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1993FW: Subject: Shin Dialogue - Suffering, Awakening, Evil, etc.

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  • Paul Roberts
    Jan 1, 2005
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      A piece of an ongoing dharma discussion with one of my closest friends...

      It's meaning is sharpened because I just got word a moment ago that my
      mother passed away after 10 days in hospice, after having stroked out.

      After the stroke, she had one final window of pure lucidity - when I got to
      share the dharma (teaching) of Shin Buddhism with her. With no background,
      she heard again the story of Jessie's death, and transformation into
      Buddhahood because of Amida's Vow - and she too took refuge - one
      thought-moment of deep hearing (MONPO) leading her to true entrusting
      (SHINJIN) in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

      So she's let go of the old jalopy of a body she had - and is even now
      awakening in the Pure Land of Amida - a Buddha at last after endless
      lifetimes of ignorance and suffering, just like us all.

      With great gratitude - and great expectation of seeing her, and Jessie, at
      the end of this life - I too take refuge in Amida Buddha and his Primal



      Happy New Year, my friend.


      Friend: Interesting questions this fellow asks. Voicing some of my own
      (which is probably why you sent it to me in the first place.) I too recoil
      a bit at a host of new "magical" characters, exotic words and vows; it makes
      it difficult to understand, to make your own, to "Grok".


      It is difficult - very difficult - to understand the CONTENT of any teacher
      or teaching when we don't understand the CONTEXT.

      Unfortunately, that job too often gets relegated to the scholars - or
      perhaps I should say the scholastics - who all too often regard both content
      and context very dispassionately through the cool lens of post-modern

      To really have a discussion about Buddha and his teaching, it really helps
      to begin with a leisurely stroll through Auschwitz, or a replaying of the
      Twin Towers burning and people jumping off the top of the buildings, or an
      experience over a week or so of watching CNN as the greatest natural
      disaster in history unfolds before our eyes - and the bodies pile up and
      begin to stink - hearing a woman tell the world about her terrible "Sophie's
      Choice" experience of having to choose which of her two children to
      surrender to the waves so that she and the other might live.

      I remember distinctly an article in the NY Times after 9/11. It was about a
      shift in consciousness in the New York art community. These people are some
      of the coolest and most sophisticated on the planet - very much the kind of
      post-modernist deconstructionists who dominate large chunks of academia.

      So the content of the article was this: they've always despised the
      "illustrator" Norman Rockwell - considering his flawlessly executed body of
      work just sappy commercialism. But in the aftermath of 9/11, when these
      very sophisticated people were breathing the dust of human remains, and
      concrete, and asbestos all rolled into sickly miasma - when they had been
      stunned and overwhelmed by the outworking of religious fanaticism - Osama
      Bin Laden's most excellently executed plan of destruction that brought to
      life the archetypal picture of the burning towers you can see on any Tarot
      Card deck - all the sophisticated veneer simply crumbled.

      They trembled in their beds, just like everyone else. In particular, the
      article reported, they trembled as they tucked their precious children in to
      sleep - children who were also breathing the dust of suffering, of hatred,
      of despair - whether they were old enough to know it - or not.

      And so, the article went on to say - these folks were re-evaluating Norman
      Rockwell - looking with deep yearning at his work - which depicted such
      subjects as the desire for simple peace - for the basic freedoms we have
      known - for the connectedness of a shared Thanksgiving.

      They decided he was an artist, after all.

      It is the overwhelming experience of suffering, Tom, which provides the
      negative epiphany necessary to begin to approach the mindset of the Buddha,
      across space and time. Of course, we all know ABOUT suffering - but such
      knowing is not enough to fuel us to the place where we begin to truly
      grapple with all this as Buddha did.

      And because we are a western people, it does take a good deal of grappling
      to get over the hump of a different time and place, a different mindset and
      culture, and begin to hear the teaching of Buddha on his terms, and not
      ours. Even after we have consciously committed ourself to such a course, it
      is still difficult to make sense of concepts that have very hardened
      meanings in our own western minds.

