Doing the Work
by Minister's Asst. George Thow
The 2014 Pacific Seminar, held at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple in July, was a memorable event. It was in honor of the Unno’s—Rev. Tai, Rev. Tets, and Rev. Tai’s son Mark—and some very powerful words of teaching were to be had. Rev. Tai (85 and quite frail) was mainly there to observe; the principle speaker then was Rev. Tets and he was in rare form. He said quite a few things that were meant to provoke some deep reflection. Just to focus on one such statement: Rev. Tets spoke of how important it is to “do the work” in order to make progress as a Buddhist. To make his point he reminded us all of how Shinran had put in 20 years’ worth of work on Mt. Hiei, and that it is this kind of standard by which we should measure ourselves.
Now Mt. Hiei (more accurately Enryakuji) was a complex of monasteries, the home institution of the Japanese Tendai School; for hundreds of years the largest and most powerful such institution in the Japanese kingdom. Shinran literally grew up in the wing of this institution that focused on Pure Land teaching and practice. His life there involved rigorous academic study; it also involved equally rigorous—even harsh—practices, such as the recitation of Nembutsu for 100 days while walking around a statue of Amida without rest. This was his life as a Tendai monk—a life intended to bring one to the threshold of emancipation from birth and death. And after 20 years of such rigor, Shinran left the mountain, never to return. He found his way to Master Honen, and was ready to hear Honen’s teaching about the Nembutsu.
Such is most certainly not the lives that the likes of us live. And yet, at the deepest level our lives are no different. To be sure, we are not monks and nuns, living and laboring in some monastery. But then, there is no requirement that we live such a life. We are in fact resident in the monastery called life itself. Every day that we live our lives we are given so many opportunities to experience the truth of the Dharma; every day we are challenged to rise above self-centered thinking and complacent living. Every day we get the chance to affirmatively, actively rise to that challenge, for as human beings that is what we are set up to do. No one else can do this for us. Our lives are precious, irreplaceable threads in the ever-dynamic flow of life itself . . . and perhaps the best we find ourselves doing is occasionally finding ourselves embarrassed to see how blind and bumbling and stumbling we are. The clock is running, our lives are short, and perhaps we are hardly putting out any dharma effort at all.
Shin Buddhism is not something that we witness once a week, now and then. It is not “inspiring words” that we hear when we feel like it, and let slip away. It is a life challenge, to be actively taken up. It is preparation for a life encounter that is both as individual as ourselves and as universal as life itself. It is work to be done. Let us rise to the challenge.