Shinran Speaks: The Most Difficult of All Difficulties

On July 2, I posted a passage from Master Yuan-chao - quoted by Master Shinran in his Kyo-Gyo-Shin-Sho - stating that the Dharma of Amida Buddha’s person and work was the most difficult thing in the world to accept by faith.

Here is Master Shinran - in his own words this time - speaking the same thing in his HYMNS OF THE PURE LAND:

It is difficult to encounter a time when a Tathagata appears in the world,
And difficult to hear the teachings of the Buddha.
It is rare to hear the excellent dharma for bodhisattvas,
Even in a span of countless ages.

It is difficult to meet true teachers,
And difficult to instruct.
It is difficult to hear the teaching well,
And more difficult to accept it.

More difficult even than trust in the teachings of Shakyamuni’s lifetime
Is the true entrusting of the universal Vow.
The Sutra teaches that it is “the most difficult of all difficulties”,
That “nothing surpasses this difficulty”.

It really IS difficult to hear this teaching well, just as Master Shinran asserts. Our delusions and obscurations - our ant’s eye view of the universe - conspire to cloud our minds so we simply cannot hear.

Because our minds are clouded, we simply cannot perceive the universe as a Buddha does. We simply cannot see - much less visit - the vast landscape of Buddha lands, each ruled over by it’s own Buddha, as Shakyamuni Buddha describes to us. We cannot see the various realms into which beings take birth, as they reap the karmic rewards or punishments of their deeds in prior lives. We cannot see the vast panorama of birth and death, the vast orchestration of arising and co-arising. We cannot even see our own past lives, and the depth of the karmic relations we have had in the past with those who are part of our world in this life.

We simply cannot see transcendental realities in the way that any Buddha always does. We are truly like the men living in darkness in Plato’s cave - who think that reality is the shadows cast up upon the wall in front of them - and cannot even conceive of the world above, filled with light and life.

And it does us no real good to have a “theoretical physics” of Buddhism to draw upon. Even though we can talk about Buddhist ideas such as EMPTINESS, and have brief glimpses of expanded consciousness when the thickness of conventional reality begins to thin out, we cannot live with such knowledge from moment to moment. As Shinran said, unequivocally, we’re simply not built that way - we’re not capable of it in this day and age.

To give an analogy by way of illustration: suppose someone studies theoretical physics, and learns all the details of how there really is no such thing as solid matter - that even the chair he sits on is empty space with the tiniest particles that are only located as probabilities in a certain place at a certain time. And then, going to work one day he gets in a terrible car crash and is horribly injured. What good would it do for the medical workers who arrive on the scene to remind him of all this emptiness? WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH HIS LIFE?

The answer is…NOTHING.

And the truth is - all these wonderful doctrines taught by Shakyamuni Buddha over the course of his lifetime have nothing to do with our lives either…not when we encounter our own version of a terrible car crash - not when our own brains are leaking out of our heads, and our life’s blood is pooling at our feet.

During such terrible times, all our Buddhist teaching and training becomes USELESS. And that is just as true for Buddhist teachers as it is for their students, and for everyone else as well.

It is only DELUSION and OBSCURATION that prevents sincere Buddhists from all the various schools from seeing this truth, even though examples of it abound.

There is a Zen story about the Zen Master whose son had died, and who was crying in his grief. His student came upon him in that state, and was astounded. “Master”, the student said, “Did you not tell us that we would be able to transcend our slavery to base human emotions by our study and practice of Zen?”

“But this was my son”, the Zen Master replied, through his tears.

My intent in sharing this story is NOT to criticize Zen, or any other branch of Buddhism. As our Dharma Masters have said, all of the self-powered forms of Buddhism will in fact work - will in fact bring beings to the point of non-retrogression…but only if they are practiced PERFECTLY in accordance with the instructions over a long period of time…not simply months or years, but decades and potentially LIFETIMES.

Apart from such perfect practice, a person is left vulnerable - just as vulnerable as you or I - to the ups and downs of life - to the threats and perils of living in a world of impermanence - to the endless knots of egoic attachment…including most of all our attachments to our own flesh and blood.

It is these attachments, Shakyamuni Buddha taught, that leave us always and ever VULNERABLE TO SUFFERING. Unless and until we can rid ourselves of these attachments, we remain vulnerable throughout our life - and throughout our many lives.

And who - among all Buddhists alive today - can rid him or herself of all these egoic attachments - not just temporarily in a good meditation session - but in a FULL and FINAL way - leaving them behind ONCE AND FOR ALL?

Master Shinran would say - and I would say as well - that there is not a single one.

But for so many people who have some sort of practice - some sort of Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or New Age religion - this is very, very hard to accept.

It is DIFFICULT (as Master Shinran says) to even HEAR this teaching -and even MORE difficult to accept it.

But as difficult as it is to hear and accept, it is the job of the Shin Buddhist Sangha to declare this teaching - to make it available and easy to understand - to speak it clear over and over again. Why? So that when an individual finally comes to a place of readiness, of ripeness, of karmic preparedness - he or she can actually hear the truth as it is.

So to anyone who is struggling, and happens to read these words: Your struggling will not make you a better Buddhist in any permanent way -much less a Buddha. There is really nothing you can do that will make you invulnerable to future attacks of fear, or anger, or sorrow. You really cannot tame your mind enough to prevent it from running wild on you once again in a day of darkness.

Some years back, there was a rock song that said “You might as well face it, you’re addicted to love”. Shinran would say, it might not be love that you’re addicted to - but you’re addicted to SOMETHING. Your own cravings and aversions are alive and well within you. If they are dormant right now, and you are enjoying a season of peace, they could get stirred up in an instant if your circumstances would change.

It is DIFFICULT to hear this teaching - and even MORE difficult to accept it.

But it is absolutely essential to both hear it, and accept it, in order to prepare the ground of the human heart for the pristine Dharma revealed by Shakyamuni Buddha, one day on Vulture Peak, when he answered Ananda’s question about his own transcendental glow with his narration of the Person and Work of Amida Buddha.

NamuAmidaButsu NamuAmidaBustu NamuAmidaButsu

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