Chapter Eight
Ocean and the Drowning Self: A personal View

Could you say more about your own understanding of Shinjin awareness? I am interested in something more concrete that I can relate to in a more tangible way.

Let me respond by sharing a personal story that took place a few years ago. I don’t want to claim this experience as Shinjin awareness per se. I share this only as an experience that has allowed me to gain a tiny glimpse of what Shinran Shonin must have experienced.

One day as I returned home from work totally exhausted from a demanding day, I slumped down flat on my back on the living room couch. Lying comfortably, almost asleep, I felt a tug on my left sleeve and a murmuring voice calling, “Daddy, Daddy.” It was my two-year-old son, Nathan.

I said to myself, “Oh, no, it’s Nathan. He wants to wrestle with me again. I am in no shape mentally or physically to wrestle with him. Doesn’t he see how tired I am? I guess not, and explaining to him won’t help.” So, I pretended to be asleep.

But my son continued to tug at my sleeve with an undaunted, “Daddy, Daddy!” I became more irritated and began conjuring up all kinds of ill thoughts about my two-year-old, saying to myself, “All he thinks about is himself. Doesn’t he understand I’m sleeping? His stubbornness (not to give up bothering me) must come from my wife’s side!” But he kept tugging, “Daddy, Daddy.” Finally, totally frustrated, I opened my eyes ready to scold him.

Lo and behold…there he stood holding a blanket in his left hand to cover me. He had dragged it from my bedroom all by himself. And his mother and I had not taught him to do this. This was completely on his own!

This scene has been deeply etched in my memory. I still recall with shame and embarrassment, the selfish thoughts I had harbored about my son. At the same time, I could not but be amazed by my son’s caring act, despite my ego-centered thoughts.

What a touching story! I can tell stories like that from my own life. Do you have other examples?

Well, some college graduates have the false idea that their diploma is due all to their efforts; they are like the struggling swimmer who has not yet realized the power of the ocean. But others, with awareness, know that their effort is quite small compared to the support of the institution: taxes, alumni, faculty, staff, tradition, etc. Surely, they made effort, but they are well aware of the support of the others. So, compassion in this example is all of the conditions that allow the student to earn a diploma. These conditions are like the immense ocean that supports the swimmer.

Also, there have been moments when I have felt an acute sense of remorse and guilt about the Vietnam War. Over sixty-thousand Americans of my generation paid the ultimate price, and many still continue to suffer from physical and psychological scars. This guilt extends to the millions of Vietnamese who died and were maimed in the conflict, many at the hands of the ammunition bought by taxes that I paid. Yes, I did whatever I could to oppose the war, yet my efforts are no consolation for the victims. I am not condoning the war, yet I was and continue to be part of the system. I am party responsible, no matter how insignificant an influence I have in the society.

I am even more ashamed that these remorseful thoughts do not last long. Most of the time I am too busy thinking about my own self-centered pursuits. As the war period slips further into the shadows of our history, I let it slip out of my memory too easily. The fact that I have the gall to even mention this is an example of my foolishness and lays bare my shallowness!

What is the Jodo-Shinshu significance of these examples you see in your life?

These examples reveal, in a nutshell, the two aspects that form the core of Jodo-Shinshu teaching: this foolish self being embraced by the expressions of compassion (that is none other than Amida) which embrace me at all times. This truth could not be more revealing than in the example of my son and his blanket!

What is meant by compassion?

 Compassion is the caring we receive. This caring includes the example of my son bringing the blanket for me. In the ocean metaphor, compassion is the ocean itself. Doctrinally, the compassion is expressed as the Other Power or Amida’s Vow in Jodo-Shinshu.

Yes, the ocean metaphor shows how compassion can be realized when we became less worried about controlling our lives and more interested in letting life speak to us.

That’s a beautiful expression — “letting life speak to us”! Yes, as we move the ego aside, the breeze of compassion can blow into our lives. Compassion in Jodo-Shinshu is the supportive ocean. It is there all along, but it does not become apparent until we give up our frantic self-centered struggle.

