Trust No One

This week was hugely disappointing. A meditation teacher I've admired for nearly a decade came tumbling down off the pedestal I'd put him on. I raged. I cried. And as I tried to stop being so upset about it I kept saying to myself, "Why did I let this happen again?" I have a habit of admiring Buddhist teachers, and expecting that they will be better than average humans at interpersonal relationships. Then I inevitably realize they are human beings, and thus prone to human failings.

Really I was angry that I had "let" myself trust someone. It's a very stupid thing to trust.

And yet we need to trust. We need to trust that the floorboards will not fall out from underneath us, that our lungs will keep working, that people will obey traffic laws, that our stomach will digest food, that our partners will not leave us, that the water from the tap is clean enough to drink. If we didn't have trust we would be in constant panic and suspicion.

Pure Land Buddhism is known for "nembutsu," a practice in which one repeatedly recites the Buddha's name. Pure Land Buddhists believe that this recitation will lead to rebirth in the heavenly "Pure Land." The phrase in nembutsu is "Namu Amida Butsu," which sometimes is translated as "homage to Amida Buddha," or "I take refuge in Amida Buddha." However, Aoyama Roshi believed that the meaning of the word "namu" is "to trust," and that is the meaning I like most as well. The word "namu" 南無 appears in many sutras, for example, the Daihishin Dharani, or the Full Moon Precept Renewal Ceremony (ryakufusatsu). It's a somewhat misunderstood term.

"Namu Shakyamuni Buddha" or "Namu Amida Butsu" does not mean blind faith in an external deity, or an external Buddha, or even really in Buddha at all. Namu means "to trust," and trusting in the Buddha does not mean handing over power or relinquishing our own agency. It does not mean believing everything will be fine because of the Buddha's power. When we trust in the "Buddha," this is just trusting the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community) as well.

So, trusting in Buddha means trusting in truth. It means deeply investigating and being intimate with the truth. And what is the truth? The truth is that shit falls apart. People lie. The dog pees on the floor. Trump trumps. It's all true. And Buddhist teachers, well... they are who they are. Haters gonna hate hate hate hate and players gonna play play play play play.

It's very hard to have complete trust in this. It's hard to take refuge in losing your job. It's hard to chant, "Homage to impermanence and constant disappointment." But I suspect that is the right direction. Trusting in the truth means that when disappointment comes, it comes. It is true and it is painful and it will change. Truth promises us that things will only and always be as they are. Maybe this seems like small comfort, but it's a promise we can actually trust.


  1. Thanks for sharing. I've been through my own process with disappointment in teachers, and now with my own students I am sure I am disappointing them as well. My own way through this has been to separate out Amida from human teachers. We reflect the light of Amida, but none of us seem to be perfect mirrors.

    Or perhaps it's better to say that we are perfect mirrors. But sometimes we reflect samsara and sometimes we reflect nirvana :)

    Whatever the case - I still find myself chanting nembutsu.


  2. You wrote "Pure Land Buddhists believe that this recitation will lead to rebirth in the heavenly "Pure Land." " Yes, however the sentence should be modified to qualify your remark "some Pure Land Buddhists believe as literal fundamentalists..."

    I'm simply aghast finding you regurgitating the worse of 19th century colonialist Orientalism's misunderstanding of the sukhavati tradition in general, the n'ian fo/nembutsu version in particular. What do you make of Obaku Zen, so-called 'nembutsu zen'?

    Some rudimentary training in Shin would establish that your characterization is absolutely false in a literal meaning. Shin's equivalency to rinzai koans, the Anjin Rondia of Nishi Honganji Gakkai, make it very clear that metaphoric interpretation is the heart of Shin - and that metaphor is understood by means of shinjin (rendered as 'faith' by those plagued with the Gnosis Deficiency Disorder or institutionalization of Secondary Orientalism in Jodo and Jodoshin institutions).

    Some basic reading can clear up the matter. My teacher, Eidmann Hokkyo (he was a Shin Kyoshi (Teachings Master, equivalent to a zen Roshi - mistranslated as 'rev' and 'minister'; hokkyo is an advanced title based on depth of awakening within the Gakkai, like a very senior zen gnostikoi) trained mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1956 in Kyoto. Joe writes about it in his posthumous Sake and Satori. Campbelll's treatment of Shin/sukhavati is resonant with Honganji-ha training received with Eidmann. Sadly, academia remains entrenched in literal fundamentalist interpretation and Buddhist modernity.

    You might go back to Gregory Schopen's 1979 Indo-Iranian Journal article, entitled something like 'rebirth in sukhavati as the generalized goal of Indic buddhism'. Schopen has no sense of myth and metaphor while being a damned good detective within buddhist literature. He makes the case for widespread use of the 'rebirth' motif in India, only not understanding its nature as liberative awakening of the avaivartika bhumi of the bodhisattvamarga.

    As for shinjin. Shinran makes it real clear that 'realistic awakening' (not Jamesian 'animal faith') is synonymous with bodhicitta in his understanding.

    1. Hi Ken. This piece is not about Shin Buddhism. It don't claim to be an expert or practitioner of that. This is about the use of "namu" in Soto Zen Buddhism.

  3. I'm sorry to read of the violation of trust in your meditation teacher. I'm curious if you've ever explored Vipassana meditation ( One of the aspects I really like about it is that you are never asked to place any faith in a leader. You don't even need to have faith in Buddha himself as he merely rediscovered the path out of suffering. It is a wondrous thing.

    1. Thanks Matt! I practiced Vipassana for 10 years and continue to do so. I did not specify what tradition this teacher was in.

  4. Your writing from the heart is helpful and rare and good. thank you. -Noa

  5. When I was young I wished "masters" to be like white marble statues, clean, immaculate, super human. As I got older and my dharma eye opened, I saw that it was my desire, my misunderstanding and my clinging to the delusional that caused "my" disappointment. When one crosses 50, one is faced with ones own disappointments, foibles and missteps. Kensho shows one how silly and void it all is/was. Effortlessly opening ones hand and the barbed thistle seed one unknowingly clung to falls out. Laughter then rings out. "Who" was it that needed the world to be a certain way? What did it add or take away from one for it not to be that way? What blocks the light that keeps the shadow self alive? Now gone, one dances without a shadow, only the traps of habit energy need to be extinguished as they arise.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Cogs in the Machine

So You Want To Practice Zen In Japan?