What Does It Mean to be Human?

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According to scientific theory, our universe came into being some 13.8 billion years ago. And our solar system, including the Earth, appeared about 4.6 billion years ago. The most primitive forms of life appeared 2 billion years ago, and man himself made his debut about 2 million years ago.

In this incredibly long history of the universe, all forms of life evolved into higher forms and we were born into this world as human beings. Australopithecus is often considered ancestral to human beings. And Homo sapiens, to which we modern humans belong, appeared about 300,000 years ago. Since then, humans have ruled the earth as they built advanced cultures using their intelligence and language freely. Now when I contemplate human evolution, I cannot help but have a question: “What is the true definition of being a human?”

For those of us who are Nembutsu followers, this shouldn’t be merely a question about the theory of evolution. That is because it is very important for us to consider that “One becomes a human when he encounters a true religion.” To say it more deeply,

“One becomes a true human when he presses his palms together and recites the Nembutsu in front of Amida Buddha’s image.”

What Do We See in the Mirror?
To place the hands together and recite the Nembutsu before Amida Buddha is nothing less than faith in the immortal truth. And by touching this truth, we are able to seriously face our greatest issues: “What is the significance of living?” and “Who am I?” Let me share a poem written by Rev. Shosaku Asada, a Jodo Shinshu Ohtani-ha minister.

Every morning, every morning, standing
before the mirror above the
bathroom sink, what am I looking at?

As this poem says, we stand in front of the mirror at least once every day. But what is it we are really seeing in its reflection?

We comb our hair, put on makeup and decide what to wear in front of the mirror. So we assume the mirror is what we must use to see ourselves. But if we only use the mirror to check our appearance before meeting others outside of house, the mirror is not the thing that looks at ourselves but is the thing that represents the eyes of others who will look at us. In other words, as we use the mirror, we only care what others will think of us. In that respect, we don’t actually see ourselves in the mirror, but only the image we want others to see.

In contract, when we press our palms together before Amida Buddha, we are given the light of wisdom to see our true selves which we have never been able to do by looking at our reflection in the mirror each morning. And our true selves in this light of wisdom is nothing but the reflection of a foolish being full of blind passions.

The Three Poisons

Blind passions are created by the selfish mind that confuse and trouble us. They are the cause of human suffering. Although there are various blind passions, the most terrible ones are called “Three Poisons” or “GAS”: Greed, Anger and Stupidity (ignorance). These three poisons disrupt our thinking, throw us off balance and make us suffer.

Humans are full of greed. Of course, animals are also greedy, but that is because of their instinct to survive. Because their greed is instinctive, when animals are hungry, they eat other animals; but once full, they are satisfied. But humans take beyond what is needed to sustain life. For example, you will find spoiled and wasted food in grocery stores and restaurants all over the world. That is because if the food does not look or taste as we like, we won’t hesitate to toss them out. We always want something more and never feel completely satisfied. We can see the ugly hungry ghosts in ourselves through our greed.

And when we see something we don’t like, we always get angry. Even on the road, if something disturbs our driving rhythm – being tailgated by an impatient driver, or when the car ahead is going too slowly, or when someone in the next lane suddenly swerves in front of us – we instantly lose our temper. In this way, we get mad about something or at somebody, or complain about something at least once a day . We can see the fearsome demon in ourselves through our expressions of anger.

Stupidity (ignorance) means that we cannot see or judge things clearly using the right wisdom. Because we always tend to interpret reality in ways that are advantageous to us, the rain that comes when we need it becomes a welcome rain; but the rain that comes unexpectedly is a nuisance. For example, at the end of last year, I finally washed my car after leaving it dirty for a long time. Afterwards, I went for a drive in my shiny, clean car, but on the way home, I was caught in a shower. I immediately began muttering, “We haven’t had rain for a while. So why does it rain right after I’ve just washed the car? What a waste of time!” Of course, if I had paused to consider the serious drought or water shortage problem around our area, it was really a welcome rain. Nonetheless, I saw the same rain as bad for me because of its inconvenience. This is how our dark ignorance makes us aware of the shameless beast within each of us.

Whatever the outcome is, we complain, get angry, suffer and worry. It is because we are wandering ceaselessly in the six realms of Samsara (hell, hungry ghosts, beasts, fighting spirits, humans, heavenly beings) because we are controlled by the blind passions of Three Poisons.

But when we encounter Amida Buddha, the blind passions of our true selves are brought out. And it makes us aware of the selfish lives we lead, causing us to reflect deeply on our foolishness and arrogance. With the guidance of the light of wisdom, our mind of greed, anger and stupidity (ignorance) naturally turns into the mind of knowing contentment, of rejoicing, and of seeing things as they are. Then in this clear state of mind, we will be able to simply accept anything with the deepest feeling of gratitude.

Nembutsu is Everything

When we are guided by the warmth of compassion, our deep gratitude softens our blind passions, bringing us great peace of mind, which allows us to overcome the life of suffering with strength. This mind and heart of gratitude for everything is the Nembutsu, “Namo Amida Butsu.” And when the Nembutsu comes from our mouths naturally, it is the moment that we become true human beings. In this way, we Nembutsu followers can understand the definition of being a human being under the working of Amida Buddha.

The Nembutsu is the teaching of wisdom that tells us not to take things for granted and be thankful for everything we have now. It makes us fully aware that we are embraced just as we are by Amida Buddha’s compassion. The Nembutsu leads us to a life which, with the deepest feelings of joy and gratitude, even someone like us at least would like to help for the sake of society and others as well as we can. I sincerely hope that we will walk the Nembutsu life of gratitude together as true humans.

In Gassho,
Rev. Yushi Mukojima