What other forms of compassion or caring are talked about in Jodo-Shinshu?

We often talk about the love of our family, especially that of our mothers and grandmothers! We also find compassion in the care and sacrifices of our teachers, for example in Shinran Shonin’s devotion to his teacher Honen. Many a Jodo-Shinshu sermon has taken up these themes.

I find caring in the things that sustain my life: the sunshine, the rain, the oxygen in the air, and all the beings that are sacrificed for my food. I also find compassion in the beauty and greatness of nature that add quality to my life: the many shapes and textures of trees and flowers that fill my neighborhood, the magnificent Autumn sunsets behind the golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin hills.

Nowhere is this fulfilling sense of caring felt more intensely than during my three-mile walks to or from work. The beauty of the blooming garden flowers of all shapes and colors enlivens my spirit. At such times I am reminded of a poem by a well-known Myokonin69 woman named Osono (born 1774):

A lily flower

Just nodding,

“Yes, yes.”70

These flowers cheer me on during times of personal letdowns. They are joined by the chirping of the birds, whose exquisite singing sound I savor as much as I can. Once a baby squirrel came out onto the sidewalk lured by the rattling of my keys and even perched on my shoes looking for food or its mother. And most of all, the trees are the constant source of my inspiration. The majesty of their silence is combined with their leaves that reach out by providing the source of life: oxygen. When the soothing California breeze makes the leaves dance, flutter and shimmer in their shades of green, I am reminded of a scene from the Pure Land, “When a gentle breeze wafts through its (Bodhi-tree) branches and leaves, innumerable exquisite Dharma-sounds arise.”71 In such moments, I feel one with Compassion!

I understand the ocean as a metaphor, but isn’t this appreciation of nature and your calm due to your own view? Or is the surrounding nature an expression of Amida Buddha? Or are the two the same thing?

Simply put, nature is not a direct expression of Amida, but my appreciation of nature stems from my connection (however limited) to Amida. In the language of religious studies, this distinction is referred to as 1) pantheism (nature as direct expression of the sacred) and 2) panentheism (nature along with one’s existence are appreciated precisely on account of one’s connection to the sacred, rooted in one’s personal transformation). Of course, in moments of such wonder and enthrallment, the two perspectives often merge; in such poetic moments, nature and the world do appear (or experienced) as expressions of Amida!

How is your connection to Amida’s caring expressed in its purest and ultimate sense?

In Jodo-Shinshu this is expressed in the form of a sacred story of Bodhisattva Dharmakara who vowed to liberate all beings once he became a Buddha (see page 70 and Chapt. 9). For Shinran Shonin, this Vow was made precisely for the foolish, ego-centered person such as himself.

I would like to hear more about the Jodo-Shinshu sense of foolishness.

Arriving at the realization that we are indeed foolish is a product of intense self-cultivation to become Buddhas. Shinran Shonin is our model, for he did not see himself as foolish during his early training as a monk. But twenty years of intense training bore no satisfying results. Shinran Shonin found that his greed, hatred and ignorance were deep-seated and truly with no hope of eradication through his own effort.

This discovery, however, was actually liberating. Surely, there was regret and even shame for being so ego-centered, but he experienced freedom in being able to accept his failings: selfish, stubborn, short-tempered, etc.; in modern Jungian psychological terms, he was able to acknowledge and accept part of his shadow. This process is liberating precisely because one has finally awakened to how he really is, stark naked and stripped of all pretensions, defenses and self-images.

Isn’t this Shinshu teaching still a little pessimistic?

Some people think so; this is because they understand human imperfection only from an ethical or moral perspective. Sure, some people are more thoughtful, kind, and giving than others. But limitation in Jodo-Shinshu is to be understood in a spiritual context, not simply in the ethical or legal context. The point of reference for our limitations is the Buddha, not the next-door neighbors, coworkers, or fellow students at school.

