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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 59 |spring 2007 One of the implications of the Mahayana Buddhist idea of emptiness is that the important question is not “What does it mean to be a Buddhist?” It is “What does it mean to be a human being?” That’s because empti- ness applies to Buddhism itself as much as it does to ordinary objects of attachment. It is only when one has been “emptied” of all preconceived categories, including those of Buddhism, that the deepest real- ity of being human becomes apparent. As the Zen master Dogen states, “To study the buddhadharma is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” In our usual thinking about human nature, we tend to turn toward various specialists. For example, a scientist might consider our ability to stand erect (homo erectus) and use tools with opposable thumbs to be the defining endowments of human nature. A philosopher might regard the ability to think as the distin- guishing characteristic of human nature, as the French thinker René Descartes suggested with his statement cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Some point to the human ability to express sublime emotion through poetry and art or to make moral judgments. Others see skilled surgeons, artful ballerinas, basket- ball stars, moral leaders, and the like as the pinnacles of humanity. Parents hope their children will become mature human beings, making full use of their bodies, minds, and hearts, and will lead lives that are fulfilling for themselves and others. But does this account for all of human nature? What about failure, loss, separa- tion, and death? What about people who may have talent but do not live up to their promise? For every musician who aspires to a concert career, how many abandon their dreams for lack of opportunity or finances? Of all the young men and women who aspire to play pro basket- ball, how many succeed? How many are injured or fail to meet the right coach? How many people wish to escape cycles of oppression and violence but are unable to do so? When we begin to see that failure and shortcomings of all kinds – economic, social, moral, and spiritual – are as com- monplace as so-called success, it becomes necessary to revise our definition of human nature. What we had initially conceived of as human nature, our first nature, as it were, turns out to be only half of the story. There is a second nature, what in Shin Buddhism is called bombu, or foolish being, which is just as much a part of our humanity as our first nature. Shin Buddhism, the largest develop- Mark Unno is the aUthor of Shingon RefRac- tionS: Myoe and the MantRa of Light and editor of the new anthology, BuddhiSM and PSychoL- ogy acRoSS cuLtuReS. he teaches east asian religions at the University of oregon. The Path of Foolish Beings Who are the foolish beings? According to the Shin tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, we all are. Mark Unno explains that only by becoming aware of our limited self and acknowledging our fundamental foolishness can we realize the oneness of all beings and the limitless flow of compassion. photographs by peter seidler ment of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, emphasizes our foolishness, or karmic shortcomings. Although we may have a desire or impulse to do good, we are often our own greatest stumbling blocks, the victim of our own circumstances. But while we cannot escape the external karmic consequences of our past actions – legal, economic, social, and so on – this does not mean that we should punish ourselves inwardly for things that have happened in the past. Rather, by recog- nizing our foibles and quirks, we open a window into our own karmic nature, without which we cannot realize buddha- nature. For it is only when we recognize and take ownership of the full scope of our humanity that we can see ourselves as truly, fully human. This is when our foolish nature, or second nature, becomes second nature. Only then do we see that the mask of success – the social self we present to others and to ourselves – is only part of our story, and we can look at ourselves and others with more humor and gentleness and with a greater sense of awareness and compassion. As Ryokan, the Zen monk who was also steeped in the Shin path, wrote, we may learn to be more like the maple leaf in autumn that bares all without pretense: Showing front Showing back The falling maple leaf (Opposite) The Contemplatives (details from a series) 2004