Buddhism is a path of supreme optimism, for one of its basic tenets is that no human life or experience is to be wasted or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of wisdom and compassionate living. This is the connotation of the classical statement that sums up the goal of Buddhist life: “Transform delusion into enlightenment.” On the everyday level of experience, Shin Buddhists speak of this transformation as “bits of rubble turn into gold.”

This transformation expresses the boundless compassion, nonjudgmental and all-inclusive, that is the moving force in the Buddhist tradition. In this appraisal of life, abundant with the accumulated pain and sorrow of humanity, is also found the capacity of the human spirit to achieve its fullest potential through awakening to the working of boundless compassion deep within our life.

The Buddha’s compassion is the basis for the parable of the four horses that he preached when he resided at the Kalandaka Grove. The first horse, he explained, runs swiftly the instant he sees the shadow of a whip. The next horse will run fast the moment his skin feels the whip. The third horse runs when the whip cuts into his flesh. The slowest horse will run only after repeated lashings.

The scripture uses the parable of the four horses in order to describe four kinds of people on the path of Buddhism. The first kind awakens and moves forward on the path of the Four Noble Truths the instant they hear about the sufferings caused by old age, illness, and death. The second kind moves when they actually see sufferings with their own eyes. The third kind is not affected by the sufferings of others, but when a family member experiences sufferings, they move forward on the path. And the fourth kind is not distressed at all by seeing old age, illness, and death in others or even among family members, but they are pushed forward on the path when they personally experience these sufferings.

The sympathy of the Buddha identifies with the slowest horse, this last group of people that includes most of us. But some of us do not easily awaken to the meaning of life’s evanescence and unexpected tragedies, even if we personally experience them. When we finally do feel a need, it may be too late, because old age limits our physical and mental capacities, illness prohibits any sustained quest, and death obliterates everything. Such people are called foolish beings (bonbu).

Foolish beings, however, are the primary concern of Amida Buddha, and it is upon them that the flooding light of boundless compassion shines, eventually bringing about a radical transformation in life—” hopeless to hopeful, darkness to light, ignorance to enlightenment.” This awareness of foolish beings is at the core of Japanese Buddhist life, regardless of school or denomination.

At a Shin temple in Japan, I once heard a teacher talk about his only son, who had had a terrible case of asthma since the time he was born. Hoping for a cure before the boy entered first grade so he could receive normal schooling, they moved to a warmer climate. The boy grew strong enough to enter primary school with his peers. One of the first major events in the Japanese school year is what is called Field Day, when students participate in a race according to their grade level.

Early in the morning of Field Day, the little boy went to school accompanied by his mother. As the father waited for their return home later that day, he could hear gleeful laughter and happy conversation coming from the two as they approached their home. Sensing their excitement, the father thought that his son must have done well in his race. As soon as the two entered the house, he called out to his son, asking, “Did you take first place in your race?” “No, Dad,” the boy shouted, “I didn’t come in first—I came in eighth!” “Oh,” the father said, “And how many kids ran in your race?” “Eight!” the son shouted, clapping his hands.

The mother turned to the father with a big smile. “Isn’t it wonderful that he could run just like the other children? He came in eighth place; he finished the race! Remember when he couldn’t even run at all? This is cause for celebration! Our son is Number One!” With this story, the teacher reminded us that within boundless compassion each of us is Number One, whether in last place or not. In fact, it is the last-place finisher, the foolish being, who is first in the eyes of Amida Buddha.

From Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold, © 2002 by Taitetsu Unno. Reprinted with permission of Doubleday.

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