First person: “I knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.”
Second person: “What was the name of his other leg?”
The experience of seeing something different for the first time is not that unusual. Sometimes, it’s funny. Sometimes, it can be life-changing. In either case, our perception is changed and our experience of what we see is changed.
Comedy is the most fun of misaligned perceptions. Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” is a classic. Lou Costello’s frustration rises as a simple discussion about baseball players becomes complicated as Bud Abbott describes the position and names of players on the team.
It would seem that the discussion would be uncomplicated, but the names of the players are unusual and unfamiliar to Costello. Although the names are recognizable words, the words are unusual for names — “Who,” “What,” and “I Don’t Know.”
For Abbott, the names are matter of fact. For Costello, the words do not correspond with what we normally think of as names. If you have not seen this exchange, take a look at it on YouTube. It’s a routine that’s nearly 80 years old. Still quite hilarious. Quite brilliant.
Like Costello, our misperceptions can lead to frustration and anger. Our perception is shaped by our experience. If, in our experience, we have not had the opportunity to meet someone named “Who,” it would be difficult to make that association.
Our experience may tell us that someone named “Who” is not possible. If I hold on to that thought, it would be difficult to make the association with the name and a person. We can see that there is a person, but the name associated with that person is not possible. So I might give that person a name that I’m familiar with, a name that is in my experience of names.
A simple thing like changing a name may not seem that important and, yet, it is perhaps that person’s most important identity. Sometimes, we join in being renamed like when we begin to identify with a nickname. Sometimes, our name is taken from us and who we are is taken as well.
Not seeing something or some experience happens often. It may only be a matter of seeing something a little off of what should be. You might pull a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, sniff it and declare it either drinkable or not.
Whether that milk is drinkable depends on our experience to distinguish between various stages of milk decline. Should I drink the milk or is it time to try that experiment and turn it into plastic. The moment you think, “Maybe I’ll have some milk,” the possible alternatives begin to present themselves. If I remain with the first intent, to drink some milk, regardless of conditions, I may make a decision that could result in difficulties.
We know that not seeing things as they are can have serious consequences. Our assumptions and preferences can distort how we see things. I like vanilla ice cream. I look at a quart. I think there’s not enough to share. My preference distorts how I see the world. I think it’s OK to call someone named Shintaro — Tom — because it’s easier. It’s OK to pick fruit from the neighbor’s tree whose branches are overhanging the sidewalk because it’s a hazard. I may even be doing them a favor. People who live on the street like living that way. They like the freedom. We live in America. We do not live in castes.
Our tendency to see the world through our preferences and prejudices results in dividing the world up into what I like, what I don’t like, what I want, what I don’t want, offering opportunities for difficulties to arise. This is the cause of difficulties, the second of the Four Noble Truths.
The difficulties of the First Noble Truth is not just the existential difficulty we associate with dukkha. It is the everyday, constant disruptions we encounter. It is the range of difficulties from the last bit of ice cream to the famine induced by war that kills millions. The sum of these difficulties is samsara.
Buddhism is about the resolution of difficulties we cause and experience. Difficulties that result from our tendency to engage the world through our preferences and prejudices. If we are able to cultivate a mind that simply sees things as they are, we could begin to soften the boundaries that separate, lessening opportunities for conflict to arise. The Eightfold Path, the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, and its derivations, is the means to cultivate that mind.
Jodo Shinshu is Buddhism. We too are concerned with the resolution of difficulties. Difficulties that continue to nip at our heels no matter what we do. No matter whether we apply our Buddhist understanding or engage the world through a Buddhist life, there are still wars that kill, economic injustice that drive poverty and hunger, systemic racism that uses up people, then discards them when their lives are no longer useful.
In Shinran’s time, it was the Gempei War, which began in the streets of Kyoto. Japan suffered through several severe famines, one of which brought the Gempei War to a temporary halt. In his departure from Hieizan, he questioned his ability to fulfill the practices of the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. From Honen, he understood that the compassion of enlightenment extended to all beings.
“Tenzuru” is an expression of transformation that describes a change in how I see myself in relationship to the world around me. I am changed. The assurance of Amida expressed through compassion for all beings allows me to begin to see my imperfections more clearly. I am changed.
And, even with all my failings, I am included in that compassion. My prejudices and my expectations of others is tempered by the assurance of Amida. I am grateful for that compassion. I am changed. That gratitude continues to grow as my understanding of my foolishness deepens. How I see and engage the world is from this place of gratitude and compassion. I respond with Namoamidabutsu.