The Mind Trap 
The Shoshinge that we chant for our monthly memorials contains a section about Nagarjuna. The passage states that Nagarjuna overcame both being and non-being. He also became a true Bodhi-sattva, an “awake-being.” He lived sometime in the middle of the 2nd Century to the middle 3rd Century of our present era. He was so brilliant that some people regard him as the Second Buddha.  

I am grateful for his work. I met him through the translations by Frederick J. Streng entitled, “Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning”. That was only 4 years after I had become a Buddhist at the Denver Buddhist Temple where the minister of the time was Rev. Tsunoda, who eventually became the Bishop of Canada. Rev. Tsunoda introduced me to the Buddhism of the Heart—Jodo Shinshu. But Nagarjuna helped me, steeped in traditional Western traditions as I was, think more like a Buddhist. Streng’s book was intellectually over-whelming. It transformed they way I approached my attempts to grasp this new faith I had so joyfully discovered. I still have the original copy full of my notes and my questions. The only way I can relate the experience is by saying that Nagarjuna helped free me from the Mind Trap of Dualism.  

Much of what passes for religious thought is based on dualisms: true believer-infidel; life-death; saved-damned; sin-salvation; heaven-hell; insiders-outsiders; religious-secular; being-non-being. I am sure you could make a list of your own.  The point is that these dualities over-simplify our relationship with the reality of our lives together. Over-simplification, of course, makes life easier to understand, but dualistic thinking also perverts our relationship with our real feet-on-the-ground world. Most of the torture, violence and inhumanity in the name or religion can be traced back to dualistic thinking. It seems so simple, doesn’t it, “just get rid of all the evil in the world and you will have a better world.” Or “just get rid of all the non-believers and you will have a pure beautiful society where everyone can live in an unending blessedness.” And too, “If I just could get rid of my bad side, I could lead the holy life.” 

The only trouble with this Mind Trap is that it has never worked, never lived up to its promises. But we human beings fall for this dualistic Mind Trap over and over again—and suffer the consequences over and over again. 

It is important for us to know that the Nembutsu Way is not a simplistic, childish religion of mindless belief. Critics often insist that Jodoshin-shu is a religion for old people and those too lazy to practice traditional Buddhism. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. When Shinran quoted Honen, his teacher, saying: “Just recite the Nembutsu and be saved. That’s all there is to it,” it was not to lead us in to mere believing. It was a profound statement, more than likely, in my opinion, to be based on Honen’s deep study of Nagarjuna.  

Nagarjuna was a brilliant thinker. Modern people, who seem to prefer religious entertainment, may think that Nagarjuna is just another egghead. Don’t forget that Nagarjuna himself turned to Amida Buddha and the Nembutsu himself. Our Nembutsu Dharma stands on firm foundation, in both the intellectual world and the world of everyday life.   

The Nembutsu, after all, is for the good, the evil and the terminally indifferent. It is indeed for all beings regardless of their life situation. To be set free from the Mind Trap of dualism is a powerful experience. The natural response is the Nembutsu of gratitude. We may not think about it. We may not understand it. But it will still have a profound impact. Such is it power. Studying Nagarjuna, or reciting the Nembutsu? Well, both result in a deep sense of relief. 

Hopefully, you will reflect on this the next time we are all at otera together where our focal point is exactly this Nembutsu of gratitude.   

Namo Amida Butsu,

Sensei Ulrich
January 24, 2010