      Take, for example, a fundamental idea that comes up once we encounter
      suffering deeply - an idea that deeply informs the teaching of both the
      Buddha, and of Shinran - the idea of EVIL.

      In the west, our understanding of EVIL proceeds out of our Judeo-Christian
      heritage, our moral/legal codes from the Greeks and Romans, etc. We all
      more or less get it.

      But for the fully awakened being we call the Buddha, moral evil is something
      that is derivative rather than primary. The very heart of evil is
      ONTOLOGICAL rather than MORAL. It is the evil of our fundamental state of
      being - of being endarkened rather than enlightened.

      This is not a model of original sin, such as the early Christian teachers,
      led by the Apostle Paul, proposed. it is not a model based on disobedience
      of the primal command of a God figure - which banishes the primal parents
      and all their progeny from a garden of union with their creator God.

      No - Buddha never created nor described the "backstory" of our EVIL in those
      terms - but simply said that we were endarkened rather than enlightened -
      and our endarkenment expressed inself in persistent EGOTISM - the EGOTISM of
      endless attachment - of endless CRAVING for this - and endless AVERSION for

      Our egotism - our cravings and averssions - are not moral evil in
      themselves. But they leave us utterly exposed, and entirely vulnerable, to
      terrible suffering over and over again. This suffering arises when life
      doesn't align with our endless CRAVINGS and AVERSIONS. It is when we don't
      get what we crave - or when we get what we are averse to - that our
      ontological endarkenment becomes terrible suffering - whether inflicted upon
      ourselves - or others.

      After seven years of the most intense pursuit, this the Buddha connected the
      dots between our suffering - and the ontological evil that is our common lot
      as non-buddhas - or non-enlightened beings.

      And he spoke as someone who had completed his endless journey and left his
      cravings and aversions behind entirely. He still has a self-structure, or
      an ego in modern psychological parlance. He knew who he was, and who his
      family was. But he no longer had any egotism. His suffering had vanished,
      he could see clearly at last - he was living in a state of compassion and
      wisdom - a gentle and serene coolness that is called nirvana (nibbana in
      Pali) - which simple means "cessation".

      Suffering, for this being, had ceased entirely. He had come to the end of
      his endless search - and was no longer entrapped in the matrix of egotism
      that we are all still entangled in.

      And not only was his suffering done - but his ignorance as well.

      One of the defining features of endarkenment is that we are entangled in a
      MATRIX of perceptions - just like the movie of the same name - a MATRIX of
      delusions and obscurations. We don't even know what we don't even know. It
      is difficult to have even one moment of pristine clarity - of spacious

      Even those people, Buddhist or otherwise, who cultivate such spacious
      awareness, using various mind traning techniques of one sort or another, do
      not have the ability to maintain this outside of the matrix "view".

      Egotism for them is no more destroyed than it is for any of us "average"

      There is an unending, and very tragic, parade of stories, from within
      Buddhism and without, of gurus and teachers who are revered as more or less
      awakened beings, and yet succumb to the same mundane egotism that plagues us
      all - often causing a psychic tsunami for their spiritual community.

      Indeed, their plight is often WORSE than ours, because their whole life
      depends on perpetuating the lie that somehow they have conquered our common
      egotism - when in fact they have not - and they CANNOT - no matter how many
      days, weeks, months and years they spend in meditation, chanting , or
      various other practices.

      And that is not to say that all teachers and gurus are morally corrupt or
      compromised. But whether they are MORALLY compromised, they are, each and
      every one, ONTOLOGICALLY compromised - strapped, just as we all are, to the
      wheel of endless rebirths, and unable, by their own efforts, to bootstrap
      themselves into buddhahood - enlightenment - the extinguishing of egotism -
      cessation of suffering.

