Sinner – Emerging Buddha?
OK. You’ve Made Mistakes. You Feel Like a Failure. You’re not alone; small comfort!
Who are you?
I can’t say for certain, but maybe the religious leaders of the world find themselves wondering how to respond when they face the question, “Who are you?” Oftentimes we answer this question from the perspective of the material world using role labels. Mother. Father. Wife. Husband. Woman. Man. Doctor. Lawyer. Carpenter. Student. The list goes on.
In Zen, however, the question “who are you?’ is a profound koan used to burst the balloon of self-delusion. To ask the question in a serious manner can take a spiritual adept to sudden awakening. You see, the question demands the practitioner to doubt all the self-constructed identities in order to see clearly who they really are.
Who are you?
According to the BBC there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide; a sizable number of adherents. When the then new leader of this prodigious religion, which claims 18% of the world’s population was asked in an interview: Who are you?
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Pope Francis, 2013
Pope Francis’ announcement to the world is a proclamation of a disciple of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of sinners. The word ‘sin’ however, often brings chills down our spine leaving us with an impulse to shake off the term. Most of us would not respond to this universal question announcing to the world, “I am a sinner.” But all spiritual adepts know that the mud covering our life from the harm we have done is the first stage of spiritual work. It can’t be skipped. And yes, it risks getting caught in guilt and shame. If you go with “I am a sinner” – Hallelujah. It takes a fair bit of spiritual strength to know this about oneself and openly admit it.
Pope Francis understands the depth and spiritual poignancy of such a personal and public admission. It is unlikely it was said with any sense of regret but rather a piercing sense of personal recognition that accompanies those who realize the resolve and commitment of a disciple on a spiritual quest. Perhaps Pope Francis is saying to the world ‘I, Jorge Mario Bergolio need to work on virtue in order to resist the illusions and lures of the world.’ His simple admission of his spiritual place.
Yet, in the 21st century which is a predominantly, scientific and technological zeitgeist, the word “Sinner” does not easily find a place in our personal lexicon; it is not understood and is often misunderstood. It renders an indictment against us that leads to a feeling of fearful condemnation: ‘Man the sinner is no good and will go to hell unless he is saved.’ The word “sinner” brings to mind images such as a pointed finger jutting out of the heavens scolding us. It tends to carry with it the old dogma of a moralistic cabal. Understood as such, it gives limited help and drives us away from the essential shake-up of realizing the ego of man is unable to make it to the peaks of spiritual awakening. We feel queasy with the guilt, shame and blame which accompanies the word “sin.” The ego latches on and is wounded by these subsequent mind states giving birth to the identity of a ‘victim.’ We don’t see it as a condition, a stage if you like, and like all conditions and stages it is subject to change.
The ego, time and time again, overtly and covertly wants self-gratification (pleasure) and claiming the role of ‘victim’ is as much self-seeking pleasure as any other identity The ego doesn’t care since it is both surreptitious and blatant in the pursuit of personal gain and comforts. The ego self-centered position remains predominant.
And yet, this profession of “sinner” does have an aim, doesn’t it?
Pope Francis does not suggest he is a “victim” or that he is riddled with guilt, shame or blame. He is confessing some interior reality of suffering which he describes with language from his tradition. Using the word “sin” is rooted in the historical context of his membership in the Roman Catholic enclave.
Sin is a reality, however, even for an emerging Buddha. It is not a label of the ego-self but a motivation – a drive to be and get something somewhere. A label merely irritates as a small stone does when it is stuck in our shoe. A declaration of “I am a sinner” is a recognition of a spiritual condition as well as a motivation to change without guilt, shame and blame. Motivation, as a necessary requisite for a spiritual awakening, is a matter of life and death.
Our dear and late Dharma brother, Da Shi Yin Zhao, captures the spiritual significance of motivation in his reflections on an Aesop fable. After reckoning with his suffering he wrote:
One day a hound, out hunting alone, flushed a hare from a thicket and gave chase. The frightened hare gave the dog a long run and then escaped. The hound was disappointed, but he held his head up as he trotted home. His attitude irritated a passing shepherd. “You’re supposed to be such a fine hunter,” he sneered. “And you couldn’t even run down a hare that’s a fraction of your size.”
“You forget,” replied the hound, “that I was only running for my supper. The hare was running for his life.”
Whether hare, hound, or human being motivation is everything. What is the goal… and how badly do we want it? The rabbit wanted to live more than the hound wanted to eat. The rabbit tried harder.
At this point another definition of “sin” is worth considering. Sin defined as an archer failing to hit the target, missing the mark. The archer draws back his bow, takes aim and releases the drawn bow only to see his arrow in flight fall short of the intended target. The archer, no doubt, feels a prick of disappointment when he sees his spent arrow lying on the ground before the target. He may be red-faced and embarrassed by his inability to strike the bull’s eye. Missing the mark (sin) does not send the archer into a place of self-damnation that drowns him in unworthiness. Blame and shame do not arise. It is not a dishonor or a disgrace to miss the target; it is a recollection, a reminder to the Zen archer of two spiritual requisites.
