Actions, Not Words

As I continue watching the Japanese historical drama The Thirteen Lords of Kamakura, I am struck by how much a scoundrel the lead character, Minamoto no Yoritomo (based on the real historical figure), is. By episode twelve, he’s tossed out his first wife, sleeping around behind the back of his pregnant second wife’s, and has had the father of his first wife assassinated for questionable loyalty.

A contemporary portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo, by Fujiwara no Takanobu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One might chalk this up to the usual power plays of medieval warfare, but what’s fascinating is that the show often juxtaposes these actions by showing Yoritomo praying fervently before a statue of Kannon bodhisattva.

By the way, I have no idea if the real Yoritomo behaved like this, but it makes for good drama.

Coincidentally, I found random verse in the Flower Garland Sutra, specifically the famous last chapter,1 that seemed appropriate:

The peaceful nature of the buddhas cannot be known
By the covetous or the malevolent,
Or by those shrouded in the darkness of delusion,
Of those whose minds are defiled by hypocrisy and conceit.

This sphere of buddhas cannot be known
By those ruled by envy and jealousy,
Or those whose minds are polluted by guile and deceit,
Of those enshrouded by barriers of action based on afflictions,

Translation by Thomas Cleary

I mentioned something similar in a recent post but this idea of the Buddhas and the truth they preach, the Dharma, being right under your nose if you know how to look, and if your conduct is without blemish, is a recurring theme. It’s not limited to Mahayana Buddhism either.

In the earliest Buddhist texts, the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2), there is a famous meeting where the local king, Ajatashatru of Magadha, meets the Buddha. He had been a power-hungry young man who had deposed his father to take the throne, and waged war against his neighbor Kosala. Ajatashatru was still nominally a disciple of the Buddha but had been a pretty aggressive and disreputable ruler in his time.

In this meeting, the king pays homage by visiting the Buddha with his entourage, but cannot discern who among the monks is the real Buddha. Further, when asks spiritual questions of the Buddha, he cannot really grasp what the Buddha his telling him. His mental and spiritual faculties are so stunted by the lifestyle he lives, and the choices he makes, that according to the Buddha he will not be able to make much spiritual progress in this life. The sutra assures us though that any spiritual effort he has made in this life will bear fruit someday, but likely not for a while.

All this is to say that while meditation retreats and elaborate rituals are well and good, your day to day conduct, especially how you treat others, is the true foundation on which your spiritual progress will depend on.

1 The Flower Garland Sutra is a huge, HUGE Buddhist text, but the last chapter, the 39th, is thought to be a separate text that was at some point bolted onto the end. This, the Gandhavyuha Sutra, tells the story of a young seeker of wisdom named Sudhana who visits various deities seeking the truth. The English translation is almost 400 pages by itself, but it’s very underrated in Western Buddhist circles.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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