The more a person comes to appreciate the immense caring they receive from others, the more they come to realize their own limitations. To use an analogy, the brighter the sun shines, darker shadows are projected. The brighter the spiritual light, the greater our sense of human limitations. When a 200 watt light bulb replaces a 25 watt bulb, we see dirt, blotches and the shabbiness of the room that we didn't notice before.

So the realization of our imperfection isn’t so much a question of feeling quilt or being forgiven?

There is little sense of oppressive guilt because we simply discover who we really are. There is no one to forgive; Amida is not a judge. There would, however, be guilt if we are trying to be someone we are not. Instead, we become more our true selves.

In Jodo-Shinshu, we are liberated precisely because we are foolish, not in spite of it.72 The difference is subtle but profound. For this reason, our tradition does not talk much about Amida forgiving our foolishness but rather illuminating it.

So, if I discover I am an angry person, it is OK to be angry, impatient or violent?

The discovery does not lead a person to feel he has the license to do as he wishes. In fact, Shinran sees such a person being more mindful of not giving in to destructive impulses:

That he seeks to stop doing wrong as his heart moves him, although earlier he gave thought to such things and committed them as his mind dictated, is surely a sign of his having rejected this world.

(Letters, pp. 61-62)

Of course, despite his best efforts he will at times be angry, impatient and even be violent, but not because he felt it was OK to do so.

Is this foolish nature the same as the idea of sin?

Sin carries a wide range of meaning for Christians. If sin means that which one finds lamentable and shameful, then Christian sin and Jodo-Shinshu foolish nature are alike. They are alike in that both get in the way of the seekers’ spiritual resolution.

There are, however, differences between the two. Once I asked a Methodist pastor about his understanding of sin. The first example of sin he brought out was that of not taking an interest in the Christian message or Gospel. I was surprised to hear this because it differed so sharply from the voluntary quality of Buddhism. Buddhism regards a person’s lack of interest in the Dharma simply as his insufficient karmic maturity but not a serious offense.

I realize that my friend’s explanation is not shared by all Christians, but, on the other hand, his view is also not a minority position among Christians.73 I have no intention of judging one position superior to the other. They simply reveal a difference on this point. This distinction reflects two fundamental outlooks: the outward, prophetic Christian orientation versus the inner, contemplative Buddhist reflection.

That is an interesting distinction. Today the word “sin” carries a negative connotation because sin is seen to involve someone else’s judgment about us that is forced upon us.

In Jodo-Shinshu the realization of our foolish and incomplete nature is an integral part of our awakening. It is derived from within and so cannot be forced on us because someone else says that we are limited, evil or imperfect. When we awaken to the all embracing caring we just naturally understand our limitations. As in the case of the swimmer, once he saw how immense and supportive the ocean was, he realized the limitations of his own powers. His limitation is, thus, in contrast to the ocean, not in comparison with other people.

I feel that the original meaning or intent of the teaching of sin in Christianity was similar and not judgmental. Unfortunately, sin has been changed in its ordinary secular usage; modern people do not have a good impression of its true meaning.


69  A category of rare, spiritual persons who (since the 18th century) came to be recognized within the Jodo-Shinshu communities for their lives of simplicity and selflessness based on Shinjin awareness. See also Glossary.

70  Ron Hadley, trans., “Myokonin Osono,” The Eastern Buddhist n.s. Vol. XXVI No. 1 (Spring 1993), p. 1.

71  Inagaki. The Three Pure Land Sutras, p. 259.

72  This expression if from Rev. Tetsuo Unno who spoke at the 1994 Summer Retreat sponsored by the Inst. of Buddhist Studies at the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Temple.

73  The noted Protestant theologian Paul Tillich writes on St Augustine’s view of sin, “Augustine shows clearly the religious character of sin. Sin for him is not moral failure; it is not even disobedience. Disobedience is a consequence, not the cause of sin. The cause is turning away from God. …Sin is primarily and basically the power of turning away from God.” See his A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), pp. 126-127.