A Dharma Friend’s “Difficult Question”

My dharma friend Jason writes:


Your recent blog quotation of Shinran’s order to Yuien-bo to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth brings to mind a question I’ve often wondered about.

The Shin teaching of, “if the karmic cause so moves us, we will do anything,” points to a lack of free will on the part of foolish sentient beings. If this is the case, then love is impossible, right?

I suppose the question betrays my Christian background, but it’s a difficult thing to assimilate on a gut level. Thanks in advance for your response.

Namu Amida Butsu.

Leaving aside Buddhism for a moment, let’s talk Christianity, since that’s your background.

I’m guessing that you are quite aware that there is a 2000 year old theological debate in the Church about free-will vs determinism - about being selected by God before birth as part of the “elect” - or being among those despised by God. The Apostle Paul refers to this in his discussion in Romans 9 - ie “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”.

Last time I looked (smile) Christian theologians hadn’t REALLY answered this question themselves. People simply affirm their differing positions, and agree to disagree (a distinct improvement over what the Church USED to do in the wake of such disagreements - and the Sangha too.).

Speaking generally (not just about one religious tradition or another) my own take on the question is this: We’re dealing with MYSTERY, my friend. My dog can’t understand arithmetic, and I can’t understand how all these ideas play out in reality.

That’s what it means to be a non-buddha. That’s why Buddha Shakyamuni simply refused to answer questions about God (something I was just thinking about in the shower this morning). He knew that answer the question would only set the dogs to barking. Let’s become Buddhas FIRST - and then we can have a truly enlightened discussion.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of your question with this response - but it is really how I feel. There is so much - particularly in this realm of karma - that is entirely mysterious to us all. You yourself recently quoted Shakyamuni in the larger Sutra when he spoke of INCONCEIVABLE karma - just as Shinran so often spoke of INCONCEIVABLE shinjin.

As to your assertion that love is impossible - let me ask you this: In your life - your REAL life - is HATE impossible? Or is it possible for you to feel a rage so deep, and so persistent, that you HATE?

It’s a rhetorical question of course. We are - sadly - more than capable of hate - not just as a momentary flash of anger - but as bitter food that we chew deliberately until our jaws ache. Anyone who says otherwise is lying - or in denial.

And yet, there is something in the human mix of feeling and volition that is entirely beyond us. This is Shinran’s essential point to Yuien in Tannisho - Chapter 13. Even though we have volition - our volition is constrained and circumscribed by mysterious forces which remains entirely outside of our own awareness. That is our common lot.

That was NOT the situation for Gotama, as he self-cultivated for seven years - and finally pressed through to full awakening under the Great Tree. Further, it was NOT the situation for those who were his immediate disciples, in the first age of the dharma, where the effulgence of his energetic presence gave so many “lift off” into non-retrogressive Bodhisattva states - even in this saha world where such perfect practice is so very difficult to accomplish.

But in this, the third age of the dharma - the age of dharma decline - that energetic boost that enabled the self-practice of Buddha and his many followers who attained to non-retrogression is weakened. It is weakened to the point where it simply is not possible for you or me or any of us to self-cultivate to a non-retrogressive Bodhisattva state.

Because of that, attempting to ask and answer these questions - a pastime (and often an obsession) of those of us who have been over-educated - reminds me of how my daughter’s cute little pug is forever chasing her own tail.

Poor Puggy’s just not that bright - and neither are we.

So - coming down from the ivory tower, and brushing off a bit of the dog hair - let me talk about my little life - and perhaps yours as well.

  • Do I love? Sure. I love who I can, as best as I can. Sadly, I also can hate.
  • I try to deal honestly with the fear, anger and greed that to this day arise in my own mind.
  • I do the best I can. And even when I’m not doing “the best I can”, that’s the best I can do anyway.
  • I don’t bother with moralizing or rule keeping. It’s a waste of time and energy - and just a source of discouragement. For me, precepts and paramitas to me are no more or less useful as a guide than the Ten Commandments, or the Boy Scout oath I learned when I was a kid.
  • In fact, talking about being a kid: everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten - just like that little book of the same name said - and that’s not useful as a guide either.
  • Having said that, I don’t deliberately try to screw people.
  • When I mess up, I try to listen to the other person and apologize - if I can. But I don’t do that perfectly either.

That’s my little life. I’m guessing that’s more or less your litte life, too. From all the times that I’ve read and re-read Shinran, that was his little life as well. People can add in all the hagiography they want. Shinran was a straight talker, easily the most honest dharma teacher I’ve ever encountered.

Here’s the SHIN UGLY bottom line:

  • Whether I do good - or not so good - I entrust myself to Amida.
  • I understand deeply that every thought I think and every act I do is flavored by my delusions, obscurations and blind passions.
  • I understand deeply that my volitional organ is infected - just like my body is infected - and my mind is infected.
  • I know that life as a non-buddha is inherently unsatisfying - DUKKHA - by whatever name I call it.
  • I know that this problem persists as I and everyone else transmigrates from life to life.
  • And I know that the only cure for this persistent problem is Buddhahood.
  • Having come to this awareness, I don’t obsess over my evil nature or my blind passions. That’s just the way things are, until Amida Buddha brings me to the Pure Land.

In the midst of all this

  • the tedium and the boredom -
  • the unfulfilled dreams and the shattered hopes -
  • the disappointment and inarticulate yearning -
  • and yes the love and the giggles -
  • the joy of eros and the beauty of butterflies -
  • the scent of roses and baby’s breath -

I rejoice.

Truly THIS is samsara that we live in right here and right now. The shadowland of light and dark. Truly THIS is samsara that lives in us. Here, in Samsara, right here right now, my tears run deep - and so do the world’s.

My tears run deep - but my joy runs deeper.

  • Why? Because I am grasped - never to be abandoned.
  • Why? Because I will be taken to Amida Buddha’s Pure Land after this life is over.
  • Why? Because there I will have no obstructions and no distractions.
  • Why? Because there I will bathe continually in the endless river of light and life that flows from Amida Buddha.
  • Why? Because there all my darkness will scatter - all delusions will dissolve.
  • Why? Because there I will effortlessly hear and understand the dharma of liberation as it is spoken directly to me by countless Buddhas.
  • Why? Because there, as I listen, I will be able to complete perfect practice - and be liberated at last.
  • Why? Because there I too will become a Buddha - and join in the inconceivable work of TRULY liberating others.

It is there and then that I will finally get the answers to the questions you ask - and questions you cannot even think of asking because of your limitations, and mine. It is there and then that I will have the mind of a Buddha that is entirely unbound - and thus able to conceive of the inconceivable.

And it is there and then that you will, too.

NamuAmidaButsu. Rest easy, dharma friend.

Paul R

WordPress database error: [Table 'netpaul.wp_comments' doesn't exist]
SELECT * FROM wp_comments WHERE comment_post_ID = '137' AND comment_approved = '1' ORDER BY comment_date

Leave a Reply