TEXT: Nothing else is required and anything else is too much.
This passage is a plea for moderation and is, therefore, also an expression of the ‘middle way’ which is what the Buddha called his message. Buddha had experienced the extremes that had developed in his society - those of self-indulgence and those of ascetic penitentialism. He rejected both as being useless, ignoble and vain. We can look at each of these dimensions in turn.
Evidently when people act they always do so for a reason so there is a sense in which nothing is ever useless. What Buddha means is useless to the spiritual life. For ‘those wishing to live a religious life’ there are many things that are completely useless and here we are told that many of these useless things fall into the category of ‘excess’. It could be excess in either direction - too much or too little. Once the Buddha was asked by a man whether it was better to try his utmost, exerting all his effort in his practice, or was it better to just take it easy and not take the matter too seriously? The Buddha observed that the man was a musician and said, “When you tune your instrument, is it better that the string be so tight that it is on the verge of snapping or is it better that it be completely loose and floppy? The man saw the point and said that, of course, it was best in neither of these conditions. The correctly tuned string was neither too tight nor too loose. “So it is with practice,” said the Buddha.
When we discussed this matter in our group we also observed that in a community it is as though we are each different strings in the instrument. For the community to function well it is not a matter of every string being tightened to the same pitch. Each has its role to play, its part in the various chords.
Buddha said that self-indulgence and asceticism are equally ignoble. Noble is not a word used so much these days, but it was clearly important to the Buddha. He referred to enlightened people as ‘noble ones’. A noble person is not given to excess. Often we have to make judgements in life about what to do or attempt. Where we live here in France there is a deal of land. Each year we have to decide how much to cultivate. If we do too little we do not grow much. If we try for too much it becomes impossibly burdensome and the plants are soon overrun with weeds. How much is ‘reasonable’? As a generalisation, modern people have become rather ‘soft’ and often tend to under-estimate how much they can do, so we are probably more often inclined to rr on the side of self-indulgence than that of self-punishment, but not always. One of the reasons for self-punishment is guilt. In our modern society there is a kind of low-level pandemic of guilt feelings. Perhaps this is, in part, because with modern communications we have ‘world championships’ of various kinds. There are a small number of ‘celebrities’ who are so far above us that we are all failures by comparison. When people lived in more local communities, the most talented people around were rarely so much better than the average as is the case today. Further, society as a whole, while giving lip service to democracy, has actually become more meritocratic. Everywhere there is competition. Where there is competition there is failure and the fear of failure. All of this makes for a good deal of common neurosis. Nobility is to rise above this. Neurosis is, essentially, unrealistic or excessive worry. To overcome this one needs ‘big mind’. One needs a larger perspective. The ’noble’ person is not drowning in ordinary life, but has a sense of a wider perspective. In the scheme of Honen, this wider perspective is achieved by allowing everything to be encompassed within the compassionate vow of Amitabha. Entrusting all to such faith facilitates humility and nobility at the same time.
This talk of humility brings us to the Buddha’s third point, ‘vanity’. Buddhism is an antidote to vanity. When the Buddha looked around him in his day he saw a society plagued by devotion to vanity - vain kings, vain warriors, vain aristocrats, vain priests, even vain ascetic hermits. Where we seem to have a society devoted to greed, he lived in one devoted to vanity. That said, there is plenty of vanity today too, and, in a certain way, all our problems can be traced back to a fundamental conceit about ‘self’. Pureland Buddhism is founded upon the bedrock of recognition of bombu nature. When we see our humanity and that of the people around us in a kindly way, we have the basis from which it is possible to recognise our need for help and the importance of worshipping forces more great than ourselves.
In this text we can also find a concern about ‘puritanism’ in religion. This is something of a danger in Western Buddhism at the present time. Many Western people have adopted ‘Buddhism’ without adopting its metaphysics and, as a result, tend to see it as a ‘way of life’ or a ‘moral system’ in which the onus is on right conduct. Right conduct is certainly an important part of Buddhism, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Rather, in principle, it is a by-product. The wise person who is full of faith should, in principle, be much easier to live with. Buddha often talks about ‘ease’. The ideal Buddhist is not somebody who is living in a high pitch moral way, striving to be perfect. Rather it is somebody who is deeply at ease and so puts others at ease. The practice of nembutsu conduces to this in two ways - proximately and ultimately. Proximately, the practice of associating the nembutsu with all eventualities gives perspective, as we said above, and brings reassurance. Ultimately, the person of nembutsu faith knows that ‘all is completely assured’ and looks forward to dying in peace. Thus other worries are not experienced as so total or overwhelming. The sense of annihilation that the common person feels when humiliated does not loom as so great a threat if one views death with equanimity.
So, formally, this passage is about the sufficiency of the nembutsu and the simple mind that has faith in it. Honen taught the one simple point that is the core of all Buddhism which we call refuge. He expressed it in a particular language and other Buddhists in other cultures have expressed it in other language, but this is the alpha and omega of all Buddhism. It is sufficient. It is the ‘window through which the whole universe of Buddha’s teachings can be seen in all its depth’. Nothing more is required. There is, therefore, in this approach, something that can give deep relief to the person anxiously searching.