Buddhadharma - Spring '07 Failure Foolishness Mark Unno Pure Land Shin Buddhism

The Path of Foolish Beings

Who are the foolish beings? According to the Shin tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, we all are. Mark Unno explains that only by becoming aware of our limited self and acknowledging our fundamental foolishness can we realize the oneness of all beings and the limitless flow of compassion.

By Mark Unno

Paradise of Amida Buddha; Kasuga Kaishi; Buddhism, Heian period (794 – 1185), Amitabha Buddha, Japan, apsara, Pure Land Buddhism, gold, Sukhavati, kakemono, Japanese Art. Freer Sackler Gallery.

Who are the foolish beings? According to the Shin tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, we all are. Mark Unno explains that only by becoming aware of our limited self and acknowledging our fundamental foolishness can we realize the oneness of all beings and the limitless flow of compassion.

One of the implications of the Mahayana Buddhist idea of emptiness is that the important question is not “What does it mean to be a Buddhist?” It is “What does it mean to be a human being?” That’s because emptiness applies to Buddhism itself as much as it does to ordinary objects of attachment. It is only when one has been “emptied” of all preconceived categories, including those of Buddhism, that the deepest reality of being human becomes apparent. As the Zen master Dogen states, “To study the buddhadharma is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”

In our usual thinking about human nature, we tend to turn toward various specialists. For example, a scientist might consider our ability to stand erect (homo erectus) and use tools with opposable thumbs to be the defining endowments of human nature. A philosopher might regard the ability to think as the distinguishing characteristic of human nature, as the French thinker René Descartes suggested with his statement cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Some point to the human ability to express sublime emotion through poetry and art or to make moral judgments. Others see skilled surgeons, artful ballerinas, basketball stars, moral leaders, and the like as the pinnacles of humanity. Parents hope their children will become mature human beings, making full use of their bodies, minds, and hearts, and will lead lives that are fulfilling for themselves and others.

But does this account for all of human nature? What about failure, loss, separation, and death? What about people who may have talent but do not live up to their promise? For every musician who aspires to a concert career, how many abandon their dreams for lack of opportunity or finances? Of all the young men and women who aspire to play pro basketball, how many succeed? How many are injured or fail to meet the right coach? How many people wish to escape cycles of oppression and violence but are unable to do so?

When we begin to see that failure and shortcomings of all kinds—economic, social, moral, and spiritual—are as commonplace as so-called success, it becomes necessary to revise our definition of human nature. What we had initially conceived of as human nature, our first nature, as it were, turns out to be only half of the story. There is a second nature, what in Shin Buddhism is called bombu, or foolish being, which is just as much a part of our humanity as our first nature.

Shin Buddhism, the largest development of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, emphasizes our foolishness, or karmic shortcomings. Although we may have a desire or impulse to do good, we are often our own greatest stumbling blocks, the victim of our own circumstances. But while we cannot escape the external karmic consequences of our past actions—legal, economic, social, and so on—this does not mean that we should punish ourselves inwardly for things that have happened in the past. Rather, by recognizing our foibles and quirks, we open a window into our own karmic nature, without which we cannot realize buddhanature. For it is only when we recognize and take ownership of the full scope of our humanity that we can see ourselves as truly, fully human. This is when our foolish nature, or second nature, becomes second nature. Only then do we see that the mask of success—the social self we present to others and to ourselves—is only part of our story, and we can look at ourselves and others with more humor and gentleness and with a greater sense of awareness and compassion. As Ryokan, the Zen monk who was also steeped in the Shin path, wrote, we may learn to be more like the maple leaf in autumn that bares all without pretense:

Showing front
Showing back
The falling maple leaf

Embracing Our Foolish Being

What we usually regard as failure, loss, and pain may seem negative because we have a limited view of ourselves, based on our preconceptions and attachments to ideas of who we think we are or should be. As the ancient Daoist master Zhuangzi states,

If a man sleeps in a damp place, his back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a loach? If he lives in a tree, he is terrified and shakes with fright, but is this true of a monkey? Of these three creatures, then, which one knows the proper place to live?… Men claim that Maoqiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the ocean, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows how to fix the standard of beauty for the world?[1]

We label things good and bad, desirable and undesirable, based on our limited understanding, but when we become free of our fixed labels, then all things become potentially meaningful and are embraced in the great flow of life.

