EXPRESSIONS OF FAITH
Buddhists honor virtues, equality
By The Rev. Alfred Bloom
This month, Buddhists commemorate the festival of Higan ("the other shore"). As with many festivals in Japan, it's associated with ancestors who have gone to the other shore of the Pure Land. However, Higan in Buddhist teaching referred originally to the attainment of enlightenment or Nirvana. In the traditional image, we cross the stream or river of births and deaths using the raft of the Dharma (teachings, disciplines and practices).
Higan falls on the spring and fall equinoxes, when time is divided evenly between light and dark, symbolizing the Buddhist middle path, which calls us to strike the balance between two extremes, i.e., hedonism and asceticism.
Buddhism is a teaching of moderation.
Also, the equinox calls attention to the Buddhist principle of equality. The length of day and night are equal, speaking of the perfection of the order of things.
In the Higan celebration, an emphasis is on virtue, particularly the six virtues that must be fulfilled to attain enlightenment. These are the six paramitas (a Sanskrit term, which is the basis for the term "Higan" in Sino-Japanese: param is other side; ita means go, so it means to go to the other side, or to reach perfection). The virtues are selfless giving (dana), discipline (sila), patient endurance (ksanti), effort-energy (virya), meditation (dhyana) and wisdom (prajna).
When a Bodhisattva, a Buddha to be, fulfilled these virtues perfectly, he attained Buddhahood and established the Pure Land. The process is the same for all other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition.
Some traditions add four more virtues: adaptability (upaya), vows (pranidhana), strength of purpose (bala), and knowledge (jnana). In the process of becoming a Buddha, there are 10 stages a Bodhisattva passes through in developing his spiritual ability. Each virtue corresponds to a stage in the progress to Buddhahood.
The initial six virtues focus on the cultivation of our own character, while the final four indicate the qualities that are needed for Buddhist activity in the world. They are the inner and outer qualities for a Bodhisattva and also for an effective community.
Although all Buddhists stress ethical life, Shin Buddhists understand ourselves to be foolish beings without any virtue to attain enlightenment by our own power. However, in reality there is an important place even in this tradition for the cultivation of virtue. As an example, Shinran tried for 20 years to follow and live up to Buddhist spiritual ideals. Yet, his passions were overwhelming, despite his effort. Through his serious, spiritual discipline he came to realize the power of the Buddha's compassion that would embrace a passion-ridden being such as himself.
Thus he exclaimed in the Tannisho, "When I ponder on the compassionate vow of Amida, established through five kalpas of profound thought, it was for myself, Shinran, alone. Because I am a being burdened so heavily with karma, I feel even more grateful to the primal vow which is made to decisively save me."
A famous, modern Shin Buddhist teacher, Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903), after a life of asceticism, discovered Other Power. A few days before his death he wrote his confession, "My Faith":
"The Tathagata is infinite power, Tathagata, through my religious conviction, endows me with a great ability to live. We normally rely upon common sense in determining what action should be taken. But that no longer works when things get complicated. In this case we are talking about only the most basic ethical principles and we find it difficult to fulfill even these. Anyone who has earnestly tried to observe each and every one of his ethical principles will have to admit that the task is impossible."
The practice of morality or good deeds has an educative value in guiding us to understand Other Power and Amida's compassion. However, there is another function of the cultivation of virtue in Buddhism. After we have experienced Other Power and the conviction of the truth of Amida's compassion in our hearts and minds, we fulfill these virtues as a means of assisting the spread of the teaching. Here, the last four virtues of adaptability, intentionality, perseverance and understanding are important for sharing the Dharma with others.
Buddhism has an important message in the moral and political crisis of our times. It has much to say about the individual and national egoism that leads people into conflict and destruction. Hatred and prejudice, ignorance and intolerance, aggression and violence cannot be the true means to solve human problems, however practical they may seem. From earliest times in Buddhism it has been repeated that hatred cannot do away with hatred. Shinran urged his followers to have compassion for those who oppose them and to pray for the peace of the world.
May the message of equality and moderation that is symbolized in the Higan observance enable us to attain the breadth of mind to embrace all people equally. As we are embraced by the compassion and wisdom of the Infinite One, may we learn the true foundation of spiritual peace.
The Rev. Alfred Bloom is professor emeritus of the religion department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
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