Continuing the commentary on Summary of Faith and Practice.
TEXT: To pursue something more profound or more sophisticated, or to have a theory, or to think that understanding will yield greater enlightenment than this is to be mislead and to fall back into self-power whereby the whole practice is spoilt.
COMMENT: The modern disease is not so modern: There is a strong tendency for humans, who are equipped with wonderful powers of thought and imagination, to imagine that when they have thought something doing so is a kind of substitute for actually doing it. We try to do everything 'in our heads' as though real life no longer counted. This is particularly a disease of the modern educated person who has been taught to plan and to manipulate theory. However, in varying degrees, it has been a perennial problem of humankind. There is a certain appeal in really complicated, sophisticated theories. We can get enmeshed in them and they can occupy us for hours - years, even. Something really complicated can be material enough for a doctoral degree, and when we have got the degree we think we have really done something. However, credentials are not action in themselves.
The spiritual masters all try to turn us back to the reality of the actually lived life. We might fill up the time of our life gathering knowledge or credentials and it can be a fine and pleasant passtime, but we should not think that it is a substitute for living, nor that living does not begin until one is suitably qualified. Meritocracy has some merit, but it also has serious pitfalls. Some of the greatest geniuses in the history of Chinese culture were people who had repeatedly failed the national exams. If they had passed they would have become boring bureaucrats rather than the creative people that they turned into when as 'failures' they had to live on their wits.
In science there is a principle called Occam's Razor. This is the principle that if there are two theories that both adequately explain something, then the simpler one should be preferred. Thus the theory that the sun goes round the earth and the theory that the earth goes round the sun both can explain the movement of heavenly bodies, but one of these theories is much simpler than the other, yielding elegantly smooth orbits. Therefore, we prefer the theory that the earth goes around the sun. Similar things happen in the social life. We all tend to think that the social world revolves around ourselves. This makes for a very complex theory of social relations in which it is rather difficult much of the time to understand what is happening. When we realise the extent to which we are actually revolving around others, some things become somewhat more clear. In the spiritual realm, similar considerations apply. When we think that spiritual enlightenment is our own personal project that has as objective our own enhancement, happiness and glory, it turns out to be a long bumpy road with no end in view. however, when everything revolves around a source of wisdom and compassion far superior to our own, things become a lot more simple. All we have to do is play our part.
In Pureland, we have the practice of nembutsu with which to constantly remind ourselves of these basic truths that bring a kind of Occam's Razor to bear upon the spiritual life. Furthermore, the nembutsu is already a perfect, sacred act that needs no further improvement. In contemporary life we are endlessly encouraged to be improving ourselves. When we do so, there is surely no harm in it, but we should not over-estimate what we are doing. Spiritual enlightenment is not a function of any kind of accumulation. Worldly knowledge is useful for worldly things, but it never adds up to salvation. It is merely useful in a utilitarian way. Furthermore, you can go on adding to it ad infinitum. Somebody who is a highly accomplished cook is not necessarily any better a person than somebody who does not know how to fry and egg.
Self-power is the belief that one can create one's own enlightenment and achieve it by one's own effort. However, there is actually a sharp break between the realm of conditioned existence and the unconditioned and nothing established in the former can possibly be a cause of the latter since, were it so, the latter would become part of the former. If God existed within creation He would not be God. If nirvana were a result of conditioned action it would not be nirvana. If Buddhas were created by meditating or by accumulating merit, they would not be Buddhas. All things made in such a way are ephemeral, impermanent, dependently originated and, therefore, not true refuges. Buddhism offers a true refuge, not a self-improvement programme.
Although the door is open we do not enter. Although the water awaits, we do not let go of the side of the swimming pool. We cannot make ourselves do so. Nonetheless, we can remember what we have heard - that there is a life beyond clinging. Then, if it so happens that, at some point, due to unforeseen circumstances, we momentarily lose our grip, there is just a chance that, instead of panicking, we might find ourselves afloat, held up by something we do not understand.
It is all simpler than one imagines. In ten thousand ways the Buddhas point out this simplicity. Imitating their ten thousandfold pointing we weave a mesh of complications like a tangled bramble patch. However, one finger, one practice, one word truly heard, one moment of freedom is enough. Namo Amida Bu.