Consider the case of Dr. Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. She has a condition, usually given the label of autism, that makes social interaction very challenging, but she has grown through her struggles—struggles that have led her to her current work.[2] She cannot sense and decode complex human emotions like most people can, but she has an acute awareness of animal emotions, which are generally simpler and purer. She has developed deep empathy with animals such as cows and pigs and has worked to have them treated as humanely as possible. Sensing the fear that animals experience as they enter the slaughterhouse, she has invented a curved entry into the slaughterhouse that keeps each animal from seeing the fate of the one in front it. Now, fully one-third of slaughterhouses in the United States have adopted this curved shoot.

Some might argue that if she really felt empathy for these animals, she would be a vegetarian and work to convince others to be vegetarians. Perhaps this is so. Yet her approach is in some ways close to that of Shinran (1173–1262), the first and foremost teacher of the Shin Buddhist path. In Shinran’s time there were farmers, fishermen, butchers, and grave diggers, many of whom relied on taking the lives of other beings or of benefiting from their deaths for their own livelihood. Recognizing how he was implicated in the suffering of the world, Shinran chose to become one with all beings rather than set himself apart from them. In this way, he could share with them the path of Amida Buddha’s compassion, through which each being is also gradually transformed into a vessel of compassion.

Amida Buddha (from the Sanskrit, Amitabha Buddha) means the Awakened One of Infinite Light, but to express its dynamic character, it can be understood as the awakening of infinite light. Shin Buddhism focuses on the practice of intoning the name of Amida Buddha.[3] Namu Amida Butsu means roughly, “I entrust myself to Amida Buddha.”

Turning bad into good, tenmaku jozen, is at the heart of the Pure Land path, in which the limited self of foolish being is transformed into the boundless compassion of Amida. Like Temple Grandin, it may be that ordinary human beings can sometimes be insensitive to the feelings of others, but unlike her, we may not yet be aware of our shortcomings. To the degree that we become aware that we are foolish beings, we are illuminated by boundless compassion. Namu is “foolish being”; Amida Butsu is “boundless compassion.” Amida walks with us step-by-step, as it were, as we discover our foolishness. Namu Amida Butsu is the expression of foolish being coming to be embraced, resolved, and dissolved in the limitless flow of Amida’s primal vow, which is the vow to realize the oneness of ego-self and Amida-self, the oneness of all beings in the ocean of compassion.

Cultivating Beginner’s Mind, Returning to Foolish Being

It is one thing to understand the working of shinjin, of true entrusting in the primal vow, at an intellectual level and even to have some feeling for the way it unfolds. However, it is difficult to live in the continual awareness of Amida’s compassion. We may gain some understanding by further study, but the continual sense of openness to the limitless possibilities of life is virtually impossible to maintain. As Shunryu Suzuki states,

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajnaparamita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recite it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude toward it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind….

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.[4]

This does not mean that we should forget everything and become raw beginners. Rather, the true expert is the one who makes use of her knowledge without becoming attached to it. Approaching each situation with a fresh and open mind, she can really use her knowledge by becoming attentive and responsive to the ever-changing, actual conditions of the present moment.

Honen, Shinran’s teacher, similarly emphasized the importance of becoming free of any pretense of knowledge, especially with regard to the spiritual path. Shinran quotes his teacher, saying, “The person of the Pure Land path attains birth in the Buddha Land[5] by returning to his foolish self.”[6]

No one was more aware of the difficulty of maintaining beginner’s mind, of truly realizing one’s foolish being, than Shinran himself. His follower Yuien asked him about this very point, saying, “Although I say the Name,[7] I rarely experience joyful happiness, nor do I have the desire to immediately go to the Pure Land. What should be done about this?” To which Shinran replied,

