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Rissho Kosei-kai
International of North America
Buddhism for Today
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The Awareness that We Are Still Beginners

Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai

RKINA Pres. Nichiko NiwanoA Path to Improvement

When we speak of the Buddha, we think of Shakyamuni. If you were taught by someone you could trust that “the Buddha is a toad or an earthworm,” how would you react? About this matter, Zen Master Dogen (1200–1253) taught that “believe a toad or an earthworm is the Buddha, and give up your habitual value judgments.”

We assume that we know many things about our world. Everything that we know, however, is still only a tiny part of this world, which has no boundaries. Of course, no one can know things that are yet to be discovered. What we do know is just the tiniest element in the vast expanse of the unlimited universe.

It follows, therefore, that if we are tied down by preconceived notions and stereotypes, we cannot see the truth and may lose sight of what is important, as Dogen argued in his teaching. In that sense, we could say all of us are still beginners.

In the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings appears the verse, “This sutra makes an ignorant one give rise to the mind of wisdom.” Here, “ignorant” refers to being tied down by our judgments and desires because we are still beginners. If we “give rise to the mind of wisdom,” we open the door to unlimited possibilities.

When we realize that we are still beginners who do not know much, everything becomes an opportunity for us to improve ourselves. We are apt, however, to snap off the buds of self-improvement, so to speak, by arrogantly assuming that we already know something.

Not to do this requires the mind of wisdom, which is the awareness, innate to all human beings, that we are caused to live. Once we thereby become humble and open-minded, the door to all possibilities opens up before us.

The Foundation of a Happy Life

Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of the Jodo Shin sect, called himself “the Bald Fool,” and Zen Master Ryokan (1758–1831) called himself “the Great Ignoramus,” while not a few other famous monks also referred to themselves as “I, who am ignorant.” By constantly saying to themselves, “I am still a beginner, an ignorant person,” they were reining in their hearts and minds that might otherwise have been drawn toward arrogance or the desire for short-term results. In the case of religious belief, we are required to look deeply inside ourselves. At the same time, the more we practice, the more there are things we confront that we do not understand, and therefore it is also the realm in which we feel we must continue to study and learn.

At first, the realization that we are still beginners and ignorant may seem to be negative, but actually it is something very important, as a springboard to help us improve ourselves and mature. In addition, this
realization, along with the awareness that we are caused to live, leads to being kinder toward other people and more considerate of them. Living in harmony with others with this awareness is the foundation for happiness.

Saicho (767–822), the founder of the Tendai denomination in Japan, wrote when he was young, “I am the most ignorant among the ignorant.” Furthermore, from this realization, Saicho went on to formulate a great aspiration: “I pledge myself to the Buddha. The exquisite taste of enlightenment and the peace of mind that results from it, I absolutely will not taste alone. I will reach the ultimate enlightenment together with all people living in this world of Truth, and I will enjoy the wondrous flavor of enlightenment together with everyone living in the world of Truth.”

This idea is plainly expressed in the well-known teaching to “forget about yourself, and benefit others.”

Perhaps we could say that we are always beginners, and that we are ignorant beings. Through that realization, however, we can have a rich experience of life. The Japanese author and tanka poet Kanoko Okamoto (1889–1939) wrote the following poem that is very appropriate to the season of cherry-blossom viewing, when Buddhists in Japan celebrate the birth of Shakyamuni: “The cherry blossoms / Are living life to the fullest through their flowers. / So I would risk my own life / To look at them.” When we live “life to the fullest,” while still embracing our own ignorance, we can bloom like a great blossom.


April 2015
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing

Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.

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