By Rev. Ken Yamada
What do Buddhists “believe?” It’s a fair question but I think the wrong one.
It’s a fair question because religions often state “beliefs” and ask people to “believe.” If that’s too hard, then they’re urged to take a “leap of faith,” meaning accept as true even if you doubt. Sometimes it’s called “blind faith.”
For Buddhists, it’s the wrong question because the Buddha taught “dharma,” meaning “truth.” Towards the end of his life, he famously said, “Be a light unto yourself,” meaning not to blindly believe, but to see truth in one’s own life.
The Buddha spoke much about human ignorance, how our self-centered nature taints our perceptions, for example, how anger springs from our minds, rather than outside ourselves. He explained how in experiencing truth, our view changes, and we begin to see life more clearly.
In a small way I had a related experience. Some years ago, I boarded a flight and took my seat. The passenger in front of me immediately lowered his seat back, making me feel cramped. He began raising and lowering the seat, like a child, which I felt was a minor annoyance until take off.
An announcement said to fasten seatbelts and raise seat backs. The man in front lifted his seat into position, but as soon as the plane began moving, he immediately lowered it. At this point, I became angry. “The nerve of this guy,” I thought. “How selfish!”
A flight attendant walked up and asked the man to raise his seat. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but this seat is broken.” The attendant confirmed it, then told him, “It’s okay.”
When I saw what happened, my feelings of anger and frustration, which were reaching a boiling point, suddenly evaporated. I assumed this guy was wrong, that I was right, and that he caused my distress. Actually, the anger came from my own mind, caused by my ignorance, and I felt foolish.
Shinran Shonin understood this truth about human nature. In the Shozomatsu Wasan, (Hymns of the Dharma Ages), he wrote:
How difficult to renounce my evil nature…
My mind is like snakes and scorpions,
And since even the good I try to do
Is tainted with the poison (of “self-centered effort”),
It must be called the practice of an idiot.
I had studied the Buddha’s teachings and Shinran’s writings before. I knew this “dharma” in my head. But I really didn’t understand this truth and feel it in my bones until experiencing it. I didn’t “choose to believe,” rather, I couldn’t help but accept it.
So, the question isn’t about “believing,” it’s about “understanding.” How do you know what’s true? By experiencing it and seeing it in your life. Seeing is understanding.
-Rev. Yamada is editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America