Amida’s Absolute Ahola: “…bits of rubble turned into gold.”

Dharma Talk at Makawao Hongwanji, December 6, 2020

Let’s begin with the wisdom of Shinran Shōnin. 

Please join me in putting our palms together in gasshō.

“(Amida) Buddha, in the causal stage, made the universal Vow:

When beings hear my Name and think on me, 

I will come to welcome each of them,

Not discriminating between the poor and the rich and wellborn,

Not discriminating between the inferior and the highly gifted;

Not choosing the learned and those upholding pure precepts,

Nor rejecting those who break precepts 

and whose evil karma is profound.

When beings just turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu,

It is as if bits of rubble were turned into gold.”

— Shinran Shōnin, quoting a hymn by Tz’u-min in Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’ (CWS, Vol 1, page 456)

Good morning!

Let’s first give context to a few terms in this hymn. 

“Buddha in the causal stage” refers to the Bodhisattva Dharmakara making the 48 Vows, including the Primal Vow (universal vow), and, upon fulfilling all the Vows, becoming Amida Buddha.

“…hear my Name and think on me…” is to hear the Calling Voice of Amida in Namo Amida Butsu. 

Namo Amida Butsu, the Name of Amida, is the embodiment of Amida’s sending virtue for our Birth in the Pure Land, and the perfection of practice.

“…and think on me…” is the literal translation of Nembutsu, “to think on the Buddha.” 

The practice of Nembutsu is simply awakening to, becoming aware of, and truly appreciating the Embrace of Great Love and Great Compassion, Amida’s working in our lives to guide us to birth in the Pure Land.

“…Not discriminating between the poor and the rich and wellborn,

Not discriminating between the inferior and the highly gifted;

Not choosing the learned and those upholding pure precepts,

Nor rejecting those who break precepts 

and whose evil karma is profound.”

This is the “universal” Vow — Amida’s Vow is to save all beings without discrimination, judgement, or preference.

The Mind of Non-Discrimination (also translated as Mind of Absolute Equality) is byōdō shin in Japanese. 

Shakyamuni Buddha taught 2600 years ago that the human mind, as wonderful as it is, is ultimately limited and thus instinctively sees the world in a dualistic perspective: me vs. them, black vs. white, good vs. evil (in a moral sense), etc.

The Path of Discipline, the traditional monastic path to Enlightenment, aims to break free from the Ego, the dualistic mind, the mind of discrimination, through renunciation, self-discipline, meditation, upholding precepts, intensive study of the sutra, relentless practice.

Put another way, if you were not able or capable or in a position to become a monk, excel in your studies, practice relentlessly, meditate for days, etc., you were out of luck.

Enlightenment, the pursuit of Enlightenment, was limited to the wealthy, powerful, wellborn, educated, exceptionally talented people who had the time and resources to devote their lives to monastic practice.

Shinran Shōnin, his great teacher Hōnen Shōnin, and the Nembutsu teaching of Jōdo Pure Land School, shattered this paradigm and disrupted the status quo. 

“When a person realizes the mind of nondiscrimination,

That attainment is the ‘state of regarding each being as one’s only child.’

This is none other than Buddha-nature;

We will awaken to it on reaching the land of peace.”

—Shinran Shōnin, Hymns of the Pure Land, CWS Vol 1, page 350

Shinran’s metaphor in this verse is exceptionally easy to understand: The Mind of Non-Discrimination is Buddha-Nature; Buddha-Nature is the “state of regarding each being as one’s only child.”

It’s really easy to nod our heads in agreement, and instantly want to share this “wisdom” with other people on social media. And then, go on with our normal lives.

“Oh, those crazy selfish people who don’t wear masks! THEY should regard each being as one’s only child!”

It’s easy to point the finger at others, to think “Wisdom” is for other people.

It’s difficult to reflect on oneself truthfully, to see oneself stripped of the Ego-Self in the Light of Wisdom. 

Which is why Shinran’s verse ends with “we will awaken to it on reaching the land of peace” — i.e., when we are born in the Pure Land after we die, and leave behind this human body and mind, and then realize Buddha-nature, become Buddha.

These words are not a criticism nor is an exhortation to “be a better you”. 

Neither is it a pessimistic worldview.

This is a declaration of the truth, a most passionate expression of Shinran’s faith of shinjin!

“We WILL awaken to it on reaching the land of peace.”

There is no doubt in this statement!

Shinran Shōnin’s personal experience of transformation through the faith of shinjin centered on his constant realization that he was incapable of love and compassion, that he was not able to realize his Buddha-nature, the Mind of Non-Discrimination, the Heart of Great Compassion while he was in a human body and dominated by a self-center human heart WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY SHINRAN IS THE OBJECT OF AMIDA’S VOW!

