Awakening to our true nature must be preceded by a certain “Falling in my own eyes”. The ego has to take a hit (or many such hits) during life in order for us to open up to something larger than the tenuous, needy and fragile world of the individual self.
In Buddhist self-power paths, the individual takes its fall through strenuous efforts. The objective being that the personal self will be seen as only relational and not something existing on its own. Ultimately, this imagined self is seen through, becoming transparent and, if the process of liberation continues, experienced as something occasionally useful (in society) but otherwise basically irrelevant. Deep awareness of the emptiness and oneness of all things disconnects the frantic impulses to be secure in an insecure world. Here, the frantic impulse of ego-survival has to be channeled into a frantic impulse to spiritual practice “as though one’s hair were on fire”.
In Shin Buddhism the individual takes the fall with the painful recognition of one’s negative karmic impulses that are entrenched to the point where self-power practices cannot reach. Like Shinran, this fall seems to be most effective when the individual fails miserably during years of sincere effort. Leaving one’s life in Amida’s hands is not something a “healthy” ego could do willingly. An exhausted and humiliated self doesn’t so much make a choice to “leave it all up to Amida”, but such a battered self simply has little choice left. Where stamina and dedication is called for in Zen, for instance, a humiliated defeat is an effective gateway in Shin Buddhism. Of course the whole logic of Zen Koan practice is to force the self-satisfied, linear-thinking ego into a trap that it cannot escape from without being maimed in the process. There too, a humiliated self finds its defeat which (under the direction of a skilled teacher) could lead to awakening.
This begs the question of whether or not someone who simply “inherits” Shin Buddhism from family and therefore is under peer pressure to follow the teachings can completely be exposed to one’s foolish self. Is there a conflict where one is rewarded with familial and social respect by following a teaching that begins with the fact that we are all hopelessly deluded? Is one’s desire for approval (by family, community or teacher) also seen as being part of our collective delusion? Shinran was keen to the fact that even under the façade of good behavior and respectability there often lurked darker motives fueled by pride, fueled in turn by confusion, fear and desperation.
In Zen, worthiness and competence are key ingredients for a student to have. By contrast, Shin Buddhists understand themselves as being unworthy recipients of Amida’s wisdom and compassion; in fact it is the very sinking depth of our unworthiness that makes us worthy, after all. Our cry of unworthiness and incompetence is the fall we must all eventually face and the contrast between that painful fact and the great gift of Faith we are given by Amida, is the birth of a beautiful and spontaneous gratitude.
May our gratitude grow to the point where we ourselves see a world worthy of nothing less than compassion wherever we go. Namu Amida Butsu!