I am such that I do not know right and wrong
and cannot distinguish false and true;
I lack even small love and small compassion,
and yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.
(CWS, p. 429)
The above passage is a poem that was written by Shinran Shonin at the age of 88. It is one of two poems that is appended to what is often called the Jinen Honi Sho (“Chapter on Naturalness and Dharma-ness”). Although I will not be writing about the Jinen Honi Sho, a work that talks about what it is that we are able to receive “naturally” because of the Other-Power of Namo Amida Butsu, it is important to mention because the poem that Shinran Shonin ends with is so contrary to what we often hope is the end result of our spiritual search. We hope to be told something like the Jinen Honi Sho, but instead Shinran Shonin goes to the trouble of adding the final two “contrary” poems. The challenge is for us to try to figure out why.
In exploring this question of “why,” I would also like to mention something that we sometimes forget to hear because we find it repeated so often. I would also like to say that there is no right or wrong answer, and that the answer is not limited to any single answer. We, I think, are meant to hear and explore over and over again. One way that I have come to understand the above poem is as something that also shares the feeling that I find when I read, “Wholly sincere, indeed, are the words of truth that one is grasped, never to be abandoned, the right dharma all-surpassing and wondrous!” (CWS, p. 4)
I am constantly amazed at the power these words continue to have in my life. One of the challenges that everyone has to face in pursuing a spiritual and religious path, especially one that has a long history, is trying to understand how these words that express the tradition apply to my life today. How do we, for example, find a way to relate to something that Shinran Shonin felt and wrote about over 750 years ago? There is almost nothing in his world that we can relate to. If we were transported back to the 13th century, we would be completely lost. We panic, for example, when there is a power outage. In the 13th century even the concept of electricity did not exist (that wouldn’t happen for another four centuries. The English word “electricity,” for example, didn’t appear in print until 1646). In other words, there was no power to have an outage of back then. The other difficulty is found in the fact that we are all different and have varied backgrounds. For example, how many people, even back in the 13th century, were able to experience life as a monk on Mount Hiei? How do we relate to something like this especially if this is the first time we have even heard of Mount Hiei? There are, however, many things that we probably do share in common. For example, it probably will not take too much time to have everyone agree that we all need or want to be recognized and affirmed. We want and need this so much that at times we will even lash out to get attention. I wonder if there is anyone who has not done this. At the age of 88, I hear in Shinran Shonin’s words, his letting us know that he, too, is the same.
We are all different. That is why I think Namo Amida Butsu has vowed to embrace or grasp us. We are all unique and special. These differences are also worth protecting. But, we also share many of the same weaknesses. I think this is why Namo Amida Butsu has vowed not to let us go or abandon us. It is why, I think, Shinran Shonin wrote his poem. I think he wrote this to remind us that even while we can celebrate our differences, we also do not need to fear the weaknesses we may share and those that we try to hide from ourselves and others.
Rev. John Iwohara