I, Shinran, have been having the same question also, and now you, Yuien, have the same thought…. It is the working of blind passion which suppresses the heart that would rejoice and prevents its fullest expression. All this the Buddha already knew and called us foolish beings filled with blind passion; when we realize that the compassionate vow of other-power is for just such a person like myself, the vow becomes even more reliable and dependable.[8]

Normally when we hear about “beginner’s mind” or “foolish being,” we tend not to really listen and instead think that these are ideas about something or someone else. Yet, according to Shinran, there is no time or place that we can realize the meaning of these things apart from the present moment. It is precisely this self in this moment, filled with blind passion and foolishness, and thereby unable to feel the flow of Amida’s vow, that is being called by life itself to join the great flow of boundless compassion. Like a lonely boat afloat on the ocean whose occupant is afraid of sinking, we do not realize that it is actually the ocean itself that keeps us afloat. In fact, when we come to truly trust in the deep currents of life, then we know we should dive right into the ocean of compassion. When we realize that the vow of Amida, the boundless flow of life itself, is waiting for no one else but us, then “the vow becomes even more reliable and dependable.”

This also describes the relationship between self-power, jiriki, and other-power, tariki—between foolish beings and Amida Buddha. There is no other-power apart from self-power. In each moment, by exerting ourselves to the fullest, by diving into life, we are simultaneously shown our foolishness—the limits of self-power—and illuminated by boundless compassion, which is other-power. Thus Shinran describes the two types of deep entrusting that are complementary: deeply entrusting oneself to self-power and deeply entrusting oneself to other-power. Without the one, the other cannot be realized. As the Shin Buddhist teacher and poet Kai Wariko sings,

The voice with which I call Amida Buddha
Is the voice with which Amida Buddha calls to me.

Becoming One with All Beings

As one gradually deepens awareness of the true self, the gentle awareness of foolish being becomes second nature and foolish being merges with boundless compassion. Of course, Amida’s compassion was always there, but for us human beings, the realization of this oneness takes time, just as a reluctant child learns to swim by first slowly dipping his toes in the water.

As awareness deepens, the spiritual sojourner realizes that all beings have always been there in oneness. We can see this by exploring the simple question, who am I? Am I husband, teacher, son, Japanese, American, Japanese-American? Am I made of blood, muscle, and bone, or do I think of myself more in terms of my mind? At one time, I was nothing more than an embryo in my mother’s uterus. Receiving the nourishment that came through the umbilical cord, her body became my body, her dinner mine. But did I not also receive the personality and character of my parents? Of my grandparents?

And what of my life ever since my physical birth? I have received nourishment, both physical and mental. Through experiences with other beings, they have become one with me so that I could live today. Even the hearts and minds of ancient peoples enter into me through words on a page and images in ink and stone. Their legacy includes their accomplishments, yes, but also their failures and sufferings, which become one with mine to teach me about the deep bonds of humanity and all sentient beings. As Thich Nhat Hanh sings,

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive….

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving….

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.[9]

The more I reflect, the more difficult it is to draw the line between my life and the life of others: family, friends, dogs, cats, birds, the sky, the moon, and the stars. In each moment, the deep interconnections between my life and that of all other beings come to life. It is only when I look away, hoping to create connections in a world of abstractions, that I lose my way. Seeing this profound web of interdependence, Shinran states,

I, Shinran, have never even once uttered the Name for the sake of my father and mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth and death. When I attain buddhahood in the next birth, each and every one will be saved.[10]

In the path of Pure Land, intoning the Name, Namu Amida Butsu, affirms the oneness of all beings and expresses becoming one with them. Since this cannot be realized apart from the present moment, here and now, it is important to recognize that there is no realization of true compassion apart from each recitation of the sutras, each bow, each utterance of the Name—in fact, each activity throughout the day. Paradoxically, the realization that “all beings are one with me” moves one to become one with all beings. The Pure Land of oneness is already here, and yet I have not realized it.

Experiences of Boundless Compassion

When one tastes deeply the flavor of compassion, one is able to see moments of positive significance in times of difficulty and to see more clearly the web of interdependence as it informs one’s life.

