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It Could Be Bad, It Could Be Good

There once lived a poor farmer, who lived in a poor village, but this farmer was considered very rich and fortunate because he owned a horse.

One day, his horse ran away. His neighbors came to his farm to say they were sorry for his misfortune. But the farmer said, “I don’t know, it could be bad, it could be good.”

Several days later, the horse returned, with six strong horses. Once again, the neighbors came by this time to congratulate him, but the farmer said, “I don’t know, it could be good, it could be bad.”

Some time later, the farmer’s son went riding on one of the wild horses. But he fell off and broke his leg and arm. The neighbors came by to console the farmer. But the farmer said, “I don’t know, it could be bad, it could be good.”

A year later, a fierce war broke out between the farmer’s country and the neighboring country. Many young men were drafted into the army. When the army came to draft the farmer’s son, they found that he was disabled, thus exempting him from military service.

— ancient Taoist story

June 2021 marks my 20th year of serving at the Los Angeles Betsuin. Twenty years! It’s hard to believe, yet it seems like only yesterday that I came into the front office for the first time and frightened the office staff.

As I reflect on that time, I remember thinking Los Angeles was the last place I wanted to be. I had heard Los Angeles Betsuin was the harshest, most difficult place to be. I told Bishop Hakubun Watanabe that I’d go to Los Angeles for my orientation, but that I wanted to transfer as soon as my six months were up!

Twenty years have past and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I’ve met so many wonderful Dharma friends, so many wonderful people in the Little Tokyo community. And, of course, it’s great that Rev. Miyoshi (AKA Nobuko Briones) is serving at West Covina Buddhist Temple.

The story I began with is an ancient Taoist story that I enjoy telling our Saishin Dojo students. It’s a story that shows us that the meaning of our good and bad could change immediately or years or even the next generation, depending on the circumstance. Although we constantly talk about good and bad, it is not easy for us to determine what is truly good or bad.

Usually we are pretty good about figuring out what is good and what is bad. But Buddhism teaches us that we really don’t have any firm basis or criteria for judging what is good or what is bad. Buddhism teaches us that our basis for good and bad are superficial and could change quite easily according to conditions. Buddhism teaches us that we should know the uncertainty of our judgments of good and bad. We should realize the limitations of our judgments are our own opinions of good and bad based on what suits us now and on our self-centeredness.

That said, this doesn’t mean that we should not talk about good and bad, or judge between good and bad. In our everyday life, we are constantly judging what is good and what is bad. What Buddhism teaches us is that we must do so knowing the limits of criteria. If we believe that we have the absolute criteria of good and bad, then we really have a shallow understanding of this world and self.

In the Epilogue of the Tannisho, Yuien writes:

“In reality, all of us, including myself, talk only about what is good and evil without realizing the Tathagata’s benevolence.”

Yuien says that he is attached to his own principles of what is good and evil and does not have any insight into limitless reality.

Yuien continues:

“According to the master, he said, ‘I don’t know what the two, good and evil, really mean. I could say that I know what good is, if I knew good as thoroughly and completely as the Tathagata; and I could say I know what evil is, if I knew evil as thoroughly and completely as the Tathagata. But in this foolish being filled with blind passion, living in this impermanent world of burning house, all things are empty and vain, therefore, untrue. Only the Nembutsu is true, real and sincere.’”

Shinran knows that whatever he thinks regarding good and evil are empty and false, as they are constantly changing because of conditions and his self-centeredness. For Shinran, Nembutsu is true and real.

As I reflect on my journey to the Los Angeles Betsuin, there are so many “bad” to “good” times that influenced my life. There were times when I thought nothing good could ever come from losing my father or divorcing after some 27 years of marriage.

The simple story of the farmer and his horse speaks the truth that we never know what benefits will follow “bad” things. It is up to us to take both “bad” and “good” as simply what happens in life … and to choose which part of our character either of those will reveal.

I am truly grateful to have been given this opportunity to share the Nembutsu at the Betsuin. I look forward to many more years … mmm, I don’t know, it could be good, it could be bad.

Namu Amida Butsu


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1 Comment

Ricardo Nishimura
Ricardo Nishimura
Jul 14, 2021

Rev. Willian Briones, thank you very much for sharing the ancient Taoist story, and mailny your insights about that. I really appreciated it. Congrats for your 20th year of serving at the Los Angeles Betsuin - it is a great journey! Once again thank you for sharing the Dharma! Warm Regards, Ricardo Ossamu Nishimura (South America - Honpa Hongwanji do Brasil) Gasho, Namo Amida Butsu

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