Shinran was of noble birth, highly educated, a passionate teacher of the Nembutsu, and an accomplished religious thinker. And yet, he was constantly aware of his true nature as a self-centered human being.

“The shinjin of the wise is such that 

they are inwardly wise, outwardly foolish.

The heart of Gutoku is such that

I am inwardly foolish, outwardly wise.”

—Shinran Shōnin, Gutoku’s Notes, Fascicle 1, CWS, Vol 1, page 587

These verses were written by Shinran at age 83—what a remarkable degree of self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-honesty! 

As a side note, “Gutoku” is a nickname Shinran used, which translates as “foolish stubble-headed” person, or “foolish failed monk.”

But because Shinran had personally experienced the transformation of the Faith of Shinjin, he had no doubt of his birth in the Pure Land and thus becoming Buddha.

And this subjective experience of being assured of Birth in the Pure Land and thus Buddhahood, breaking free of this world of delusion, or “Salvation” in a Buddhist sense, through the “Other Power” of Amida’s Vow working in one’s life is the source of Shinran’s passion.

“…When beings just turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu, it is as if bits of rubble were turned into gold.”

In Japanese, this is expressed as:

回心 eshin
回 To turn about

心 Heart-Mind

This “turning about of the heart-mind” is the transformative experience of Shinjin, receiving the heart-mind of Amida, the entrusting heart, the Mind of Non-Discrimination and the Heart of Great Compassion.

It may be easier to think of shinjin, “the turning of this heart-mind” this way:

Amida’s Absolute Aloha

In my kotonk understanding, aloha means absolutely unconditional love, absolutely inclusive love, and by sharing this aloha, or having aloha shared with you, changes your heart, and adjusts your attitude.

Being from Los Angeles, aloha has always made me a little uncomfortable. For me, it is very difficult to accept being accepted unconditionally because it forces me to see my true nature as a selfish, ego-centric, self-deluded limited human being!

And yet, I have been accepted with aloha in Hawaii; in fact, aloha showers down on me and Mimy every day in the form of kind and gentle people in the Makawao Hongwanji sangha temple community, spectacular sunrises, rainbows, sunsets, ocean views, and the majesty of Haleakala.

Am I grateful?

I know I’m supposed to be grateful!

To be honest, it’s really easy to take aloha for granted and not make a deliberate and conscious effort to live aloha by sharing aloha with every person and living being we encounter.

“Live Aloha” is a command to other people! 

YOU live aloha first, then I’ll live aloha!

But slowly and surely, having truly received aloha, you experience a change of heart, an adjustment of attitude, and suddenly it’s easy to say mahalo, to feel mahalo simply for the reality that we get to live here, to wonder at the causes and conditions of our life brought us here!

“…When beings just turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu, it is as if bits of rubble were turned into gold.”

Through the working of Amida’s Vow, Namo Amida Butsu, the Nembutsu working in our lives, WE turn about at heart and often say the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu!


Because we are “bits of rubble”!

Rev. Dr. Bert Sumikawa once told me, “Easy to see shinjin in others, hard to see shinjin in yourself.”


Because we are “bits of rubble” but we don’t want to admit it to ourselves!

I know, without a doubt, I am “bits of rubble” …after 60 years of life, it’s intuitively obvious that I’m not even close to my “self-image” hahaha!

Despite that, I am desperately concerned about how other people see me, my reputation, my “brand” as a smart, sophisticated, urbane, profound teacher of the BuddhaDharma!

How silly is that! 

How self-centered!

Even Amida laughs with me on that one…

And after we stop laughing at how stupid I can be, I begin to understand Shinran’s words.

Shinran’s key teaching is having received shinjin, we say Namo Amida Butsu in gratitude for the Great Heart of Compassion of Amida Buddha that embraces me, just as I am, and the Infinite Light of Wisdom of Amida Buddha that illuminates the folly, the silliness, the self-centered stupidity of my thoughts, words, and actions on a daily basis!

When I see myself as just “bits of rubble”, it is humiliating and humbling. 

“ME,” my big fat EGO, doesn’t like that.

And yet, I am forced to admit to myself that it is true! I am just “bits of rubble.”

And this is the source of profound gratitude for Amida’s Absolute Aloha that reaches out to me, changing my heart, adjusting my attitude, no matter how far I try to run, and no matter how long it takes.

Good thing Amida has Immeasurable Life and Infinite Wisdom!

Amida has done the heavy lifting for us, Amida is sending us Great Love every day, awakening our Great Compassion, though the gift of Namo Amida Butsu.

All we have to do is gratefully receive the gift of Amida’s Absolute Aloha and let it change us from bits of rubble into gold!

May your day be filled with Amida’s Absolute Aloha!

Namo Amida Butsu!

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