Honen says: Pay attention

Todaiji Daibutsuden

(Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan)

One last post for Ohigan.1 Lately I’ve been re-reading the book Honen The Buddhist Saint, and there’s one story in the that always gets my attention. Here I quote in full:

Honen once said, “There used to be a priest of the Tendai sect, who was very diligently in the study of the Jōdo doctrines. With a sigh he once remarked, ‘I have already come to understand the main points in this teaching, and yet somehow a believing heart has not been stirred within me. What can I do to awaken such faith?’ I gave him the following injunction: ‘Pray to the Three Treasures [The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha].’

After a long time he came to me and said, ‘I have been in the habit of offering prayers according to your instructions, and I happened one day to be repairing to the Tōdaiji Temple. It was the very day on which the ridge-poles of the new building were to be raised, and in some strange way I could hardly comprehend, these immense timbers were lifted up through the air by windlasses, as easily and quickly as if they had been flying. As I stood gazing at it, to my surprise they were put down just in the right spot. “Such indeed,” thought I, “is the skill of a carpenter in his work. How much more perfect and skillful then must be the art of Amida Nyorai in saving men.” And as I thought of it, my doubts all disappeared in a thrice, and a settled faith laid old of me. But as I think of it, this was nothing but the result of my daily prayers to the Three Treasures.’

I suppose, it was some three years after this, that, amid happy omens, he accomplished his desire for birth into the Pure Land. It must be remember that the receiving of instruction and the awakening of faith are in their nature quite distinct from each other. In his case, he did not reach the experience of faith while studying the doctrines, but it was awakened within him by merely looking at this external phenomenon. And so I say that in the great majority of cases, even though a man hears the Jōdo doctrines, and beings the Nembutsu practice, if faith does not spring up within him, he should apply his mind diligently, always keep thinking the matter over and over, and also keep praying to the Three Treasures. (pg. 90-91).

I think what’s so interesting to me, is this acknowledgement by Hōnen that reading about Buddhism and Buddhist doctrines is not the same thing as learning about Buddhism through life experiences.

Hōnen doesn’t give the Tendai priest a witty, “Zen” reply (like “just sit” or some riddle) or tell him to believe or else. Instead, he gives the priest a balanced answer, telling him to put his mind to it, pray to the Three Treasures and the answer will come in time. Sure enough, it did.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Feeling unusually inspired lately. :p

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