Spiritual Overload
I learned a new, fancy word the other day. I happened to be reading a study on the effects of constant prayer or long periods of meditating on monks. This also included clerics who recited mantra and holy prayers for hours on end.  

In some traditions prayer is an effective means of controlling the world. They believe that the world is run by those in prayer. For that reason the monks and clerics recite prayers constantly, sometimes for hours on end, day in and day out for weeks.  

In Buddhism there is a similar phenomenon, even though the Buddha himself warned against the value of such practices. Some lock themselves in a cave. Others allow themselves to be slowly mummified and then buried alive. In our own province there are groups that have a kind of meditation boot camp where people sit in meditation for whole days for one long weekend. In other traditions people chant for hours, sometimes for days without stopping.  

Shinran also practiced intensely when he was on Mount Hiei. He was there for at least 30 years. As a devotional leader he would have had to lead services several times daily.  Then he often recited the nembutsu thousands of times a day.  Also, he was a Tendai monk, which included many types of meditation and tough spiritual practices. One may have been the traditional 100 day march around the mountain, not eating or drinking for the last 10 days or so. Some monks go into a trance. The lay people, even today in Japan, come out to receive special merit by touching these power hikers. A few of the monks die from this practice.  

The statue of the Buddha as a skeleton warns us constantly against these extremes.  

The new word I learned was acedia ( All apologies to those who do not like fancy words. Please keep reading. ) It is a Greek word reflecting an evil spirit visitations suffered from desert monks. It was used as early as the 300’s. Today it is a recognized as a possible mental illness. In its mild forms this acedia refers to a kind of religious breakdown. So what exactly does it mean? 

Without prolonging the suspense any longer: acedia is religions burnout, faith exhaustion, practice overload. The symptoms are, simply put, ‘lack of caring.’ It is a gripping indifference to good works or other people’s suffering. Acedia is also indifference to any spiritual discipline.  It is often called sloth, deep disinterest in doing anything at all.

When I encountered the studies on this form of spiritual ‘freezing’ I suddenly began to appreciate Shinran’s struggles a little more. Let me explain with a few quotes from Shinran: 

“Since I am incapable of any religious practice whatsoever, hell is my only home! Under the influence of past karma, we human beings are capable of doing anything. I don’t know what the two terms good and bad really mean. I could say I know what good is, if I knew good as thoroughly and completely as the Tathagata (Buddha). I could say I know what bad is if I knew bad as completely and thoroughly as the Tathagata. But to this foolish being filled with blind passions in the impermanent world like a burning house, all things are empty and vain and thus untrue.

Further, Shinran gave up attachment to all self-powered religious practices. Shinran would not even use the nembutsu as a prayer for the sake of his parents. That is a powerful statement for an Asian to make! These & similar statements, clearly hint at a kind of acedia--spiritual burnout leading to hopelessness. How did Shinran solve this deep dark night of spiritual practice? He gave up on practice all together, taking refuge in the Bodhisattva Vow of Amida. This is Other Power practice. 

Here are a few quotes to illustrate this: 

“In the nembutsu, having no self-power practice is the true practice. The nembutsu is beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond our grasping. The nembutsu is neither a religious practice nor a good act.

In the person of the nembutsu there opens up an unobstructed path to freedom. The reason is that the gods of heaven and earth bow down before the practice of shinjin. No demonic beings or theologies can obstruct his way. The consequences of karmic evil are not felt by the one of shinjin, nor can the effects of good karma measure up to him. Thus the nembutsu is called the great path to unobstructed freedom!

If the pious person performing religious practices is saved, the infidel is even more saved! The Primal Vow (of Amida Buddha) was established out of deep compassion for us who cannot become freed from the bondage of birth and death by any religious practice whatsoever… Since its basic function is to cause the enlightenment of the infidel, the so-called ‘evil people’ who come to entrust themselves to Other Power are truly the ones who attain birth and enter the Buddha Land (nirvana). Therefore, if good people attain birth, how much more so the infidels!! Only the nembutsu is true and real!” 

It is clear that Shinran becomes free by means of the Bodhisattva Vow. He is not only a spiritual hero, but also a hero of the human heart. He was in danger of giving up on caring at all about anything---the deep dark well of the uncaring heart.  

If he had lived in modern times, he would have been an emotional and psychological hero. That is why I like to refer to shinjin sometimes in some contexts as “Sane Faith.”

By the way acedia is pronounced ‘uh-see-dee-uh”. It literally means ‘not’ (a-) caring (cedia). 

Do modern people experience compassion overload? Does the non-attendance at temple and church means we are experiencing a spiritual burnout? Does having so many different religions to choose from lead to confusion?  

One of the ways to translate the nembutsu into English in its most basic form is “Reverence for Infinite Life and Infinite Light, Awake.” In these difficult times we modern people need to awaken to the value of this reverence. Does this mean both you and me right now? Absolutely!

Sensei Ulrich
June 21, 2009