Second World War internee Shinobu Matsuura relates an episode from her husband, Issei’s, life as they lived separated in distant internment camps in the United States. Reverend Issei Matsuura was presiding over the funeral of a friend who had died in the camp. Listening to the simple ceremony in the stark setting of the camp, one of the guards became curious and began to ask him about the Buddhist teachings.

“How does a person gain salvation?” asked the guard.

“Good person, evil person, all beings will be saved,” replied Issei.

“You mean they repent and reform and then they are saved?”

“No. Just be embraced in the Great Compassion, and recite the Name, and one is saved as he is.” “Where does one go?”

“Pure Land.”

“But, if the good and evil ones are saved as they are, won’t they keep on fighting as they did in this world?”

My husband, in his own kind of English, with earnest zeal, explained the universality of the pure taste of water. “Everyone, all beings, become Buddha. It is a boundless teaching.”

The ones under guard, the guard, all forgot their differences. The sun was down already. In the snowy night, they reached the prison in mutual warmth.[11]

Even in such difficult circumstances, the Shin path can provide an opening into the heart of compassion for those who have been defined as enemies by the external world. Mrs. Matsuura also relates her own experience during a period of difficulty. When we become troubled or preoccupied, we often become inattentive to our surroundings, which then reflect our inner state back to us. Mrs. Matsuura describes this relationship in terms of an experience with a plant that she had bought but had neglected due to her own recent struggles:

One day I was agitated about something. I was in low spirits and out of sorts. By chance, my eyes glanced at the plant forgotten in the corner of the room. It had withered and appeared miserable. I can see myself reflected in the plant. When in anger, there is no warmth, no peace, no flexibility, just like this dried up plant. Once in a while, when someone compliments me, I am elated and swell proudly. But one small false step and immediately I shrivel and freeze…. Indeed I am just like the plant.

At once, I put the plant in the sunlight and gave it fresh water. Before my eyes, it glistened, fresh and alive. The pure strength, the growing image, and I, too, became calm, and in joy, I became encouraged…. Around us, immeasurable dharma flows and unbound compassion shines.[12]

When one is steeped in the Buddha’s teaching for one’s whole life, the feeling of compassion overflows to encompass all things, even objects. Ryokan expresses this eloquently in a poem about his begging bowl:

I’ve forgotten
my begging bowl
but no one would steal it
no one would steal it—
how sad for my begging bowl

As Jason Rabbitt-Tomita explains,

Ryokan did not say “How lucky for me, I can keep my bowl!” Rather, his own gain is a cause for sadness for what most consider an “inanimate object.” This is an attitude showing thankfulness for all life. In a strict sense, the compassion he feels for his bowl is not “Ryokan’s” compassion; instead, compassion encompasses him and all beings until Ryokan becomes all beings and all beings become Ryokan. He bows before his bowl; he plays with the children; he suns the lice from his shirt on the windowsill, and then places them back in his shirt. Bowing towards each thing in life, the Name arises of itself. Namu Amida Butsu.[13]


Realizing the Pure Land

Shinran makes a distinction between two key moments in the realization of the Shin path: the moment of shinjin, or true entrusting, in which the foolish being entrusts herself to Amida Buddha as her deepest reality, and the moment of death, when one enters the Pure Land, nirvana, emptiness. The reason that the moment of true entrusting and the entrance into the Pure Land are not completely the same is due to our karmic limitations. The distinction between the two is roughly equivalent to the difference between the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s attainment of nirvana at the age of thirty-five and his entrance into parinirvana at eighty. The initial nirvana is known as “nirvana with a remainder” because, while he was still in his limited mind and body, negative karmic residue remained. Although he was a great and enlightened teacher, he also fell physically ill, he had disagreements with disciples, and the sangha was beset by political turmoil and split into two. When he left this world and the limitations of his body and mind, he entered complete nirvana, or parinirvana.

Similarly, one attains true entrusting in this life and enters the complete Pure Land in the next. The Pure Land has always been there underfoot, yet we cannot fully see it until we become free of the blind passions that are an inevitable part of life. Though seemingly illogical, this is the reality of life for the Shin Buddhist: the vow to bring all beings into the Pure Land has already been accomplished by Amida Buddha, but we must continue our journey on the path to the Pure Land. In fact, precisely because the path has already been laid out for us, we see that we are not there yet. Deep down, we sense the oneness of the flow of reality, and thereby we are moved to realize it in each moment of life. We say Namu Amida Butsu beginning with ourselves (Namu), but it is Amida Butsu, Amida Buddha, that brings one to the realization of Namu, one’s foolishness.

