The Foolish Person

NasturtiumsSuch, in the end, is how this foolish person entrusts himself [to the Vow]. Beyond this, whether you take up and accept the nembutsu or whether you abandon it is for each of you to determine. (Shinran, Tannisho II, CWS; p. 662)

Shinran Shonin here describes himself as ‘gushin’, an idiot, a fool, a simpleton.

Encountering this passage for the first time, we may lapse into a superficial understanding of his words as false, artificial humility: mere self-effacing decorum. But no. Shinran is here expressing what he has learned about himself from the inner revelation that is granted when the inconceivable light of Amida Buddha dawns in one’s heart. His statement is an element of shinjin, entrusting heart. In fact, it is revealed in the light of the Buddha’s wisdom.

The two aspects of the deep mind of shinjin reflect the whole purpose of the Buddhist project since its inception. Readers will have noticed that I frequently refer to these two aspects of deep mind. That is because it is one of the most powerful and liberating characteristics of shinjin.

In fact, Shinran is giving an account of the first of the two aspects –

One truly knows oneself to be a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good … (CWS, p. 92 et. al.)

There are two ways of addressing this aspect of ourselves. One of them is intrinsically superficial. This happens when we think that, because it is often praised in the Pure Land tradition, seeing ourselves in this way is desirable. We try to cultivate it as an affectation.

We might say this of ourselves without really acknowledging that we are indeed a foolish being: a fact about ourselves, something absolutely true and real. A person who claims an understanding of this aspect of deep faith, but does not have it, may become angry when another person is critical of some characteristic that they have.

A person who has seen him or herself in the light of Amida is able to tolerate criticisms more easily, with greater calm, and can contemplate them without fear. That is because there is another aspect to the deep mind of shinjin. It is knowing for a fact that

Amida’s universal Primal Vow decisively enables all to attain birth, including those who say the Name even down to ten times, or even but hear it. (CWS, p. 92)

 An infant is unselfconscious about his or her messy eating habits or incontinence. It is confident and comfortable in the warm embrace of its mother. Shinran was like that. Living in the warm embrace of Amida Buddha’s unbounded compassion he was able to accept himself for the foolish being the he was.

Finally, the revelation of ourselves as a foolish being through the light of Amida Buddha will inevitably motivate us to accept Amida Buddha’s prompting to abandon self-centred, worldly attitudes, and to live with kindness and respect for all beings, even though we are foolish beings.

Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seen in the change of heart that had been bad and in deep warmth for friends and fellow-practicers; this is the sign of rejecting the world. (Lamp for the Latter Ages, 19; CWS, p. 551)

Author: George Gatenby

Shin Buddhist priest