Henry David Thoreau – b. 12 July 1817

A reconstruction of Henry Thoreau’s hut, near Walden pond.

He is the dharma-king that, basing himself in oneness, sets flowing the cultivation of beings.

He is a benevolent king that, widely reigning over the four seas, sends down the winds of virtue.

The benevolent king and the dharma-king, in mutual correspondence, give guidance to beings. The supramundane (‘shin-tai’) truth and the mundane truth (‘zoku-tai’), depending on each other (‘shin-zoku nitai’), cause the teaching to spread. Thus, the profound writings are everywhere throughout the land, and benevolent guidance reaches everywhere under heaven. (Master Saicho, quoted by Shinran Shonin in The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation VI, CWS, p. 244)

Second is Amida’s directing of virtue for our return to this world. This is the benefit we receive, the state of benefiting and guiding others. (CWS, p. 158)

The term ‘benevolent king’ is a metaphor for ‘secular affairs’ (zokutai, Sk. samvriti satya; A Dictionary of Buddhist Terms, Hisao Inagaki, p. 373). The idea that the secular world and the dharma work together to bring us finally to entrust ourselves–without any prevarication or doubt–to the Primal Vow, which takes the form of the Name, Namo Amida Butsu, is not as popular as it used to be. But I remain convinced that it is a balanced and harmonious way to live. As a result, I feel that the working of Amida Buddha can be known in secular matters that deepen or confirm the working of the Primal Vow in our lives.

After all, Amida Buddha and we have known each other since the immemorial past. He has always been calling to us and we have always been seeking him. All he needs to do is to open our minds so that his light can shine deep in our being, showing us in an incontrovertible way who we are, so that we can confidently trust him.

I am sure that everyone who becomes a nembutsu follower can identify in this life a path that led to hearing the call of the Vow, and entrusting themselves to it. Sometimes these events and people give us bad and unpleasant experiences that hurt us and cause profound pain and suffering: catalysts that send us on a search for meaning and deliverance. At other times we look back with fond memories to someone who brought us love and the capacity to trust and to open our hearts and minds to the eternal truth that awaits us.

These are aspects of life that are of immense significance to each of us, even though they are homely and unpretentious. Not particularly profound or brilliant, they have a lasting effect for good. The most valuable of these often turn out to be the people and events that gently led us into seeing things a little differently. These are the ‘secular’ saints that open the way to much deeper spiritual understanding.

As an example of this, I would like to point to my own experience in my late teens. It was during this time that I grew to know my maternal grandfather, who died at about the time that I took up the way of nembutsu.

My grandfather was a revered and loved member our family.  Although he had little formal education, he was very well read, and a source of much wisdom. He was raised as a Methodist but tended to be agnostic and ambivalent about religious ideas. As I was approaching adulthood I would sometimes catch the train out of the city to his small farm, and luxuriate in the warm sun of his generous heart and endlessly fascinating mind.

His personality and ideas remain a strong influence for me. He made his living as a journalist and ran a small country weekly newspaper. As well as that, he wrote so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ (westerns) for the American railway market. He left these to me in his will. His American publisher was astonished that an Australian, who had never visited the United States, could know and understand the frontier life of the USA so well!

I learned many simple but priceless truths from my grandfather. He was descended from immigrants to Australia during the gold rush, in the mid-nineteenth century. Somewhere along the way he had developed an admiration for Confucius, a great secular teacher of antiquity.

Confucius’s Analects have been used spitefully to serve the status quo and authority structures. But, in fact, his teaching is inspiring, benevolent and includes the practice that we would call, ‘speaking truth to power.’ Everyone who is in a position of authority needs a trusted friend who can remonstrate with him or her. Above all, Confucius teaches us to continuously study and grow until our dying breath.

During the time of those weekend visits, my grandfather was living alone and was building his own house. I remember him puffing on his pipe and chatting with me about everything you could imagine. It was in that way that my grandfather reminds me of another well-loved person, Henry David Thoreau, who was born two hundred years ago yesterday. Instead of sitting with him, Henry Thoreau left us the record of his experience in Walden. So, we can listen to him in that way.

Like my grandfather, Thoreau stepped out of the confusion of the world at large and—for a time–reflected on the life that filled his surroundings; and the question of how to be truly human.

These are among some of the people who opened my mind to other ways of being and thinking. We are blessed to have people like that because by opening up our vistas we come nearer and nearer to hearing the call of the Vow in the Name of Amida Buddha. That is one way that secular matters can lead to us to discover deeper truths.

Namo Amida Butsu

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.