We all want to sound good, and in any endeavor, it’s often what prevents us from even beginning. I can’t say how many times I’ve turned away from the keyboard after writing maybe five words, wondering how it will be received by the reader. It’s a surefire way to end up doing nothing at all.

And that’s where I’d been stuck all week until I reread Satya Robyn’s “On Wanting to Sound Good.” Her teaching put me face-to-face with the rank vanity of my dilemma: pride masking as perfectionism, a wish to come off well, an ego-driven manifestation of what Pure Land priests like Satya Robyn call our bombu, or foolish, nature.

But there is some consolation here, a quality that is central to the fruits of Satya Robyn’s practice. And it often comes through recognizing the humor of our condition. As Satya Robyn writes, “Acknowledging our foolishness can be a jarring experience, but it shouldn’t feel shameful. It’s not a feeling of ‘I’m a terrible person.’ It can be funny. I like to imagine a wry smile on the Buddha’s face.”

Like Satya Robyn, I laughed at my foolishness with what humility I could muster. And with her words in mind, I brushed aside my self-conscious concerns.

Aclose cousin to wanting to sound good is wanting to be right. I have that in spades, too. The problem with wanting to be right, though, is that it can lead us to some pretty dark places, something George Orwell saw in his own time when he wrote of the Spanish Civil War: “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”

I take Orwell’s words as a cautionary note, one I also find in the teachings of the Shin reformer Kiyozawa Manshi (1863–1903), with his dark view of the lofty ideals and certainties that blind us. Kiyozawa was much maligned for his emphasis on spiritual over worldly pursuits, yet he was if anything practical. As the Pure Land priest and scholar Ken Yamada points out in this issue’s interview with him, “Putting Spirituality First,” Kiyozawa’s emphasis on the spiritual “is not about having a philosophy—it’s about living your life. There shouldn’t be any conceptual barriers between living your life and understanding your actions.”

We are challenged to act with conviction and at the same time to question our certainties and acknowledge our limitations, even foolishness. It can be a pretty humbling experience and requires an inordinate tolerance for nuance and doubt. Yet for those of us with a Buddhist practice, that is more often than not a good thing. If it helps, we can imagine, for a brief moment, the Buddha’s wry smile.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .