When someone asks you about your religion, don’t panic. The answer always comes back to the Four Noble Truths. But the Four Noble Truths are like ingredients for soup. Familiarity with the ingredients can open up the possibilities for variations on theme. Soup is delicious when prepared by someone who cares. Whether a chef or someone just learning to cook, when something is offered thoughtfully and with care, simple ingredients can make a wonderful meal.
At the core of the Buddhadharma, the Four Noble Truths, are the ingredients for happiness. Happiness is the resolution of difficulties. In the early years of Buddhism in the West, Buddhism seemed to speak only of the difficulties of life. It seemed to be saying reject this life filled with difficulties, this world of samsara. The Four Noble Truths begins with acknowledging dukha, usually translated suffering. It is does not, however, stop there. It continues on to describe the cause of difficulties and how to resolve those difficulties. Clearly the Buddhadharma is not about rejecting, rather of transforming, changing how we experience the world of difficulties. Changing the world of difficulties into a world of happiness, to transform the experience of samsara into nirvana.
Jodo Shinshu is Buddhadharma. So the same ingredients of the Four Noble Truths apply. As with making soup adjusting ingredients will change the soup. Shinran had the same experience that everyone else had. His question too, was how to resolve the difficulties of life. The more he study and practiced, the more he became aware of the limitations of his efforts. It seemed that the more he worked at fixing the difficulties the more difficulties there were. Like making soup, sometimes the more experience you develop the more imperfections you see.
The last of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, is made up of the activities that will resolve our difficulties. Not a temporary fix, but fundamentally change how we engage the world, so that we no longer experience or cause difficulties. Shinran recognized, after many years of practice, that no matter how hard he practiced, the causes of difficulties were greater and deeper than he was able to resolve. The Eightfold Path and what it represented did not provide a way for him to resolve his difficulties. This awareness did not negate the first three Noble Truths, but simply recognized his inability to resolve difficulties.
Shinran left the monasteries of Hiei and began studying under Honen who taught another way, other than the Eightfold Path, to resolve the causes of dukha. A way that was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha but had not been at the center of other practices. What Honen taught did not require anything other than reciting namoamidabutsu to remove the causes of dukha. Recognizing his own limitations, Shinran shifted his understanding of the benefits of nembutsu originating from anything we might do completely to Amida. The benefits that were locked in the Eightfold Path were now available to everyone.
Amida is the source of the resolution of difficulties. I am not required to do anything. Furthermore I am incapable of doing anything that would lead to the resolution of difficulties. If I understand this, my relationship with the world is changed. The importance of my need to assert my preferences and views is diminished and my acknowledgement of the world sustaining me grows. Regardless of my abilities or accomplishments I am nurtured and sustained by life. These are the two aspects of deep faith; recognition of my absolute inability to resolve the difficulties I encounter and the absolute assurance of the resolution of difficulties by Amida.
After all these words my current understanding is this: The Buddhadharma is about being happy by resolving the causes of the difficulties I cause and encounter. Amida’s assurance of nirvana allows me to see myself as I am sustained and nurtured by true and real life. Mindful of my limitations I am grateful for Amida’s compassion.