In the mid-1980s my Otani University adviser, Professor Shunsho Terakawa, gave a public lecture after an old friend and schoolmate of his died of cancer. The two had attended a school together outside the city of Hiroshima, and on a rare day off from classes, August 6, 1945, they decided to take a bus into the city to hang out there. The 8 o’clock bus was packed, so they waited for the next bus. Then, at about the time the first bus would have arrived in the city, they heard and felt the impact of the atomic bomb and saw its mushroom cloud. Wanting to know what had happened, they started walking toward the city. What they found was utter destruction: overwhelming numbers of people for blocks and blocks lay dead and dying. Professor Terakawa described the people walking out of the city as frightening sights: some had swatches of burned skin hanging off their bodies and eyeballs falling out of their sockets. He and his friend were totally helpless, knowing there was nothing they could do for any of the people crying out in pain and fear. It was too much for him to process as a teenager, but the memories of that day later shaped the direction and depth of his religious studies.
I remember that the title of his public lecture was Ningen no mumyo, which translates as “The Darkness (mumyo) of (no) Humanity (ningen).” He spoke of the atomic bombings not as the doing of one particular country against another but as the vicious actions of human beings upon our fellow human beings. In this way, Professor Terakawa had entered the mind of Prince Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree. In the prince’s self-examination, he was forced to confront himself as the cruel warrior, no different from his father and all the kings before and after him, kings who commanded their armies to rain destruction on any clan, village, or kingdom that posed a threat to their prosperity. According to the Japanese Shin Buddhist teacher Haya Akegarasu’s retelling of the Agamas (early Buddhist scriptures), when the prince recognized this bloodthirsty horror in the depth of his being, he shouted, “Avidya!” Though what Buddhists call “the awakening” arose with that shout, there are different interpretations of what the word meant.
If we accept the usual English translation of the Sanskrit word avidya as “ignorance,” it follows that Siddhartha awoke to the fact he was not-knowing (a-vidya) reality correctly. Vidya can indicate the concept of “knowing” but that meaning comes out of “seeing, understanding” (i.e., making sense of what you see). When avidya was translated into Chinese, it became two characters: wu (not) and ming (seen clearly, brightness). This is mu-myo in Japanese pronunciation. This understanding of avidya as not-bright, or not-seen-clearly, has a different connotation from the typical English translation of “ignorance.” It became a tradition in East Asian Buddhism to define Siddhartha’s awakening not by the dispelling of his previous ignorance but by the direct confrontation with what was “not-bright” (mumyo) deep within himself—the visceral realization of his ability to inflict pain on others. Prince Siddhartha became the awakened Buddha when he saw his own avidya, his own dark heart and mind (mumyo), rather than merely his “ignorance.”
In Jodo Shinshu (“Pure Land True Essence”), or Shin Buddhism, this radical stance is emphasized. Whereas other paths say that you can practice your way out of the heart of darkness, Shin Buddhists aspire to come to grips with our own warrior nature. We aspire to keep investigating all the ways we use to separate ourselves from others and dismiss the worth of their lives. We aspire to “own” all evils, so that we cannot use morality as a yardstick to justify our condemnation of other living beings. In the Tannisho, Shinran (1172–1263), our tradition’s founder, is recorded as saying, “Given karmic conditions, I could do anything.” In 20th-century terms, what he meant was, “I could be Adolf Hitler.” In study sessions with my students, I used to ask, “Can you see Hitler being born in the Pure Land?” Now I realize the real issue is this: only when I can see myself as Hitler will I truly be born in the Pure Land. “Namu Amida Butsu” [a chant also known as the nembutsu, Shin Buddhism’s central practice] is a call for me to come just as I am, with my heart of mumyo, darkness.
It is only when one identifies totally with mumyo, the heart of darkness, that the walls of the proud ego-self are shattered and the true light of wisdom can shine through in one’s actions. In the Pure Land tradition we find inspiration and guidance in the lives of those, known and unknown, who have treated all people—including the common folk as well as criminals and outcasts—with respect.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters