blind passion creates and sustains layers upon layers of delusion under which our Buddha nature is hidden – though we often enough get some kinds of glimpses of its presence at the very center of our being.
He declared Buddha’s teaching that we don’t simply suffer once, in this life. Rather – as a disciple of Shakyamuni he teaches that we go through endless rounds of rebirth – subject to the law of karma – acquiring merit or demerit by our thoughts and actions in one life – which ultimately determine our rebirth in the next.
He encourages his listeners – as all disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha – to awaken to our fundamental desire to end our suffering once and for all.
And so - as we do nothing more than LISTEN DEEPLY - to the teaching about Buddha – and about suffering – and about the END of suffering at last - our primal and natural aspiration to Buddhahood begins to awaken at last.
Only DEEP LISTENING is necessary, as Shinran shares his teaching - Shakyamuni’s final teaching - with us.
In talking to people about awakening such aspiration to Buddhahood, I often get a “the fox and the grapes” response – from Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Challenged (gently enough) to get in touch with their own hidden aspiration for Buddhahood – the end of suffering at last – I’ll hear a response like this from an “average” person:
“Oh, I’d just be happy if I could get through the business of my own life more easily. I’m not ready, willing or able to deal with such big picture things as this”.
Or…from someone already on the path, in some way or another, I often hear something like this:
“Oh, I’m just going to sit and do my meditation, or my chanting (or my service or my prayers or my yoga or whatever) in a selfless way, as best as I can. I don’t want to so grabby - so pushy - about MY goals for MY spiritual life”.
Those responses deserve deconstruction - a look under the covers at the subtext - often unconsicous - that is driving people to say such things. Such responses are - whether people know it or not – perfect illustrations of one of Aesop’s famous fables:
A fox is very thirsty one hot day. He sees a cluster of luscious grapes hanging from a vine above his head, glistening in the sun, bursting with juice.
Very much aware of his thirst, he jumps up, over and over again, to grab some grapes, and slake his thirst. But they remain out of reach.
Finally, he walks away, muttering, “They were probably sour anyway”.
Sometimes, if the person is willing to listen, I point out (in a kindly way) that they’re not really telling themselves the TRUTH. They’re like the fox in the fable. The TRUTH is that they YEARN for Buddhahood, but they just don’t think it’s possible.
When I press them, ultimately they admit that this is exactly what is going on in their hidden inner dialogue – they YEARN, but are secretly afraid that what they YEARN for will remain out of reach – and so they make themselves stop wanting what they cannot have.
Buddha encourages such yearning…and so do his true disciples, like Shinran.
And so do I encourage you: let go of such fox and grapes thinking, if indeed it is blocking you from experiencing your deep yearning right here, right now.
Yearn openly, yearn nakedly, yearn honestly - for what you really, really want – more than anything else in the world.
Yearn for what you see dimly in the mirror of the Buddha’s own life.
Yearn for a life of perfect freedom in pristine consciousness, full of wisdom and compassion, free of anger, greed, depression, ignorance
Yearn for a life free from ALL suffering – a life where you will not only end your suffering – but will be able to bring others to the end of suffering at last, too.
And so Shinran taught these unlettered people, these dregs of the earth – to aspire for Buddhahood – because Buddha IS indeed their fundamental nature, and mine and yours - covered up though it is by our endless cravings and aversions – our endless blind passion – our ignorance and confusion.
If you don’t aspire for Buddhahood, nothing in Buddhism makes sense. It just becomes another “therapeutic” modality – more spiritual Prozac – to make us feel a litte better (or even a lot) when we feel bad.
Of course you can use the Buddha’s teaching in that way. There are no laws in Buddhism against it. The bookstores are full of books that do. His teaching is so powerful that it forms the basis for many models of therapy, which reduce (but do not end) suffering for many people.
And you can also use a priceless statue to open up a can of beans - if you really want to. But that’s hardly what statues are for.
So Shinran begins - and we begin - with the primal desire for the END of suffering – and the aspiration for Buddhahood - – because this is where the one we call Buddha began as well.
As the young Prince Gotama, he was shielded from anything that was UGLY, SICK, DISEASED or DEAD - until one day he had a “negative epiphany”. He was jolted profoundly out of all complacency by seeing suffering up close and personal for the first time in his young and sheltered life.
For us, such a jolt out of mundane complacency might come out of a personal tragedy – or by being part of a stunned and shocked world community witnessing endless loops of the Twin Towers burning, with people leaping off the roof – or most recently by sharing in the world’s grief as the overwhelming tsunami hit the shores of southeast Asia.
However it happens – whether through a jarring JOLT of suffering that comes into our awareness – or an experience of numinous pure awareness full of bliss and beauty – what psychologist William James described as an oceanic experience - or just through a gradual dissatisfaction with mundane life as a non-Buddha – aspiration eventually awakens - for each and every being – in some life or another.
If you are listening deeply, for the first time in your life, such aspiration is awakening in you right now.
And if you have never listened deeply - and are secretly afraid to do so - I encourage you: drop your guard, drop your mask, drop your normal ego defenses, drop your cynicism.
In encourage you to join me, and countless others, in opening to what is already inside you: honest, deep and sincere aspiration - your own pure yearning to become a Buddha at last - after endless lifetimes of ignorance and darkness that we have all endured.
That’s part one of Shinran’s three part teaching about the Easy Path to Buddhahood - for village idiots - and the rest of us as well.
Here’s the link to the part two of Shinran’s three part teaching. It’s all about honestly acknowledging our inability to fulfill our deepest aspiration: