Commentary on Summary of Faith and Practice, part 20
TEXT: However wise, learned or skilled you may be, set it aside
Learning to set aside one’s cleverness is something one can do and it is wonderfully productive. Honen Shonin was extremely learned, yet he advocated the nembutsu - the simplest practice in the whole of Buddhism. Dogen Zenji wrote: “To pose as the trainer and enlightener of myriad Dharmas is called delusion. When the myriad Dharmas come forth and train and enlighten the self, that is enlightenment. All Buddhas are busy greatly enlightening delusion.” - Genjokoan.
The Buddhas are all the time busily trying to enlighten us, but we get in the way. We reject their enlightening influence by armouring ourselves with our own knowhow.
The Chinese have the idea of yin and yang. In the well lived life one is intermittantly in the yang position, but the default is yin. As soon as the job is done one returns to the receptive position. Our modern culture, however, encourages us to be in the yang position as much as possible and we come to feel guilty when we fail to do so. When we cannot solve all our own problems, we feel guilty. When we cannot solve all the problems of the people around us we feel guilty. Then we feel guilty for feeling guilty. Then we go to see a therapist and feel guilty about doing so. And so it goes on. Yet, when we do assertively try to solve the problems of those around us, we often make matters worse and just generate friction, resistance and conflict of wills.
The most therapeutic thing one can do is generally to adopt the yin position, listen, observe, take interest, but allow plenty of space. Then seemingly magical things happen.
People come across the bodhisattva vows and assume them in a yang mode. “Innumerable are sentient beings, I vow to save them all!” That is quite an ambition. However, it might be better if one said, “I vow to save them all… from me.” This is a more practical proposition and likely to be more effective.
Buddhism advocates emptiness and stillness. When I am empty and still the Buddhas can do their work naturally. Adopting the yang position one only has one’s own power Adopting the yin position one participates in a greater power. The skills one has are limitled but the merit of Amida is boundless.
In the phenomenological philosophy this ‘setting aside’ is called ‘bracketing’ or ‘epoche’. It is a vitally important step in learning anything. In our practice, we are all the time learning from the Buddhas manifest in the myriad Dharmas. We do not have to make it happen, we merely have to stop stopping it, which is to say, we have to give up our conceit.
The reason that we have skills and knowledge is to be of service. However, we should use them sparingly, because there is always much more to be learnt.
When I used to train counsellors and psychotherapists, beginners were often paralysed by thinking that they did not have the wisdom to solve the client’s problem for them. This, however, is not really what is required. Rather than ‘How am I going to solve this person’s problem?’ it is better for the counsellor or therapist to have the attitude, ‘I wonder what this client is going to teach me today.’ Setting oneself up as the clever person is inviting disaster.
None of this means that one does not have any knowledge or skill. In dealing with worldly matters, one needs to take action. As a practitioner, however, this action is inspired by the greater power. Faith enables one to go forth. When one relies upon one’s own cleverness it is only sufficient when one is in familiar territory. To go beyond one’s ‘safety zone’ it will never suffice. Going into new situations one faces a ‘steep learning curve’. One has to be an empty vessel in order to receive.
In Buddhism we have 'practices'. A practice may be some form of meditation, prayer, chanting, making prostrations or whatever. It is a ritual. In performing such a ritual there is a yang way to do it and a yin way to do it. In the yang way one has a goal and a method. In the yin way one is receptive and grateful. On the Pureland path one cultivates the yin way. Actually, this is true in all of Buddhism, just it is not always apparent to the casual observer. This is no less true with nembutsu. One can do it in a self-power or an other-power manner, but only the second will bring Amida's grace. Those who rely upon self-power 'have their reward already', such as it is.
Furthermore, if one sets aside one’s existing world and enters a new one, one then has two worlds. The Buddha will be found in the space between them. Soon one will have three, four, five worlds. Eventually one will be ‘bodhisattva who has no ground’, but who spends time ‘visiting Buddhas in other regions’ and making offerings to them.
The offerings one makes will fall unbidden, ‘six times a day’ and one will delight in gathering them.