Our world is in chaos and it seems we are constantly trying to find our footing on the deck of a ship sailing on stormy seas. Our lives have been upended by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as the political and civil unrest sweeping across our nation. These events remind us there is an imbalance in nature and within our society that is the cause of immense suffering.
In times of uncertainty, it is common for us to seek quick and easy answers to our problems and in recent years, many people including certain national leaders have turned to believing in and promoting dangerous conspiracy theories and “Alternative Facts.”
Belief in these theories arises from a human need to feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation. What also arises is the dark side of our nature which assumes the worst as we look to find blame in others. This imbalance of perspective leads to further suffering as we find ourselves spiraling down a rabbit hole of fear, anxiety, and hatred.
However, the Buddha offers wisdom for living through such turbulent times and how to determine which path to follow and who to believe. In a story from the Kalama Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha visits the village of the Kalama people who share with him how numerous holy men have visited their village claiming their teachings are the best and how others are false. They tell the Buddha of their confusion and ask for his help in deciding who to listen to and what they should believe. The Buddha tells the villagers that it is only natural to feel such confusion and doubt. He then offers the following advice:
Neither believe nor reject anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for generations. Do not believe what is written in religious books. Do not believe something just because it superficially seems to be true. Do not believe something for reasons of logic or philosophy. Do not believe anything merely by authority of your teachers and elders. Even if I tell you something, do not believe it!
The Buddha tells them to trust their own experience and to know for themselves whether a teaching leads to harm or happiness for self and others. This simple test encourages us to thoroughly examine, experience, and to carefully consider any teaching or advice with the compassionate heart and mind of a bodhisattva. The Buddha empowers us to tap into our own intelligence and wisdom guided by the light of the Dharma. This is why Shinran Shōnin believed it was so rare to encounter a good teacher and even more difficult to discern a good teaching. He shares the following verse from the Hymns of the Pure Land:
It is difficult to meet true teachers
And difficult for them to instruct.
It is difficult to hear the teaching well,
And more difficult still to accept it.
This is why Shinran was so grateful to receive the Nembutsu teaching from his master Hōnen Shōnin and accepted it only after he thoroughly tested its veracity within his own life. This is the deep and profound faith that arose in Shinran's life through the working of the Dharma. It was only through the power of the Nembutsu that Shinran was able to meet with his true self that comes from the “Other Shore” of enlightenment.
It is this profound spiritual awakening that inspires us to follow the Buddhist path and to live naturally practicing the six bodhisattva activities of generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation, and insight. This is the working of the Other Shore that is present within each moment of our ordinary lives. This is the spirit of Ohigan that we should reflect on and strive to live every day.
In his book Awaken to Your True Self: A Shin Buddhist Way of Life, Dr. Hideo Yonezawa says, “Moment to moment we are living a life that is not easy to have. This is what the Other Shore is teaching us: the weight, the importance of each and every moment. Namuamidabutsu teaches me the world of the true self—this self that has come from the Other Shore. It is a phrase that comes from the Other Shore." Further he says, “People who live only on this shore of [Samsara] cannot understand the phrase “Namuamidabutsu.” I think that a person who thinks of the importance of the Other Shore will for the first time begin to understand Namuamidabutsu. To think that this shore is the real world is to think backwards. Namuamidabutsu teaches us how we should really be, and how backwards we actually are.”
The Buddha’s teachings can help us to engage in a chaotic world with clarity and wisdom. It seems like more and more we are being inundated with conspiracy theories and misinformation about various issues people disagree with. Because you disagree with something or someone doesn’t make it “Fake News.” Just like the Buddha advised the Kalama people, think critically about the media and information you consume. Rigorously test its veracity based on whether it leads to harm or happiness for self and others.
The Cornell University Library has an excellent resource for assessing credible sources. They offer the following practical advice for dealing with “Fake News”:
Learn to recognize fake news sites. Be curious and actively investigate news stories.
Use news sources that are accountable for their content and that follow journalistic ethics and standards.
Use care before sharing news content with others on social media. Pause and reflect on news sources that arouse strong emotions, positive or negative.
Learn to recognize your own biases and compensate for them.
These guidelines ask us to do what the Buddha taught for assessing information with a critical eye and self-reflecting on our thoughts, emotions, and biases. This is why we go to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for guidance.
The truth matters especially when making decisions that impact our lives and the lives of others. Truth matters when dealing with public health. Truth matters in our democracy.
We observe Ohigan during the spring and fall equinox when day and night are in perfect balance. In many ancient cultures, it is a time of celebration which reminds us of our deep connection to the rhythms and cycles of the earth and the entire universe. Ohigan translates as the “Other Shore” and is a metaphor for crossing over from this shore of ignorance, anger, and greed to the other shore of awakening.
This is an occasion for us to reflect deeply on the nature of our true self, which is hidden beneath our ego and attachments. It is this ego-self that is seduced by the promise of simplistic answers offered by conspiracy theories that poison our hearts and minds. The Buddha’s teaching is the antidote which neutralizes ignorance and helps us to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, and what is wholesome and unwholesome in life. This is why during Ohigan, we reflect on cultivating spiritual balance through living the Buddha’s teachings.
Namo Amida Butsu.