Beyond Limited Notions of Life and Death

It is said that what set the Buddha Shakyamuni on his path to seek enlightenment was the sight of old age, sickness, and death. To grow old, become ill, and die is as much a part of our human nature as anything else. In fact, to truly live, we must be able to acknowledge and embrace all of this. If death is truly part of us, then it dwells deep within us, even among those who are in seemingly robust health.

Amida’s compassion, boundless life, is beyond preconceived ideas of life and death. At each step in life, this boundless oneness is always there, and great compassion awaits one at death just as it does at every turn in life. In the depths of the human heart, life and death are as one in the great flow of existence. Aoki Shinmon, a Buddhist mortician, was washing his hands after preparing the corpse of a young mother for burial. As he dumped the water from a bucket into a bamboo grove, he saw a dragonfly whose belly shone with the translucent light of a belly filled with eggs:

As I was doing the coffining surrounded by people crying, no tears came, but when I saw the eggs shining in this dragonfly, tears filled my eyes. This tiny dragonfly dying after just a few weeks has been bearing eggs in unbroken succession to perpetuate its life form from hundreds of millions of years past. As I thought of this, tears started to flow and would not stop.[14]

The name of Amida Buddha leads beyond the usual separation of life and death into oneness of reality.

In the Japanese tea ceremony, there is the expression ichigo ichie, “one time, one meeting.” Although we may see family and friends on a daily basis, if we really think about it, each meeting is the first and last. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus states, one cannot step in the same river twice. Each time we meet a person, however familiar, they have changed, and we have also changed, so that the encounter is unique, for that time only. When the inexorable force of the vow, of the power of life itself, breaks through our foolish complacency to make us realize the preciousness of each moment, then we are moved to utter the six-syllable Name, Namu Amida Butsu.

This life, wholly unexpected
I receive this moment now.
Unlimited suffering
Boundless compassion
Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Amida Butsu


[1]Burton Watson, trans., Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 41.

[2]Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (Vintage, 1995).

[3]Usually, we think of a name as something like a label that we give to something. In Mahayana Buddhism, this view of names and of language is regarded as representing the conventional level of understanding: objectified, abstract, and static. To truly grasp the reality of a name or idea is to see it at the ultimate level, wherein each name expresses the deepest reality of that which is named, as the unfolding of emptiness/oneness. At that level, a name is not simply a label but evokes the profound web of interrelations that make that name possible in each moment, in the here and now. So truly realizing the name brings forth the whole person, or in Shin Buddhist terms, the dharmakaya, the buddha-person, who is ultimately inseparable from, and in fact is, the entire cosmos. That is why one must give oneself over to the name, or entrust oneself to the name, in order to truly realize its depths.

[4]Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), p. 21.

[5]The Buddha Land is the realm of true freedom.

[6]Translation adapted from Letters of Shinran: A Translation of Mattosho, edited by Yoshifumi Ueda(Honganji International Center), p. 31.

[7]The Name refers to Namu Amida Butsu.

[8]Taitetsu Unno, trans., Tannisho: A Shin Buddhist Classic (Buddhist Study Center Press), pp. 12–13.

[9]Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1987), pp. 63–64.

[10]Translation adapted from Tannisho, p. 8.

[11]Shinobu Matsuura, Higan: Compassionate Vow, trans. Matsuura family(privately published), p. 64.

[12]Matsuura, Higan, p. 126.

[13]Jason Rabbitt-Tomita, unpublished essay, Brown University, 1995.

[14]Translation adapted from Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician,by Shinmon Aoki (Orange County Buddhist Church, 2002), pp. 76–77.

Mark Unno

Mark Unno

Mark Unno is an ordained priest in the Shin Buddhist tradition and an Associate Professor of Buddhism at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light, and the editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures.