The Dharma does not always offer us simple or easy answers in life. The Dharma pushes us to go deeper into our own human experience and understanding to realize the complexity of situations and their underlying causes and conditions.
It seems like every day on the news we learn about a new conflict happening in our world. A pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong shut down the airport there. In Portland, there was a massive right-wing rally and an anti-fascist counter-protest. Our nation is also hurting from gun violence and yet there is a bitter divide on what to do about it. Here on the Big Island, we are the epicenter of the TMT protest centered atop Mauna Kea which has spread across the state and is dividing our community.
Conflict also happens on a personal level. How many of us have been in conflict with a spouse or family member? With a co-worker? It sometimes seems like there is no end to the constant state of conflict in our lives which is often caused by dualistic thinking and our attachment to fixed views which the Buddha taught is the cause of suffering.
As I reflect on the many conflicts in our world, I go to the Dharma for insight into understanding and helping to resolve these divisions. I am reminded of a time when our local community was struggling with the issue of Marriage Equality for same-sex couples. At that time, as well as now, there seems to be so much fighting going on with very little true discussion taking place. I wondered how did we fall away from the ideals of American Democracy—that of reasoned debate and discourse and the art of compromise? How did we let our ego-selves run amok in such destructive ways?
On October 28, 2013, I was honored to offer the opening Invocation for the Hawaii State House of Representatives as they convened in Special Session to discuss the issue of Marriage Equality. I shared with them the following advice from the Dharma on how we should not be blinded by our own limited views on issues and to try to listen to others with open hearts and minds. And I believe this lesson continues to be relevant in our world today.
I shared with them The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant from Udana 68-69 in the Pali Canon: “In a time of great conflict between many teachers of different traditions and philosophies, the Buddha shared the following story: Once upon a time in the city of Shravasti there lived a king. One day, the king instructed a servant to round up in one place a gathering of men who had been blind since birth. “The blind men have been assembled, your majesty,” said the man. The king further instructed him to introduce an elephant to this group of men, such that each could examine it for himself. “This, sir, is an elephant,” the servant said to each of the blind men in turn. But to the first, he presented the head of the elephant, to the second, the ear, and so in turn to the rest of the blind men he presented the tusk, trunk, body, foot, backside, tail, and tuft of the tail. At this point, the king approached the blind men and asked of each, “Tell me, sir, what is an elephant like?” Each answered according to his own experience, saying in turn that the elephant was like a water pot, a winnowing basket, a plowshare, a plow pole, a granary, a pillar, a mortar, a pestle, and a broom.
These blind men then began to quarrel about the nature of the elephant, each one saying, “The elephant is like this, not like that,” and “The elephant is not like that, it is like this.” Eventually, they came to blows and began striking one another with their fists. The king who called them all together sat back and watched the scene in great amusement.
What the king seemed to understand is the extent to which views, beliefs, and opinions in people link directly to our very primitive instinct for defending what belongs to us and attacking what is regarded as belonging to others.”
Shakyamuni Buddha then concluded his teaching with the following verse:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Very rarely are conflicts black and white. It is natural that most issues in life are complex, and that people will have different perspectives on them. It is also inevitable that most perspectives will derive from a limited range of experience and are unlikely to embrace the whole picture. It is also understandable that people will express their differences of opinion, engaging in mutual dialogue and debate. However, what is utterly unnecessary is that such differences need to escalate to verbal or even physical violence. Doesn’t this sound familiar to what is happening in our world today?
I concluded my invocation by offering an aspiration to our lawmakers and to everyone participating in the debate on Marriage Equality. I said, “My challenge to everyone who participates in our democracy is to live with Aloha. To understand that at the end of the day we are all one Ohana, one Family, one Hawaii. And that our thoughts, our words, and our actions should reflect that awareness of our profound connection to each other. So let us engage in vigorous and civil debate—understanding that each of us has only one part of the whole truth. Let us listen with open hearts and minds. And let us always extend compassion and respect to everyone we meet.”
In times of difficulty, we often look for someone or something to blame. However, in Shin Buddhism, we are taught that all definitions like good and evil, while useful, can be arbitrary. As our founder, Shinran Shonin reflects in the Tannisho (A Record in Lament of Divergences), “I know nothing at all of good or evil. For if I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata [Buddha] knows, that an act was good, then I would know good. If I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata [Buddha] know, that an act was evil, then I would know evil. But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world—this burning house—all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.” Shinran contrasts the limited nature of human concepts and understanding with the Nembutsu, the Name of the Buddha, by which we encounter ultimate reality or Truth. It is this activity of spiritual truth which enables us to see our ego-self at work in the light of boundless compassion. Isn’t this the ideal for all religions and philosophies? That they provide ways of understanding our often-chaotic world by awakening us to our true and real selves—our full humanness?
The Dharma does not always offer us simple or easy answers in life. The Dharma pushes us to go deeper into our own human experience and understanding to realize the complexity of situations and their underlying causes and conditions. The Dharma challenges us to think critically about our lives and about every situation we encounter. The Dharma ultimately asks us to temper our ego-selves within the embrace of Amida’s wisdom and compassion and to approach life humbly with kindness and compassion for ourselves and others. May this teaching help us to better understand and to resolve conflicts in all aspects of our lives. Namo Amida Butsu.