It is interesting how wandering through a bookstore on an unremarkable Wednesday can change your life forever. During one of those Wednesdays, while I was randomly walking the aisles of Ken Sander’s bookstore looking for something to read, I serendipitously found what I didn’t know I was looking for.

I was mainly interested in books on Poetry, Sufism, and Zen. First, I started with the poetry section, then moved to the myth and religion section, and then ran my finger along with the titles on the Eastern Religions shelf. One day I pulled off a book titled River of Fire, River of Water. I liked the title and cover, so I thumbed through a few pages. It turned out that the book was about Shin Buddhism, and I had no idea what that was or what Pure Land Buddhism was.

As Rev Koyo Kubose says about coming to the dharma, it’s all about person, place, and time. When I finally took the book to the counter and bought it from Ken, it was time. I took the book home and read it in two days. And everything changed after that. I still am not sure of what it was about the book that shifted my life, so, there is no one thing, and there was much in the book that I had resistance to, and other things that I didn’t believe and still don’t, but regardless- my life’s trajectory changed.
I think that what it was in the story of Shin and Pure Land Buddhism was the boundless compassion that I had been looking for on my whole spiritual journey. Compassion, not judgment, compassion, not shame. Compassion is not a reward; it is compassion, just as I am right now.

I was so moved by the book that I tried to create an independent Shin Buddhist Sangha when the fellowship first started. I realized that even though I resonated with what was taught in the book, I wasn’t a Shin Buddhist and that I felt I was trying to force a round peg into a square hole and corral those that attended into a sort of Shin Buddhist context.

For me, the tradition was hampered by a language problem.

I realized that what we were connecting to was not the tradition of Shin Buddhism but the teaching that Shinran and other Pure Land Buddhists had wrestled with for over a thousand years. It was not the school of Shin, the tradition of Shin, but some of the teachings born of it, that resonated with us in the early days.

I realize that what we were doing together as a fellowship was finding a new language for an ancient tradition. We were no longer a Shin Sangha but a Shin and Pure Land-inspired Sangha – every Sunday, we were in respectful dialog with the teachings that came from a different place and time and making them our own.

We infused our teachings with the teachings of great Zen masters, teachers from the forest tradition, shared stories and poems from the Sufi tradition and shared mindfulness techniques from the secular and psychological sides of contemporary Buddhism. We have created a space where we seek a language of the “every day” – of everyday Buddhism – this draws us together. Our community is inclusive of whatever kind of Buddhist that you identify. From secular to atheist, to tradition to devotional, all are welcome – that was another thing that I appreciated about Shin Buddhism was that the butcher, the prostitute, could practice with someone from the samurai class. In our way, we have tried to create this same space. These are the different ways we approach the dharma together in this dialog.

So that was probably the most extended intro I have ever written for a dharma talk, but I want you all to know the context of my talk today

Today I want to continue that dialog with the idea that is very central in the Shin Tradition called bonbu – and how we can apply/translate the heart of this teaching in our everyday lives. From the very beginning, I had a contradictory relationship with this concept. I loved and struggled, espcially with the teaching that we are all bonbu or, as the Shin Tradition translated, “Foolish beings”.

In Shin Buddhism, one of the core ideas is that we are all bonbu, “foolish beings”, totally deluded and so filled with ego and selfishness that awakening is nearly impossible. Wanting to do good but so often choosing the opposite – almost all of us are incapable of doing any real good. Even Shinran Shonin, the unintentional founder of Jodo Shin Buddhism, declared that

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.

Shinran Shonin

This was very different. The founder of a Buddhist tradition said this?
This was different from what I was used to —a bunch of gurus running around with 17 levels of awakening. There was something authentic about this guy – he was like the maple leaf showing front and back. He was encouraging us to see the actual state of things. It was like this Shinran guy was a foolish being, and he was permitting us to admit that we too, are perpetually foolish.

I loved the authenticity, but who you callin fool – fool!

I had issues with the word “fool,” But what is a fool? What is a fool anyway? No one wants to be called a fool, and I know from growing up in a male world that one of the most emasculating things is to be made a fool. What is a fool? His lack of judgment victimizes a fool, and they tend to be unwise. More importantly, a fool tends to be someone who thinks they are wise when they are not, who thinks they know when they know little – the foolish person is unaware of his foolishness.
Ummmm – I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sums up my journey.

Now it is essential to understand that the “foolish being” is a Shin Buddhist translation – The word bonbu also refers to an ordinary person, an average run of the mill just trying to make it through Thursday kind of guy or gal. Regardless of title, position, or experience, all of us, irrespective of what we think we are, in reality, are nothing more than ordinary. For a few of you, those might be considered fighting words. Who are you calling ordinary? In an old-school Buddhist context, it simply means one who is not enlightened or not advancing on the spiritual path. In other words, we are just like everyone else – Ordinary.

So here is the critical “dialog” part – regardless of what it meant to those living 800 years ago in Shinran’s Japan. I want to be precise – this teaching is less about my capacity or incapacity for good, of being evil or not evil; that is the language of another time. And yet, for us in the here and now, there is an important teaching, a transformative teaching in this concept of the bonbu. I appreciated this concept when I started this journey, but I did not identify with it. I wanted to identify with my Buddhanature – my goodness and my capacity for spiritual practice, which can be skillful and also precarious.

Our egos are smart; they are constantly in survival mode – when your substance is empty, you must be. Our egos can easily hijack our spiritual practice for its gains and survival – something that in the Tibetan tradition has been called spiritual materialism.

It is curious that over the years of my practice, as the years have gone by and especially the 18 months of the pandemic have come more to identify with the bonbu side. My practice is nothing special; I am not sitting here because my spiritual practice is extraordinary but in the very fact that it is ordinary. It is in the fact that we all struggle and fail and struggle and fail – the key to all of it is showing up. It’s like we said last Sunday, two times down, three times up. The key to spiritual practice is not to become, as my three-year-old would say, “good” but to keep going, even in our ordinariness. For me, this teaching is a great starting point for my practice because, at its heart, it reveals and helps me to recognize all my endless striving to be good, to be perfect, to be extraordinary, is at its core nothing more than to be loved by others and even by gods. All this dancing and performing, all this look at me and how special I am, is at its heart a theater of fear, the fear that we and others will see our ordinariness”

One of our ego’s biggest jobs is to hide and deny its ordinariness – it’s foolishness; it is what Shinran called jiriki or “Self Power” you could even call it ego power. I appreciate this from Taitetsu Unno’s son Mark Unno,

“Always seeking to present oneself as “good” is to be caught in the workings of the ego-self, or what Shinran calls “self-power,” preventing one from opening up to the spontaneous unfolding of buddha-nature

At the heart of this teaching is that Buddhism is less about being good and more about being humble- A Buddhist is not a good person but a humble and grateful learning person.

In Japan, there is a proverb. The riper a rice cluster becomes, the lower it bows down its head. The teaching that we are all foolish beings is simply a starting point that disarms the ego’s need to be remarkable. It teaches us that it is not even in our capacity to be ‘special’ – if we can let go of our need to be unique, we can start to see something even more remarkable – something beyond ourselves.

I appreciate his from Nobuo Haneda – I have adapted the quote a little for our discussion. At the heart of our realization of our ordinariness is a deep humility that gives birth to profound gratitude. It is in that humility our authentic humanness is revealed.

Many people think that the ultimate goal in Buddhism as well as human life is to become good. But according to Shinran, it is to become humble. As Haneda writes,

…we must become humble persons. We must know our [foolishness ] the existence of our ineradicable egoism. We must know our ignorance, the limitations of our intellects. We must become humble people who can say, “I’m {Foolish} and ignorant.”

Nubuo Haneda

Shinran gives us an example. I love that Shinran saw himself as the most foolish being of all and called himself “Gutoku Shinran”. Toku in gotoku was a term used in Buddhist writings to refer to someone who outwardly had the appearance of a monk, someone who put on the airs of being a monk without a genuine aspiration for an awakening of following the Buddhist path. This is brutal honesty. Shinran even referred to himself as Inwardly Foolish, Outwardly wise.

How many of us realize this about ourselves but would never say that even to ourselves? This is so different from Buddhist teachers in our day that has caused harm to their communities through sexual impropriety. Still, instead of responding in humility and repentance, they continue to teach because they are too important to stop. Some are unwilling to admit they did anything wrong—spiritual materialism at its best. I appreciate Shinran’s example; as Dennis Horta has written,

Shinran demonstrates that our awareness of our inner foolishness helps us realize that we have no personal claim to wisdom or that any claim to awakening is rather meaningless.

Shinran knew who he was, and he understood the dangers of idealizing someone or something that is not based on what is. When we over idealize something, even ourselves, with the collapse of our ideal images, which they will do by the very nature of romanticizing something, we tend only to feel disdain, contempt, or hatred.

I love that Shinran is unlike the great OZ because no one had to reveal his secret; he willingly pulled back the curtain himself.

Look and see!

I want to go back to what Nuobu Haneda wrote again,

…we must become humble persons. We must know our [foolishness ] the existence of our ineradicable egoism. We must know our ignorance, the limitations of our intellects. We must become humble people who can say, “I’m {Foolish} and ignorant.”

Again, we return to this teaching – this is another teaching for the not-knowing mind from Korean Zen – or to be in a state of Shunryu Suzuki’s teaching of a beginner’s mind. To become aware of my ordinariness, the limitations of my intellect, my challenges to be skillful, my intractable ego, none of this means that we do not all have a buddha nature; it simply gives us a starting point.

This starting point from which we can begin to realize that the very buddha nature we want can only be found after we remove all the stories and performances of our foolish self, as Mark Unno has taught, prevents one from opening up to the spontaneous unfolding of buddha nature,

The realization of our foolishness and acceptance of our ordinariness gives us permission to stop dancing, stop performing, and simply sit at peace in our ordinariness. It is a beautiful gift, and it is freeing, and it can open us to what is, to the spontaneous unfolding of our buddha nature.
At the heart of what we do in our fellowship, the come as you are, namu Amida butsu comes out of this letting go of having to be good.

Come as you are is about letting go of being what you have been told to be, not having to present yourself as good or intelligent of having your shit together. When we can admit that we do not have our shit together, we can begin to open ourselves up to the spontaneous unfolding of the dharma. Namu ( ordinary beings} Amida Butsu ( the unfolding of the dharma ) I love this, again from Mark Unno,

“…by recognizing our foibles and quirks, we open a window into our karmic nature, without which we cannot find our Buddha nature. For it is only when we recognize and take ownership of the full scope of our humanity that we can see ourselves as truly, fully human.”

I want to close this dharma talk with a poem I wrote this morning.

Foolish Self / Naked Self
May we all return
to our bonbu,
to our naked selves
just as we are –
so we can be embraced
by the compassion
of all Buddhas
and of Amida –
So finally, we can
stop and be still
stop the incessant
pull the curtain
shut on our
theaters of fear
Finally, stop
to be seen
As good
As wise
or special
and simply
sit together
in our shared silence
And sitting here
together hear our
for the first time –
and from that steady beat
open ourselves up
to the constant
that is
buddha nature.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Couldn’t get into WordPress to like this dharma talk, but it is very meaningful, thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone


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