      This, my friend, is our common problem...our ontological EVIL. This is the
      CONTEXT of Buddha's understanding which creates the CONTENT that got
      revealed in Buddha's final teaching - a teaching for us who live in an age
      where bootstrapping ourselves into Buddhahood is simply not possible - even
      though it was possible when he walked the earth.


      FRIEND: Yet there seems to be some essential truth here, some explanation
      for the random suffering. The mechanisms of birth/death cycles, the
      assurance that Buddhahood awaits; why?


      There IS assurance that Buddhahood awaits.

      As to the big WHY question, I can't answer it adequately. Buddha DID answer
      it, but even as he did, he warned that as non-Buddhas we simply weren't
      going to be able to grasp the answers he gave.

      WHY did my own beloved Jessie suffer so terribly, and die so horribly?

      Why the holocaust? Why the Towers? Why the tsunami?

      After the Buddha had pierced the veil of endarkenment, and woken up
      entirely, he reported that he was able to see into his past lives - in the
      same kind of linear way that you could look at an old home movie. He saw
      his progress, and his regress. He saw himself in a life in which he had
      murdered someone. He was able to see the rise and fall of his own karmic
      "bank account" - the acquisition of merit, and the dissolution of merit.
      And he saw himself strapped to the terrible wheel of endless rebirths in
      ignorance that continued up until this last life, when he left endarkenment
      behind once and for all - and embarked upon the life of full
      self-actualization, full buddhahood - that was waiting as potential always.

      Even as he explained the dharma of karma and rebirth, he warned people that
      it was impossible for a non-buddha to look at someone's suffering and come
      to any firm understanding of WHY such a life narrative was so unfolding. He
      warned that the attempt, by a non-buddha, to figure such things out, would
      lead to madness.

      I found his warning very useful in the time of my own deep grief. It would
      have been impossible for me to parse the WHY question adequately, when
      considering why Jessie had suffered so - and why I was suffering so - and
      her sister was suffering so - after her death.

      Like a person flung out to sea in the tsunami, clinging to a piece of wood
      in the water, I clung, during that terrible time, to the assurance that
      Buddhahood awaits.

      And more specifically, that for me, as a person of true entrusting - of
      SHINJIN - that Buddhahood would await at the end of THIS life - my LAST life
      as a non-Buddha.


      Friend: Do squirrels experience this as well? Dolphins? As populations
      increase, is there a "soul factory" somewhere, manufacturing these durable
      spiritual identities that forget their fleshy memories, yet store the
      progression (or regression) in some cosmic account? What happens when
      populations decline? Do the souls awaiting the next life go into a Buddhic


      In the Larger Pure Land Sutra - also known as the Larger Sutra of Amida
      Buddha (because there is a second, smaller Sutra of Amida and the Pure Land
      as well) - Buddha explains to many of his disciples something of the
      vastness of the cosmos that we simply cannot see, even with our Hubble

      There are, according to the Buddha, literally BILLIONS of worlds with
      sentient life of some sort or another - each overseen by their own Buddha
      figure. In other teachings, Buddha described the sentient universe in terms
      of "Six Realms" in which beings took endless rebirths - three more
      favorable, and three less so. In other teaching, Buddha talked about how we
      continually cycle through endless rebirths into consciousness realms of
      "form", "no-form", and "formlessness".

      I can guess what all this means, and of course there has been endless
      commentary by scholastics through the years. But the bottom line is that
      the subject, once again, is too vast for a non-buddha to comprehend fully.
      Only true buddhic vision is capable of piercing the veil of unknowing that
      your questions point to Tom.

      But there are enough clues in Buddha's teaching for me to have at least a
      tentative answer to the questions you ask about squirrels and dolphins - and
      also about some of the great gurus and teachers who have some kind of grasp
      in the realm of being able to slip easily enough from the realm of form to
      the realms of formlessness or no-form, more or less at will.

      But even with that - my own personal experience of moments of consciousness
      shifting - or adepthood - and my reading about REAL adepts - The best I can
      do, ultimately, in all of this, is to embrace Socrates' essential position
      when he said, with both boldness and great humility, "I know that I don't

      At the same time, when we begin to grapple with the enormity of these
      question, it stirs up in us the sleeping desire that stirred in Prince
      Gotama as well: to end our lifetimes of ignorance and endarkenment once and
      for all.

      But many of us simply give up - once confronted with the enormity of that
      task - and our lack of capacity to truly be such heroic piercers of the

      We are - my good friend - only ordinary human beings after all.


      Friend: And always the question: Why?


      Yes. I'm reminded of the WHY? question, as phrased by the British poet W.H.
      Auden, in "Law Like Love":

      Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
      Law is the one
      All gardeners obey
      To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

      Law is the wisdom of the old,
      The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
      The grandchildren put out a trebly tongue,
      Law is the senses of the young.

      Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
      Expounding to an unpriestly people,
      Law is the words in my priestly book,
      Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

      Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
      Speaking clearly and most severely,
      Law is as I’ve told you before,
      Law is as you know I suppose,
      Law is but let me explain it once more,
      Law is The Law.

      Yet law-abiding scholars write:
      Law is neither wrong nor right,
      Law is only crimes
      Punished by places and by times,
      Law is Good morning and Good night.

      Others say, Law is our Fate;
      Others say, Law is our State;
      Others say, others say
      Law is no more,
      Law has gone away.

      And always the laud and angry crowd,
      Very angry and very loud,
      Law is We,
      And always the soft idiot softly Me.

      If we, dear, know we know no more
      Than they about the Law,
      Of I no more than you
      Know what we should and should not do
      Except that all agree
      Gladly or miserable
      That the Law is
      And that all know this,
      If therefore thinking it absurd
      To identify Law with some other word,

      Unlike so many men
      I cannot say Law is again,
      No more than they can we suppress
      The universal wish to guess
      Or slip out of our own position
      Into an unconcerned condition
      Although I can at least confine
      Your vanity and mine
      To starting timidly
      A timid similarity,
      We shall boast anyway:

      Like love I say.

      Like love we don’t know where or why,
      Like love we can’t compel or fly,
      Like love we often weep,
      Like love we seldom keep.


      Like law...like love...like suffering, my friend.

      In our common endarkenment, we simply don't know where...or why.

      Such contemplation as we are doing here together is a beginning...a good

      It opens a difficult door - a door most of us would simply rather shut.

      And yet it opens - and will not stay shut no matter how we try...even as it
      would not stay shut for that young prince 2500 years ago, living in his own
      version of a gilded cage - like the movie character Truman in the Truman

      My own belief is this: at some point, in some lifetime, each being begins
      to yearn - sometimes in a very inchoate, inarticulate way. At the point of
      yearning, the being becomes interested in a life stance of H.O.W. - honesty,
      openness, willingness.

      It's time to drop the personas, drop the bullshit, drop the attachment to
      who we are, what we've done, what we know, how far we've come along on
      whatever path we've taken. It's time to simply stand there, with open mind,
      open heart, and open hands - willing, and even eager, to listen with all our

      Archimedes said: give me a leverage point, and I can move the world.

      This existential stance of H.O.W. is such a leverage point: it opens the
      mind and the heart to listen deeply, with the depth of one's entire being,
      to both the diagnosis of our essential problem, and the opportunity to solve
      it once and for all.

      That was the Buddha's singular purpose in setting out on his own journey in
      his last life - to find out, once and for all, what we needed to know about
      SUFFERING, and the END of suffering at last.

      That existential stance of H.O.W. is what prepares us for what Shinran
      called MONPO - deep hearing of the dharma. Not the kind of study done by
      the scholastic - but the hearing of one who is being awakened by
      heartbreak - the heartbreak which is our common lot in this particular world
      we have been born into.

      That's where the "grokking" starts, to borrow Heinlein's term from "Stranger
      in a Strange Land".

      And yes (grin) you are showing your age when you borrow it.

      My best to you, and thanks for being my friend for all these years...