This post was inspired by something interesting I saw on Marcus’s blog recently that jarred something in my memory. A while back, I discussed the catechism of Honen, the founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, which is actually a famous letter from a disciple called the hyakuyonjūgo kajō mondō (百四十五箇条問答), or “145 itemized questions”. One question, number 57, is what Marcus’s blog reminded me of:
Q: Is it a sin to drink saké [alcohol]?
A: Indeed one ought not to drink, but [you know] it is the way of the world.
(Honen the Buddhist Saint, page 56)
For reference, I found the original Japanese:1
Hitotsu, sake nomu wa, tsumi ni tesuka?
Kotae, makoto ni wa nomubeku mo nakeredomo, sono yo no narahi.
Here, Honen is doing two things in answer this question. First, he is upholding the Buddhist teachings with regard to intoxicants (alcohol, drugs, etc): one should abstain from indulging in them.2 This is the fifth moral precept of Buddhism, part of the overall basic rules of conduct for Buddhism. Second, he’s acknowledging that in spite of these noble rules, the “way of the world” is to disregard them for the sake of selfish gratification.
When I read this I feel that Honen is lamenting the state of human affairs, but at the same time, being understanding to the author of the letter, stating that in this environment, in these times, it’s hard not to. What’s important is that while Honen is being lenient and not chastising, he’s also not allowing the disciple to take pride in his behavior either, even if society allows him to do it. He’s asking the disciple to at least reflect on his actions with solemnity, and not to be flippant about the moral precepts, even if he can’t follow them.
This also reminds me of a famous letter of Honen’s disciple, Shinran who founded the Jodo Shinshu sect. In his latter years in Kyoto, he heard rumors of disciples in the countryside intentionally flaunting Buddhist morality in the belief that they would still be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, and sent this letter to rebuke them.
This is Letter 20 in the Lamp for the Latter Age (末燈鈔, mattōshō):3
There was a time for each of you when you knew nothing of Amida’s Vow and did not say the Name of Amida Buddha, but now, guided by the compassionate means of [the Buddhas] Sakyamuni and Amida, you have begun to hear the Vow. Formerly you were drunk with the wine of ignorance and had a liking only for the three poisons of greed, anger, and folly, but since you have begun to hear the Buddha’s Vow you have gradually awakened from the drunkenness of ignorance, gradually rejected the three poisons, and come to prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha.
In contrast, how lamentable that people who have not fully awakened from drunkenness are urged to more drunkenness and those still in the grips of poison encouraged to take yet more poison. It is indeed sorrowful to give way to impulses with the excuse that one is by nature possessed of blind passions – excusing acts that should not be committed, words that should not be said, and thoughts that should not be harbored – and to say that one may follow one’s desires in any way whatever. It is like offering more wine before the person has become sober or urging him to take even more poison before the poison has abated. “Here’s some medicine, so drink all the poison you like” – words like these should never be said.
Like Honen, Shinran is stating that one should never take pride in one’s faults, even if they are not yet able to overcome them. If one cannot follow all five precepts, follow four. If you can’t follow follow, then follow three, two or even one. If you can’t even follow these five, do not think you are clever and try to interpret Buddhist teachings to justify your sloppy behavior. Better to acknowledge one’s faults than to pretend they are virtues. Too many Buddhist converts these days believe they can read a book or two, meditate a lot, go to retreats, and somehow avoid any real self-reflection, while passing themselves off as an expert.4
Excuses are a crutch. Nothing worthwhile in life is gained without effort. So it is with Buddhist morality. No one gets the precepts right the first time, but the effort, self-reflection, and resolve to try again and again bear great fruit in the long run. When one struggles with the precepts, one should take refuge in Amitabha Buddha’s Light, and make a vow before the Buddha. This is the dynamic side of Buddhist morality, from a Pure Land perspective. This struggle and effort is how one polishes the mind, perfumes the seeds of the store-conscious, and becomes human.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 Medieval Japanese is quite different than regular, modern Japanese. I can barely read this myself, even though it’s only two sentences. :-p
2 The obvious exception is when it has a wholesome, beneficial intention, such as cold medicine being used as prescribed, not abused.
3 I’m pretty sure the gist of this letter is “don’t be a dumbass.” I believe Shinran expresses this much better than me though. This is among my favorite letters, and really shows Shinran’s wit and wisdom.
4 Some of them even write blogs. *cough*