Rubble into Gold
Buddhism is a path of supreme optimism, for one of its basic tenets is that no human life or experience is to be wasted, abandoned, or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of vibrant life, deep wisdom, and compassionate living. This is the connotation of the classical statement that sums up the goal of Buddhist life: "Transform delusion into enlightenment." On the everyday level of experience, Shin Buddhists speak of this transformation as "bits of rubble turn into gold."
This metaphor comes from Tz'u-min, the Chinese Pure Land master of the eighth century, who proclaims the working of boundless compassion of Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, as follows:
The Buddha, in the causal stage, made the universal vow:When beings hear my Name and think on me,
I will come to welcome each of them,
Not discriminating at all between the poor
and the rich and well-born,
Not discriminating between the inferior and
Not choosing the learned and those upholding
Nor rejecting those who break precepts and
whose evil karma is profound.
Solely making beings turn about and
abundantly say the nembutsu,
I can make bits of rubble change into gold.
This transformation expresses the boundless compassion, nonjudgmental and all-inclusive, that is the moving force in the Buddhist tradition. It is not, however, a simple, naive optimism, for the starting point of Buddhism is a recognition of the universal fact of human suffering, born of both personal and collective karma. In fact, it is a realistic appraisal of life as it is, not merely on the surface of things but at its most profound depth. In this depth, abundant with the accumulated pain and sorrow of humanity, is also found the capacity of the human spirit to achieve its fullest potential, no matter the obstacles, through awakening to the working of boundless compassion deep within our life.
This awakening is brought about through the nembutsu, namu-amida-butsu, the calling from Amida Buddha, and we acknowledge it in our saying of the nembutsu. The radical transformation involved in this simple act will be explored from various angles, but let us turn to some concrete examples of what we mean by the transformative experience central to the Buddhist tradition.
A framed photograph of a broomstick on my office wall, taken by Maria, one of my former students, reminds me of the great compassion of Shakyamuni Buddha which brought about the transformation of the lowly monk Culapanthaka to become one of the most respected figures in early Buddhism. His older brother, Mahapanthaka, was celebrated as an articulate and wise monk, a commanding figure in the Sangha, while Culapanthaka was the very opposite: dim-witted and bumbling in speech. Unable to memorize even a single line of the teaching, he was the object of ridicule by his fellow monks. He regarded himself as a total failure; his inferiority complex knew no end.
One day when the Buddha saw Culapanthaka in tears, having been ordered by his brother to return to lay status, he called him aside and assured him of help on the path of enlightenment. The Buddha showed empathy for his plight and gave him a simple refrain to repeat each time he swept the monastic compound as part of his daily task: "Take away the dirt, sweep away the dust." After rehearsing and repeating this phrase countless times, even though he sometimes forgot the precise wording, Culapanthaka attained a breakthrough. The constant repetition affected the deepest layer of his psyche, as he realized that dirt and dust are defilements (klesha) to be taken away and swept away by wisdom (prajna). It was the Buddha's felt pain that touched Culapanthaka's pain and elicited this transformation.
The Buddha's compassion is the basis for the parable of the four horses that he preached when he resided at the Kalandaka Grove. The first horse, he explained, runs swiftly the instant he sees the shadow of a whip. The next horse will run fast the moment his skin feels the whip. The third horse runs when the whip cuts into his flesh. The slowest horse will run only after repeated lashings. Quoting this parable of the four horses, Shunryu Suzuki states in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:
If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. . . . If you consider the mercy of the Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.
This highly respected teacher, Suzuki Roshi, identifies with the slowest horse; his Zen practice is sustained and developed by virtue of the compassion of the Buddha.
Although Suzuki does not mention it, the scripture actually uses the parable of the four horses in order to describe four kinds of people on the path of Buddhism. The first kind awakens and moves forward on the path the instant they hear about the sufferings caused by old age, illness, and death, acknowledging the Four Noble Truths taught by Shakyamuni Buddha: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the means to that cessation. The second kind moves when they not only hear but actually see with their own eyes the sufferings of people caused by old age, illness, and death. The third kind is not affected at all by the sufferings of others, but when a family member experiences sufferings due to old age, illness, and death, they move forward on the path. And the fourth kind is not distressed at all by seeing old age, illness, and death in others or even among family members, but they are jolted and pushed forward on the path when they personally experience the sufferings that accompany old age, illness, and death.
Just as the sympathy of the Buddha identifies with the slowest horse, the compassion of the Buddha focuses on this last group of people, which includes most of us. But some of us do not easily awaken to the meaning of life's evanescence, filled with unexpected tragedies and culminating in death, even if we personally experience them. When we finally do feel a need, it may be too late, because old age limits our physical and mental capacities, illness prohibits any sustained quest, and death obliterates everything. Such people are called foolish beings (bonbu).
Foolish beings, however, are the primary concern of Amida, and it is upon them that the flooding light of boundless compassion shines, eventually bringing about a radical transformation in life--hopeless to hopeful, darkness to light, ignorance to enlightenment, bits of rubble to gold. This awareness of foolish beings is at the core of Japanese Buddhist life, regardless of school or denomination. The term bonbu appears as early as the seventh century C.E. in the Seventeen Articles by Prince Shotoku, the father of Japanese Buddhism, who formulated this guideline for an ideal government. What does it mean to say that the focus of boundless compassion is the foolish being?
At a Shin temple in Japan, I once heard a teacher talk about his only son, who had had a terrible case of asthma since the time he was born. Hoping for a cure before the boy entered first grade so he could receive normal schooling, they moved south with him to a warmer climate. The boy slowly grew stronger, strong enough to enter primary school with his peers. One of the first major events in the Japanese school year is what is called Field Day, when all students participate in some kind of race according to their grade level.
