When in my heart/mind the thought arises to say the nembutsu [recitation of Amida Buddha’s name], entrusting myself to the inconceivable aspiration of Amida which is helping me and making me live renewed, then I have definitely received the benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned.
—Shinran Shonin, quoted in Tannisho (“Record of Divergences”)
At a gathering of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest, I heard a Sri Lankan monk give a talk titled “Put On Your Own Mask First Before Helping Others.” He said he was explaining the metta (“loving-kindness”) meditation to people visiting his temple in the suburbs. He told them that you begin with directing lovingkindness to yourself, then to others around you, and so on in ever-widening circles. But a woman in the group said, “It’s easy to send thoughts of lovingkindness to others, but it’s hard to think of giving lovingkindness to myself.” So the monk told her, “It’s like when you fly on an airplane, the flight attendants demonstrate how to put on the oxygen mask that comes down if there’s a drop in pressure. They always say, ‘Put on your own mask first before helping others.’ So like the oxygen mask, you have to give yourself lovingkindness first or you really can’t give it to others.”
It’s not on you to give yourself lovingkindness as if it were something you could call up with a click of a button.
To me that woman was expressing how a lot of us feel—all our lives hearing the chorus of internal voices telling us we’re not good enough while simultaneously making us feel it is our personal obligation to care for our family members and others who need help. But I’ve found that in listening to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, you realize that it doesn’t matter how undeserving you feel because of not meeting society’s standards. You—along with each and every other person—are included in the Buddha’s enlightenment. The spiritual awakening of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and all the buddhas before and after him is valid only if it includes all beings.
It’s not on you to give yourself lovingkindness as if it were something you could call up with a click of a button. The problem with the oxygen mask analogy is that it assumes we are the able-bodied, mentally competent adult who easily grabs their dangling mask and then goes about assisting children with their masks. The Pure Land teachings point out that we are more like the child, unable to reach the mask or understand what it is for. In the turbulence of our lives, we are gasping for air until the moment when someone puts that oxygen mask on us. For many of us, that moment is when we encounter the teachings of Buddhism, miraculously brought to us through eons of causes and conditions by the good friend or friends (kalyanamitra) who guide us to what we were unable to find on our own.
To awaken to the awareness of being helped is to enter the path of humility and gratitude. The responsibility to give lovingkindness to ourselves and others has been shifted from our individual self to a whole collection of beings helping each other. This “whole collection of beings” is symbolized by Amida, the representative of all our ancestors, teachers, and friends, whose deepest wish is for our spiritual liberation. This liberation is seen when we come out of our cubbyholes of self-concern and participate in the community of mutual assistance, the concrete expression of the wisdom of oneness. The nembutsu, to use the words of bell hooks, is calling us to abandon the narcissistic project of “self-improvement” and awaken to “the practice of love within the context of community.”