A message from Rev. Richard Tennes which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.
To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.
The Way to Peace
Rev. Richard Tennes
Almost everyday when you look at the news, something terrible and frightening is happening in the world. Recently we had the terrible shooting in a Church in Charleston, South Carolina — a horrible tragedy — and also there were the three terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait. Most recently, there was the terrible shootings in Paris. When I hear about these kinds of happenings, I have basically three responses, all at the same time! First of all, I feel very angry that someone could do such a thing, that ignorant people can so easily cause horrible suffering for other people whom they don’t even know! Secondly, I feel confused that the world has become a place of such hatred and intolerance, where people feel that it is impossible to accept others who are either of a different race or tribe or who hold different beliefs and ideas, and that such people who are different therefore deserve to be destroyed. The third feeling I have is simply fear; I don’t think it is paranoid to be afraid that such things could easily happen here to people I know and love, or even to myself. So those are the three feelings I have when I hear about these kinds of events in the news.
It is really sad when you think about it because this beautiful and bountiful world we live in really does have enough for everyone to enjoy a happy and decent life, even now with all our overpopulation and damage to the environment. And, truthfully, many people who have very little in the way of wealth or possessions are still able to live happy lives, content with their family and friends and the simple pleasures that life brings day by day. But, somehow, more and more people just cannot find happiness, and so they adamantly resist appreciating anything about their lives or the other people they share this world with. They feel dissatisfied and are sure that everything that they don’t like about their life is someone else’s fault, and that it is their job to punish all the other people in the world for their own unhappiness.
This is a tragic condition from a Buddhist point of view. Life is full of so many troubles and difficulties and we are all subject to sickness, growing old, losing loved ones, and all kinds of hardships in life, but the worst thing that can happen to any person is to find himself or herself completely incapable of gratitude, humility, tolerance, and understanding. The most terrible state of living is to believe that the only possible choice one can make is to deliberately try to inflict pain and suffering on others, and to think that such actions could be the only thing that would bring one some kind of personal satisfaction! To actually feel this way is, in Buddhist understanding, the definition of being in hell. To need to cause harm to others, as the only way one can make sense out of life, is truly the deepest kind of suffering. As Buddhists, we feel great compassion and sympathy for the victims of such actions, but we also feel deep sorrow for the suffering people who are so totally obsessed with themselves that the only way they can live is by expressing judgement and hatred of others. Such people can have no authentic joy or happiness in their lives.
In thinking about my own reactions to the terrible acts committed in our country and in the world, I realize that Shin Buddhism teaches us to see the world with a deep sense of our own potential for the same kind of selfish actions that it is so easy to identify and judge in others. My own reactions, my anger and fear, remind me that I too am filled with discriminating judgements of other beings. Of course, some actions are simple unacceptable, no matter whether we are being judgemental or not. Shinran Shonin himself wrote in one of his letters that “some things should never be done, should not even be thought of!” However, the fact that anyone may do such kind of acts, due to causes and conditions, does not change the fact that — whatever we have done — life is meant to be about happiness, compassion, and understanding. Even the person who has committed the most horrible of actions, such as a mass murderer or a terrorist, can awaken to Great Compassion, can awaken to True Reality, but the Path to this awakening can only be reached through awakening to see ourselves as we really are.
There is a very important passage in the Tannisho that deeply expresses this truth. In the passage, Shinran asked his friend and student Yuien-bo if he would, without question, follow his (Shinran’s) advice. Yuien-bo answered that he certainly would. So Shinran tells him, “Go out and kill one-thousand people for me right now. If you do this, your birth in the Pure Land will be assured.”
Yuien-bo answered Shinran, “You are my teacher and you ask me to do this; I want to obey you, but someone like me cannot find it in myself to kill even one person.”
So Shinran responded to him, “Then why did you say you would do anything I asked you to do?”
“You see,” Shinran went on “there is a great lesson to be learned. If everything worked out the way we wish, the moment that I said ‘go out and kill one-thousand people for the sake of your birth in the Pure Land,’ it should have been possible for you to do that. However, you don’t have the karmic conditions to kill anyone! The conditions of your life have not made that possible. However, don’t think it is because you are a good person or that you have a good heart that you cannot kill. Indeed, if the conditions were different, even though you had vowed never ever to kill anyone, you might easily kill a million people!”
Think about that. Because the conditions have made it such that I myself have never killed anyone, I may think that I can judge those who have done so. This is truly a paradox because sometimes our judgments of others may become the very condition for our being able to kill or cause harm to others. Isn’t that what prompts many people to kill? They say “those people are evil because they do evil and kill others, therefore they should be punished or destroyed.” Such strong beliefs can easily become the cause for others to become killers!
And even us people who are mostly good and gentle and non-judgemental in everyday life (or so we think) might easily kill, given the right conditions. Ordinary people who would never think of raising a finger against anyone, may take part in war where they are forced to kill others. When that happens, no one usually holds it against them. They say “he is just doing his job, his duty to his country” and he will even be praised for his actions as a hero.
What Shinran was trying to teach Yuien-bo was that people do not do good or evil merely out of free will, or from purely good or bad intentions. He wanted his student to realize what lies at the root of our existence as human beings. Shinran understood that all human beings have to take lives in order to live. We cherish the delusion that our taking of vegetable and animal lives for nourishment somehow doesn’t count, so long as we don’t kill human beings. But this sets up a false sense of virtue; I am able to think that I am good in comparison to others because I have never killed a human being. But the real truth is that I just never needed to kill a human in order to survive. It wasn’t really my choice. If I was faced with the choice of either starving to death or killing a human being, can I honestly say that I am certain I would retain my virtue and goodness and not kill? Shinran insists, uniquely I think among spiritual teachers in human history, that Amida’s Working (Amida is the Great Compassionate Oneness of Life) is directed especially toward saving and liberating those of us who, because we want to live, simply cannot maintain goodness in every, or even most, circumstances. So Shinran said “Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land. It goes without saying that an evil person is also born there.” If you or I had the abundance of Compassion and discipline to cherish the lives and welfare of all beings regardless of personal sacrifice, then, yes of course, such a good person is already “in the Pure Land” — such a person is already enlightened. But according to the sutra, the Pure Land was actually made for those of us who don’t know what we would do in any given condition; it is the place where the rest of us may be transformed beyond our limited selves and realize our oneness with all beings.
Most of us, I think, when we see what is happening in the world today, feel really helpless. And, in a way we are. None of us has the power to change the minds of others, to awaken compassion and understanding and tolerance in people who wish harm to us or to others. Yet, it may be that we do have an even greater power, though that power is not really our own. It is the power of humility. Time after time, we see the same old scenario played out in the world. Violence followed by angry reactions, often equally or more violent. How often have the actions of a few angry people led to a full scale war? Thinking about it, has the righteous anger expressed by one side, met by the righteous anger expressed by the victims, ever led to a real and true resolution? Has it ever led to true peace? Our world has been at war virtually since 1914, with a few years of so-called “peace” in between. Have we solved the problems that caused the conflicts in the first place? Does anyone feel truly safe or satisfied today? Is there any end in sight?
Only the spirit of humility, which we learn from the Buddha’s teachings, offers human beings a real solution. That spirit is to understand that I am equally capable of just what you have done to me; that I can never be “in the right,” but that I am always responsible for a share of the causes of the suffering of others. In our temples, we talk so much about our future and that of our religious organization, but we tend to ignore the Great Teaching that is the life and purpose of them in the first place! But with the stakes so high in the world today, with the odds against a liveable future for the next generation growing slimmer and slimmer every day, maybe it is time for more people to really listen, embrace, and share the Dharma teachings which may offer humanity the only way of creating a tolerant, peaceful, and happy world for those who come after us. Namo Amida Butsu.