When I receive correspondence that includes thoughts, opinions, and/or experiences spurred by writings that have appeared in this blog or on the Shin Dharma Net site, I’d like to share them with readers. This is one way we can learn from each other. I trust the following entry will be a source for reflection and add to our joint store of knowledge –Al Bloom
While saying the nembutsu once I had a sense that Amida’s light is never an object of our awareness but it is the light that illuminates ourselves. What I mean is that Amida’s light can’t be seen but can be felt when we see the darkest bits of ourselves (illuminated by this invisible light, so to speak). This made me question the way in which I was reciting the nembutsu. Until then I had thought that jiriki was a drive within me to go on reciting the nembutsu forever, whereas tariki was the drive to stop it whenever I felt it was a reasonable time to stop. Then, it seemed the other way round. The drive to let the nembutsu resound forever was in fact beyond my control whereas the other one was my desire to control or channel that flow, my own calculation. However, this does not mean that I recite the nembutsu 24/7 but that in a sense it is always there and my awareness returns to it again and again, though by no means all the time. I think part of what I’m referring to was underlying a question I asked you previously about Tao Cho’s definition of perfect (tariki) and imperfect (jiriki) shinjin. There’s no need to keep reminding myself to say Namu Amida Butsu, since it comes naturally to me and when it does it feels as if it is always there, in the background, ready to leap to the foreground at any time.
Also, as I have been exploring my own sense of failure in regards to Buddhist practice, which did underlie my years of Tibetan Buddhism, I’ve come to a new understanding of myself. I realize I have been trying hard for years to prove myself or to change certain aspects of myself, to no avail. At the end of that effort there’s a sense of despair and failure. At the core of the drive to (im)prove myself is a fundamental lack of confidence or the feeling of being unloved. Without going too much into the details of my personal story, I can identify as a constant thread in my character the resistance to being loved, accepting gifts or any other form of kindness, out of an arrogance that is ultimately fear of being vulnerable or exposed. I can’t obviously love without first feeling loved and therefore I work hard at building the self-protective shell of arrogance, success, achievement that covers my own needs and feelings of vulnerability. Before coming to Shin Buddhism, I realized that I had been using the practice of meditation in that way and that I had neglected the fundamental need to be loved and accepted.
In wrestling with nembutsu and shinjin I realized how I was obviously doing the same thing, building a shell, trying to control and attain something through the drive to prove myself by achieving things by my own efforts. Then I saw the difficulty of accepting shinjin, which was the same resistance I’ve always felt to accepting gifts or affection. I realized that shinjin was indeed the Buddha’s gift, nothing to do with my efforts or wish to prove myself, and how difficult it was to welcome it, to let that years old resistance go. In a sense, there’s nothing I could do to bring about that gift and that’s what made it so difficult to accept. I couldn’t earn it, control it or even deserve it. It’s a completely free gift and that is very hard to deal with. It showed me the depth of my own arrogance and fear, which in an indirect way were cries for protection and warmth. In that realization there’s a giving in to the gift, if only briefly, that fills me with joy and makes me feel loved in a fundamental, unconditional and non-threatening way. This doesn’t feel like the kind of love that would go away or would be transformed into hatred if one does something wrong. In other words, it is not conditional or coercive.
I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. There’s nothing I could do to improve or earn the gift nor could it be taken away or destroyed by whatever I might do wrong. It was beyond me, nothing I could do. That was a great relief and the following imperfect haiku came to mind: “Effortless rainbow/my heart reli(e)ved becomes/namu amida butsu.” Still, the fear, the resistance, and the arrogance are there and they come and go, as they always have. But I feel there’s a little hole of hope; the view is somehow shifted. Also, the constant need to work hard and prove myself is eased, if only slightly, by this sense that I need not do anything to be welcomed into Amida’s realm of awakening (i.e. being loved, becoming awakened, etc.), but simply to accept the gift (s)he extends in namu amida butsu. It’s almost a scary thought, since it exposes and undermines the drive that has articulated most of my life. On the other hand, it feels refreshing, relieving and liberating; both worth relying on and difficult to do because of its utter easiness. It feels somehow like a home, a place I can return to, but certainly not a place I inhabit all the time, or even often. There’s a sense of gratitude towards this space of warmth, this home, which paradoxically reveals further and further my own coldness and lack of gratitude.
It seems to me that your choice of the phrase “self-acceptance” to describe Shinran’s journey is very insightful. Self-acceptance couldn’t happen without first feeling accepted by an-other, likewise with love and compassion. It is impossible to love others if one does not love oneself and it seems equally impossible to love oneself if one does not feel loved by an-other. Self-acceptance happens because others accept us. To accept that acceptance seems to me what lies at the core of letting shinjin happen. By accepting the acceptance, the mind of the Buddha merges or takes over us, because in such accepting space there’s no room for the dichotomies, judgments or insecurities of our little mind (or the mind of doubt, I suppose it could be called too).