British politics is currently consumed by a story about a top government advisor who appears, during the period of lockdown, to have broken the government’s own guidelines; and at the time of making this podcast, has neither resigned nor apologized. Now, you don’t have to be a follower of British politics to realize that this is the kind of thing that can create a major political crisis.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this is not in order to make a political point but rather to highlight that the problem of double-standards, of having one standard by which one judges others and a different standard by which one lives one’s own life is quite a problem. It’s a problem not just in politics, it’s a problem in religion, it’s a problem in business, it’s a problem in many spheres of life.
I don’t know how many Buddhist lectures I’ve sat in, in which a teacher has skillfully and fluently advocated and enunciated a high-ideal teaching that evidently, they didn’t actually live or embody in their own life. Many times. This is something of a problem.
It’s also part of the beginning, the foundation of Pureland Buddhism in Japan. We date the beginning of Pureland, the Pureland movement in Japan, to 1175, when Honen Shonen descended from Mount Hiei and started to teach; and he acquired a following.
He didn’t really come to prominence until the Ohara Meeting eleven years later. In 1186, there was a symposium at Ohara, where a number of leading teachers from different schools of Buddhism all met and they presented their teachings and practices of the different schools and asked Honen to respond. The logic behind this was that Honen could surely not deny the wisdom of the many other schools of Buddhism, so, why would he present something that seemed to be new?
Honen listened to all the presentations and gave his response; and in his response it was clear that he had a good grasp of the teachings of all of the different schools of Buddhism, but the major point that he made was: whilst all this was wonderful and marvelous, he didn’t know anybody who could actually live it; and when he examined his own life in depth, he couldn’t live it himself. He couldn’t perfect the ethical teachings, he couldn’t manage all the samadhis, it was beyond him. This is like, you know, there’s a teaching that, if you give up all attachment, you’ll suffer no grief. Well I’m completely convinced of this teaching, it’s true. Every word of it is true and if I hadn’t been attached to my mother, I wouldn’t have grieved for ten months when she died. I’m sure that’s right, but I’m not going to here preach to you that you should stop loving you mother. There’s a basic problem here.
Honen Shonen was able to face up to his own limitation, his human nature, and it was on that basis, that he built a new approach to Buddhism in which instead of relying upon self-perfection he relied upon the nembutsu which the Buddhas had promised would yield a result without him having to climb the mountain all on his own.
At the end of the meeting the other teachers were so touched by the humanity, humility of Honen that they all got up and walked around the room chanting the nembutsu.
This is surely the right spirit: that we base our spiritual life on a realistic and modest assessment of our own nature.
Namo Amida Bu
You can read more about Honen here