(1). A fallen arrow points to a need for discipline and training and (2) There is no mark to hit.
The first of these requisites is easy to understand. The archer who is sincere in his spiritual pursuits will keep going despite his fallen arrows. His missing the mark shows him he needs discipline. The arrow that misses is not a claim against the archer in terms of guilt, shame or blame it is merely spiritual feedback from a spiritual condition. It tells the archer, as any good messenger does, continue. This archer is a disciple and continues to train.
The second requisite points to the Truth of the illusionary world. There is nothing to get in the material realm that will satisfy the archer’s thirst. If the archer loses heart to train, if he thinks there is something to get he needs to seek help. Any Master worth his salt knows when a disciple is despondent from a fallen arrow he has not yet seen his true condition but continues to rub and buff the crest-fallen ego. The despondency is a messenger. This disciple needs to reflect on his commitment and resolve. Something continues to block his emerging Buddha self. It’s not a time to give up; it’s a time to reflect. I offer, first this reminder from Bonhoefer as well as a recommendation.
…The person who hears the call to discipleship and wants to follow, but feels obliged to insist on his own terms…is no longer (in) discipleship but (in) a program of [his] own to be arranged to suit [himself]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship
Study renunciation and eternal life in Matthew 19:16-25
If the disciple is more interested in arranging things to suit his desires, he is not resolute about his conviction for spiritual ascendancy. He merely wants to be in charge. He’s a seeker with an ego-centered attitude. Seekers need training. Strong and fierce compassion must be offered to awaken those wanting to be in charge and wanting to be a so-called ‘disciple.’ Arrogance and pride are the main culprits prohibiting the seeker from entering the Dharma gates of an emerging Buddha Self.
The amount of time spent seeking spiritual heights does not matter a tittle when it comes to spiritual awakening. What matters is the conversion of the mind and heart. The disciple must be willing and able to see the death of the ego-self as essential to his spiritual awakening or he will spend his time polishing his illusionary ego-brick.
If we find we are in this predicament, don’t give up! Get ready to work; to drop the nonsense of the ego. We must remember we are an emerging Buddha despite the miserable sense of disappointment we may cling to in our ego identity. STOP!
We must stop going over and over the mistakes and sorrows as though it is a canker sore in the mouth. We need to clean-up our act. There is no shame in cleaning things up. It is a worthy and necessary spiritual activity. Don’t shun it.
Most of us know the story of Angulimala, who was known as the “Finger Necklace” monk. After killing a victim, he would remove a finger, thread it onto a string of other fingers and hang it around his neck. He allegedly killed close to a thousand villagers during the Buddha’s lifetime.
Angulimala’s great fortune was encountering the Buddha directly. With this meeting he stopped his murderous lifestyle, repented and became a devoted disciple. He didn’t quibble, complain or bargain with the Buddha. He didn’t whine. He stopped. He dropped his old ways. He gave up his criminal identity. His emerging Buddha arose within him.
He was struck by the Dharma. But it wasn’t easy for this former killer. He made lots of enemies. He faced the consequences of his unseemly conduct. We’d expect his previous crimes to catch up with him and they did. An angry mob of villagers who knew him before his noble birth of his Buddha Self found him and ostensibly stoned him to death. The Buddha reportedly explained that although Angulimala killed many and was killed violently himself he died a converted man, an emerged Buddha self.
He “cleaned-up” his act and faced the consequences of his dreadful actions. There was no shame, no pride, no “yes, buts” from Angulimala. He accepted willingly the Dharma gates of his life. He stopped the ego-finagling. It was for Angulimala, as it is for us, a matter of life and death.
Again Da Shi Yin Zhao, in his own words, sums up what needs to be done:
One day, with tears in my eyes, I sat on my pillow and prayed. I knew at that point that I couldn’t cope with the world without the Buddha’s help. I also realized that I had to help myself by approaching Zen with an honest effort, with a Right Effort, that in all ways I had to “live out the life of the Buddha Self.”
I picked a meditation method, worked hard to get the method right, and stuck with it. I changed my attitudes towards the material world. I began to see what was important and what wasn’t. So, finally, I began to approach Zen as the hare being chased by the hound; I approached Zen knowing that my life depended on it.
Whether we see our interior condition in terms such as I am a sinner, missing the mark, or as a hare being chased by a hound it is when we know it is a matter of life and death that we approach Zen with an honest effort to “live out the emerging Buddha Self” with no blame, shame or guilt.
Who are you?
Author: FaShi Lao Yue
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