Fleeting World, Burning House

By Rev. Frederick Brenion

Ohigan comes twice a year in Spring and Fall. It means “encountering the other shore.” Yet we cannot come to grips with this “other shore” until we stand on this shore’s edge. When we do, we find Ohigan is not just twice a year. It is every moment of our lives.

We are always on the edge. This is dukkha—our suffering, distress, and dis-easement. This is the first Noble Truth from which all others flow.

Last January in Hawaii, people saw on their phones and computers this message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Panic, dread, horror, and fear ensued. Was this a hoax? Was it real? Where was shelter? Is there time to find loved ones? For forty minutes the threat of immediate death hanged over their island paradise. Now on the verge of becoming a wasteland of hell. Authorities tried to verify the message. Their governor determined it was a false alarm. Yet he could not send out a message on Twitter. He forgot his password.

Buddha understood how people react when they stand at the edge of this life’s shore. In the Dhammapadda, the Buddha said, “Few cross over the river. Most stay stranded on this side. On the riverbank they run up and down. But the wise, following the way, cross over, beyond the reach of death.” On that day in Hawaii, people were running up and down, hoping for any refuge.

Many had a wakeup call that day. They came to the edge of this shore. Perhaps some considered the possibility of ‘crossing over’ beyond the reach of their fears. Those encountered the possibility of the other shore.

I grew up during “the Cold War.” I recall the monthly wailing of air raid sirens. Hiding under desks at school during “drop and cover” drills. I worried that “The Bomb” might drop while I slept. Standing on the edge was daily fare for me.

Once again there is talk about nuclear war. What is wrong with our world? What is wrong with us? Shinran understood our situation. He knew our fears. He was not immune to the winds of reality. He faced it. Shinran speaks within the Tannisho:

“In this fleeting world – this burning house – all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The Nenbutsu alone is true and real.”

In reading this, my thought was what does this mean? “This burning house,” I understood well. Then Shinran offers to this the Nenbutsu as the only alternative. The only refuge. How does this work? My growth into Jodo Shinshu within its ministry has been to understand and live this. I feel Shinran’s weight here. His full force focused on this one point. Do I truly yet understand what he means?

Maybe that is the point. The Nenbutsu is not for understanding. Shinran says it is not even our practice. It is Buddha trying to reach you and me. Maybe simply saying it is the only understanding we can ever have.

Our world burns even as we question. Someone said that they did not see why Shinran could ever be applicable to their life. I thought, “That person is the problem. As am I.” We cannot apply Shinran to our life. Shinran is not a bandage or a salve to use. Nor is he an encyclopedia to consult. We might study him, use him, but the bottom line from Shinran is only this, “Just say the Nenbutsu and be saved by Amida.” No grand narratives. No metaphysical explanation. Simply: Just. Do. This!

Shinran is not offering teachings to a burning world. He offers a lifeline. In this burning world, Shinran is a firefighter beckoning us to safety. Namu Amida Butsu is our way out of this burning world. It is not just a way to Refuge. It is Refuge. We do not study it, we grab it. Rather, it grabs us. Never abandoning us.

With Shinran, we receive Namu Amida Butsu as a name. We call a name so we may meet. Our meeting with Buddha is Nenbutsu. Here we awaken to truth. Hearing the call of the Name is awakening. To hear the Name is to find our true self in this encounter.

Seek the depths of Namu Amida Butsu. It unfolds as Light of Wisdom without end, and Life of Compassion without limit. Light and Life forever united and directed towards us.

Namu Amida Butsu is forever taking refuge in the Buddha. One cannot know Buddha except by taking refuge. Any other way is to not know the Buddha as Buddha. Meet the Buddha now through Namu Amida Butsu. We cannot find refuge on our own. Buddha brings it to us. It is Buddha who comes to meet you and me in Namu Amida Butsu.

Flee this burning world. Seek refuge. Our lifeline extends, surrounds, upholds, and shelters. I see a little now how Nenbutsu alone is true and real. I hope you will as well. Our firefighter, Shinran, offers us this lifeline. It was his too. It is ours now. Shinran says to all: Just. Do. This!


Rev. Brenion is a Higashi Honganji minister in Southern California.

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