By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
ORDINARY HUMAN BEINGS
We honor the life of Shakyamuni Buddha with our Nehan-E or Nirvana Day Service in February.
This marks the memorial day of his death. Having been born a human, he would die, like all
humans. After his Enlightenment, he was asked who he was, because of his aura. He said he was
not a god, but a human being who was awake. This is significant for all of us, because we too are
human beings. We all have the potential to be awake and to alleviate discontent and enjoy the
harmony of life.
Many Americans are relating the precepts and practices of Buddhist monks, as a means of
resolving life’s problems. These practices, such as meditation and mindfulness, are useful, practical
methods of improving our lives. But they may fall short of resolving the bigger issues of old age,
sickness, and death. The Buddha spoke to many different people, who had varying degrees of skill
and intellect, and offered a variety of means of resolving deep questions. Shinran’s honesty in his
self-refection, led him to abandon the way of monks. The path of the Nembutsu is the path for
ordinary people, with families and jobs, who cannot follow a monk’s path. We’ve used the words
“achieving,” in contrast to “receiving,” to differentiate the monk’s strict path of discipline and
precepts from the path of Nembutsu. Shinran’s message to us is that when we are awake to all
that has been received from others, we appreciate life with gratitude and joy.
As Shin Buddhist, we have Shinran’s perspective on an awakened life. He has shown us
through his teachings and examples, that ordinary beings, without the intellect, discipline, and
talents of monks and scholars can enjoy the truths of the Buddha’s Teachings. It might be said
that “being ordinary” is a basis of being a Shin Buddhist. In contrast, much of our lives are focused
on being special. The present culture of our young people emphasizes the glamor of celebrity. It
is deemed important to be a winner, to be #1, to have many friends, and to be famous. Yet most
of us mature adults have realized that there are many other worthwhile values to consider. We
find ourselves as ordinary people.
So how do I reconcile my being average, with the basic instinct of being better than
average? Like everyone else, I’d like to be special, do great things, and do well in everything that
I do. In my younger years, this helped me achieve a career of which I am proud. But in school,
athletics, and career, I found that there were always those of my peers who were at the top of
their field. I would never have the innate talent to be among them. My new career, as a Shin
minister, opened me up to the realization offered by Shinran. In the field of religion or spirituality,
there was no possible way of being at the top. Even those at the top of various professions,
cannot be dominant in other fields. Steven Jobs, Michael Jordan, Einstein, and Oprah Winfrey
cannot excel in other fields. So Shinran’s message to himself and to us, is that we have limits as
humans. Even our intellect, physical skills, and religious empathy have limits.
In the comic called “Pickles,” grandmother Pearl tells her grandson, “Nelson, everyone is the
same. We are all unique.” This contradiction is quite true. We all have the same quality of being
different from each other. All 7 billion of us on earth, have the same quality of being uniquely
ourselves. It is this quality of being complete and accepted, just as I am, that is so appealing to all
humans. It is a fundamental need of humans to be accepted as part of a family or community.
This is why our young people feel a need to be important and recognized. We are all seeking to
be accepted, just as we are; which is the basic message of Shinran’s description of Amida’s
If we can experience this acceptance, we would not have to make such an effort to
achieve and be recognized. Then we might spend more energy being helpful to others. We
might accept the fact that we are ordinary, just like all other humans. A Chinese poem speaks of
“bits of rubble turn into gold,” which is the subtitle of Dr. Taitetsu Unno’s book, Shin Buddhism. Its
meaning is that each of us, as bits of rubble, can turn into gold with the realization of that our
awakening is a gift from others. Another way of saying this is that, as ordinary people (bits of
rubble), our perspective is turned around (turn into gold), as we see ourselves as necessary and
essential parts of the world.
To illustrate this, recall the large mural at the exit of Terminal 1 at the airport. You may have
seen similar artwork of a scene or portrait, when seen from a distance. However, when viewed up
close, we find that the larger mural is made up of individual photos of people, with each tile of a
different shade or color. Much like the post-impressionist dot paintings of Seurat and Pissarro, the
individual tiles collectively form a larger picture. Each of us, as individual tiles (bits of rubble) are
part of a beautiful larger mosaic (gold). If one or more of the tiles is missing, the larger image would
be incomplete. I think this is what the poem and Shinran are trying to tell us. Our illusion may have
us feel insignificant and ordinary, but Namo Amida Butsu reminds us that we are the gold of a
beautiful whole. The whole is Amida Buddha, Light and Life, Wisdom and Compassion.
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