Hair on fire

Posted by:

G Sakamoto

“Even if one strives to the utmost with body and mind through the twelve periods of the day and night, and however importunate(troublesomely urgent) one’s action and practice may be as though swiping fire away from one’s head, it must all be called poisoned good acts, or empty, transitory, and false practices. It cannot be called true, real, and sincere action. Though one may direct the merits of such poisoned good toward birth in the Pure Land, it is of no avail.” CWS 312

The image of “sweeping fire away from one’s head” has been with me for along time. There is an urgency and focus that is conveyed in this in image. If your hair is on fire you pay attention. If we are concerned with how we are experiencing our lives we might approach our concerns with this degree of intensity. Shinran, however is saying here, there is nothing that we do that can influence the resolution of difficulties. This image is not about whether or not to put out the flames if your hair is on fire. If your hair is on fire, put it out.

Fortunately for us in Jodo Shinshu there is the assurance of Amida. It is not necessary nor possible for us to fulfill the practices that cultivate the mind free of prejudices. We might feel that without practice and diligence we will be unable to live our life in a meaningful way. Yet the assurance of Amida allows us to set down our expectations and begin to see ourselves just as we are. We are foolish, unenlightened beings who are quite capable of acts of anger, greed and ignorance.

Acknowledging my foolishness changes how I engage the world. My expectations of how things should be are experienced simply as my expectations that may or may not have anything to do with what is. I’m conserving water. I expect everyone to conserve water. We are after all in a historic drought that is causing devastating conditions. Yet as my conservation practices may be significant in our household these practices may not be nearly enough when compared with the practices of others. With my expectations I might look at my neighbor and think they should do more but when I look at my neighbor across the street, I’m not doing enough. If we can do more, do more. If we cannot, we cannot. Eventually, we are compelled to do something. We try to manage the outcome but influences of the outcome may originated in a much greater arena. It took a long time for us to realize that injury to ocean reefs and shellfish was the result of the acidification of the ocean by carbon absorption from the atmosphere. As we busily argue about whether farmers, cities or fish should have water we may not see solutions that lie in conditions outside the allocation of water.

Amida’s assurance may not address climate change but it can release the tension of desperate views. We are foolish, unenlightened beings who cause difficulties for ourselves and others. The source of our difficulties is the value I place on how I see the world. I see only a portion of what is. A climatologist may argue for the need to address climate change but if he cannot consider how the other sees the world it would be difficult to begin a conversation.

The assurance of Amida can change the way we see, experience and understand the world. Shinran, in his Shoshinge, reflects “birth-and-death is itself nirvana”. There is no two things only one. How we experience nirvana is as birth-and-death. We might busily work, like sweeping fire from our hair, to change what already is but what already is, is itself nirvana.