Early in the morning of Field Day, the little boy went to school accompanied by his mother. As the father waited for their return home later that day, he could hear gleeful laughter and happy conversation coming from the two as they approached their home. Sensing their excitement, the father thought for sure that his son must have done well in his race. As soon as the two entered the house, he called out to his son, asking, "Did you take first place in your race?" "No, Dad," the boy shouted, "I didn't come in first--I came in eighth!" "Oh," the father said, "And how many kids ran in your race?" "Eight!" the son shouted, clapping his hands.
The mother turned to the father with a big smile. "Isn't it wonderful that he could run just like the other children? He came in eighth place; he finished the race! Remember when he couldn't even run at all? Now he runs just like the other children. This is cause for celebration! Our son is Number One!" With this story, the teacher reminded us that within boundless compassion each of us is Number One, whether in last place or not. In fact, it is the last-place finisher, the foolish being, who is first in the eyes of Amida Buddha.
The realization that one is a foolish being occurs constantly and can be demonstrated by mundane examples taken from everyday life. It happened to me once when I came across an evaluation of my teaching. At the college where I taught for almost thirty years, there are two surveys that evaluate courses and professors. An official survey is conducted by the dean of faculty, and the report is sent to every faculty member. There is, however, an underground survey compiled by students, called "Aspects," that is not shown to the faculty.
But one day I happened to come across a copy of "Aspects" that listed two of my courses. The introductory course on world religions was team-taught and had the following brief comment: "The course was team-taught. Miss Higgins and Mr. Hubbard were clear and to the point, but Mr. Unno was vague and never gave straight answers."
This criticism was painful, because I had always considered myself a good teacher and lecturer. This was harsh. But my deflated ego was immediately soothed when I read the next remark by another student, "Mr. Unno is wonderful. He is really clear and cares."
Before my inflated ego could congratulate itself, I was shattered by another critique of my course on Buddhist Thought. I took great pride in this course, and I had inspired many students to explore the subject further. The negative comment read: "Discussion was not encouraged and the professor was not interested in hearing others' viewpoints."
Again, my ego was deflated with a hissing sound that was almost audible. But the next sentence saved my day: "Professor Unno is excellent. He generates enthusiasm, and his anecdotes all pertain to the subject matter."
A few words randomly tossed out by students, probably long forgotten by them, can easily create upheavals in a professor's self-image. Whenever we feel anxiety and experience insecurity, or we become bubbly with success and excitement, we are surely showing signs of a foolish being drowning in samsara, the ocean of birth and death. But it is such a foolish being, awakened by the working of boundless compassion, who undergoes transformation to eventually become a true, real, and sincere human being.
We see a vivid example of nembutsu awakening in the life of Hisako Nakamura (1897-1961), who lost both her hands and feet at the age of three, due to a gangrene infection caused by frostbite. She grew up in poverty and suffered discrimination because of her condition. Her only means of livelihood was to be featured in a sideshow exhibition, performing everything a normal person could do--cooking, eating, sewing, writing, bathing, cleaning, and so on. She thus traveled throughout Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria for twenty-two years. Helen Keller, whom she met for the first time in 1937, is said to have admired Nakamura for her strength and courage.
Over the years she was married four times--losing two husbands by death and one by divorce--and had two daughters. When she encountered the Shin teachings in her sixties, she found a path that affirmed her life as it was. It helped her reject the advice of friends who told her to accept her situation. Instead, Nakamura found herself existing within boundless compassion that not only shouldered the burdens of her life as its ultimate concern but provided the energy and strength for her to live each day positively and vigorously.
In her words,
After a moment of irritability, I reflect.
And prostrate myself before the Buddha.
What should I do about my selfish desires?
I can only leave it in the hands of the Buddha.
The white chrysanthemums I offer the Buddha
Its pure odor remains as I chant the morning sutra.
The cheapest of rice gruel (that I am)
That allows me to live.
The worship that brings such happiness,
The karma that the mother bears,
And the karma that she forces her daughters to bear
Are all borne by the Buddha
(So I must do my part by living to the fullest today).
Sixty years without hands or feet
Only because the Buddha's
Compassionate hands and feet
Have taken the place of mine.
Later in life Nakamura was in constant demand as a speaker, not only at Buddhist gatherings but at schools, prisons, disabled veterans associations, and mothers' groups, sharing her experiences and her faith to overcome insurmountable difficulties. She traveled all over the country, carried on the backs of her husband and daughters, to inspire people to live positively and gratefully, cherishing this unrepeatable human life.
Transformation occurs not only in life but in death. We find this in the life story of another devout Shin Buddhist, Kichibei (1803-1881), who fell in love with a woman as a young man and had a child out of wedlock.9 Although he sought to marry her, his wish was denied by both families, for each was a single child, expected to carry on their respective family names, according to a time-honored Japanese custom. Broken-hearted, angry, and upset, Kichibei became acutely aware of the contradiction that he deeply felt--the yearning of the heart denied by social conventions.
Kichibei turned to the Buddha Dharma, seeking solace and some kind of resolution. When he pursued it, rather than finding an answer, he was confronted with a monumental contradiction: death abruptly negates everything in life. This spurred him on to immerse himself even more deeply in his quest for meaning. Although it took him almost a lifetime of grappling with the question of death and dying, he reached a deep appreciation for the preciousness of this fragile life on earth, prompted by an awareness that death can instantly end this human life, a life that can never be repeated in eternity. Buddhism does not negate life but affirms life, including everything within it--despair, frustration, and anger in the case of youthful Kichibei. Everything negative is now seen in a radically different light and is transformed into a positive experience.
Excerpted from Shin Buddhism by Taitetsu Unno. Copyright © 2002 by Taitetsu Unno. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.