True learning

There is a Chinese translation of the Dhammapada, which was compiled during the third century of the common era. It not only has many well-known verses from this venerable work. There are also accompanying accounts of events that are relevant for the verse concerned. One such verse reads:

If one has limited learning and considers oneself so great as to be arrogant towards others, then the one who holds the torch is the blind one. He illuminates others but does not illuminate himself. (ET 10-11, p. 28)

The accompanying story tells of a community leader who went around holding a torch proclaiming, ‘The people of this world are blind. They do not see anything: so I carry a torch to illuminate them.’ This naturally caused a lot of consternation. The Buddha noticed this man’s behaviour and that he seemed to other people to be an arrogant and haughty person.

Eventually, the Buddha sought to engage this man who carried the torch. What was it that justified his claim that everyone, other than he himself, was blind and needed to be illuminated by him? As it turned out, in the discussion that the Buddha had with him, the man with the torch was really as he seemed, haughty and arrogant but not really knowledgeable about anything of real importance.

Learning is a very important feature of the teachings that we find in The Analects of Confucius. But learning is hard work. It is a life-long endeavour and really never ends. As one learns, one is able to live by what one has found to be true and useful. Sooner or later one is able to teach others about what one has gleaned from both experience and learning.

Actually, a feature of true learning is that people grow in humility. The more they know, the more they become aware of how little they know.

The Buddha Dharma is not so much a thing to learn as to experience. It is focused on practical matters. It is not a matter of how much you know but what you know. In the way of nembutsu, we lay ourselves open to the ‘light unhindered that fills the ten directions’ – Amida Buddha. Then comes deep listening: hearing the Dharma over and over again. We do not acquire a list of facts about one thing or another. People of nembutsu expose themselves to the light by reading, listening and seeing – and looking within. That is understanding.

The light of the Buddha is an essential element of the Name, Namu-amida-butsu, and is manifest in the teachings of the Buddha and of his disciples, for example, Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin. As nembutsu people read and listen, they look within their hearts. Warmly embraced in the compassion of Amida Buddha, we can be just as we are – foolish beings.

… the great teacher Honen said, ‘No working is true working.’ My understanding has been that nothing apart from this realisation is necessary for the attainment of birth into the Pure Land … (Shinran; CWS, p. 533)