May 2019 Message

“Ignorance May be Bliss...But There is Joy in Awakening!”
by Rev. Dean Koyama

Although I too am within Amida’s grasp, blind passions obstruct my
eyes and I cannot see [the light]; nevertheless, great compassion
untiringly and constantly illumines me.
Kyogyoshinsho, The Collected Works of Shiran, page 93

Several years ago I was given a newspaper article to read. It was about incompetence. The article was from my wife. She said that the article made her think of me.

Actually the article was very interesting. Research was done at a University where it was found “that subjects who scored in the lowest quartile on tests in logic, English grammar and humor were also the most likely to grossly overestimate how well they had performed.” In other words, “people who do things badly are usually supremely confident of their ability-- more confidant, in fact than people who do things well.” According to one of the researchers, “Not only do they (the incompetent) reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it (that they are incompetent).” In summary, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent. Kinda reminds me of our government, but I won’t mention any names!!

After reading this article, I was immediately reminded of a story told by Rev. Tetsuo Unno. The story is about a nosy neighbor who was always looking into the lives of her next-door neighbor. One day the neighbor is hanging out her laundry to dry in the sun and the nosy neighbor is remarking how pitiful that she cannot even clean her laundry right. “Look at how dingy and dirty her laundry still is. Every day she hangs her laundry out to dry but her clothes are never clean. I’d hate to be a member of that family and wear her dingy clothes.” The nosy neighbor said to a friend who happened to drop by. The friend came to look through the kitchen window and saw the laundry hanging out to dry. The friend replied, “I wish I could see how dingy her clothes are but I can’t tell because the windows are so dirty.”

Both the newspaper article and this story illustrate how strong bonno is. Bonno refers to the karmic passions that inflame our perception. They are our delusions based upon our ego-centered mind fueled by our greed, anger, and ignorance. This is the state that the Buddha describes that causes our suffering in our human lives. And I believe that the adage, “Ignorance is bliss” may certainly be true. Therefore it is easy to understand why the “incompetents” may not even realize that they are incompetent. However, on the other side of the spectrum, as the study had shown, there are those who truly are competent yet they underestimate their own ability.

Many years ago I helped coordinate a youth retreat in San Luis Obispo. We had some time to fill during our retreat’s daily schedule and so we had asked Rev. Haruyoshi Kusada to conduct a shodo calligraphy workshop for the kids. Rev. Kusada is a man of many talents. He holds a third-degree black belt in Aikido. He has practiced tea ceremony for many years. He holds a ranking in the liturgy (chanting) rituals of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. And of course he is very proficient in the art of Japanese calligraphy. Most of the kids had never ever written a Japanese character let alone with a fude brush before. So we thought it would be easy for someone as proficient as Rev. Kusada to do a simple calligraphy workshop showing the very basics.

The evening before the scheduled day of the calligraphy workshop, all the coordinators were getting ready to go to sleep. It had been a long, hot, tiring day and we had just finished our usual evening meeting discussing how the events of the day went and the next day’s schedule. As we were all in our sleeping bags wanting to get to sleep so that we could wake up for our 6 AM service, Rev. Kusada pulled out a pad of paper, a brush, his sumi ink and began to practice his calligraphy. In perfect posture he continued to practice for a good half-hour or so.

“Sensei,” I asked, “What are you doing?”
“I must practice.” was his reply.
“Sensei, you don’t need to practice. Most of these kids have never written a Japanese character before. They won’t know the difference.”
“All the more reason to practice.” was his causal reply.

Here was a great master of calligraphy spending precious sleep time practicing something he could do with his eyes closed; practicing his calligraphy so that it would be perfect even though his audience would have no clue whether the character he was writing was for water or for tree.

If it was left for me to do conduct the calligraphy workshop, I doubt if I would have spent as much time preparing as Rev. Kusada did. I would have taken the easy way out. I would have rationalized that I would know more than the kids and that I have practiced calligraphy more than they had (although I have never studied it seriously before in my life). I would have just gone straight to bed without giving it another thought. Then I would have done the workshop, felt good about how my characters looked and how the workshop went. Doesn’t this describe the incompetents in the newspaper article?

As I look back upon this incident that occurred late in the night while watching Rev. Kusada seriously practice something that without a doubt he could do in his sleep, I detected a simple joy - a simple pleasure in just practicing.

Perhaps it would be wonderful if we could proceed through our lives with blinders on and enjoy the bliss created by our ignorance. There would be no need to improve our selves. We would be totally satisfied with our ego-centered arrogance thinking that we are so good. But once in a while we encounter an experience such as the diligence and sincerity of Rev. Kusada’s preparation, which causes us to realize how blind we may have been. We are awakened to a reality that causes us to become filled with gut wrenching humility.

Shinran writes:

I know truly how grievous it is that I, Gutoku Shinran, am sinking in an immense ocean of desires and attachments and am lost in vast mountains of fame and advantage, so that I rejoice not at all at entering the stage of the truly settled, and feel no happiness at coming near the realization of true enlightenment. How ugly it is! How wretched!
Kyogyoshinsho, from The Collected Works of Shinran page 125

Here, Shinran laments how strong his desires and attachments motivate him so much so that he cannot even rejoice in the realization of being embraced within the infinite wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. Shinran is acknowledging the depth of his bonno. But instead of wallowing in his self-pity he also writes:

How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension! I am deeply aware of the Tathagata’s immense compassion...My joy grows ever fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling.
Kyogyoshinsho, from The Collected Works of Shinran page 291.

At first, Shinran is embarrassed and distressed at discovering his own limitations and shortcomings. However he realizes that it is only through the illumination from the infinite wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, that he is able to realize that he has been traveling in the dark world of his bonno, his incompetence, his ignorance, his own defilements.

“Ignorance is bliss” only as long as we do not realize our ignorance. Yet constantly the light and life of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion shines and embraces us. They encourage us to wake up to the reality of our lives. They give us a way for us to honestly admit our faults and foibles and admit that we are not super-human beings incapable of ever making mistakes, but rather we are simple-ordinary human beings who make mistakes all the time. Only by acknowledging and admitting our limitations can we then transcend them. Only then can we awaken to our ultimate potential and realize the joy of being a simple, humble human being. Ignorance is bliss, but in awakening to the realities of our human life, there is joy.

Namo Amida Butsu,