Following are excerpts from an essay by Yanagi Soetsu, translated by Bernard Leach, which was published in “The Eastern Buddhist” Vol. XII No. 2 (October 1979). The excerpts are reprinted with the kind permission of Mrs. Janet Leach and the Folkcraft Museum, Tokyo.
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When I come to attain Buddhahood, unless all the beings throughout my land are of one form and color, unless there is no beauty and ugliness among them, I will not attain highest enlightenment.
The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life
Human beings brim with falsity to the end of their days. They cannot remain without imperfection nor avoid contradiction. But this is not something original in them. Originally they have no faults. This means not that they are perfect, simply that they are embraced in their imperfectness into a faultless world. Their faults are then, just as they are, no faults. On his own, man cannot rid himself from fault and becomefaultless, but all is originally so constituted that however a thing is made, whatever and by whomever it may be, it can be embraced in beauty. The superior make things in superior ways, the inferior in inferior ways, and whatever they may draw, however they may carve, all is disposed so that they are included in true non-dual beauty.
This is confirmed in the Buddha’s attainment of highest enlightenment. The Sutra of Eternal Life was written to relate the astounding influence his enlightenment worked. So, whether they are good or bad, believers or unbelievers, all of the works of all men are in receipt of his mercy. Illusion is left in only because this implicit promise of his does not get through to them, or else because they struggle against it. Ugliness, then, is an appearance which has been separated from its original and native state. In religion, this is called sin.
So it is up to us to get beyond the discrimination that sets beauty and ugliness apart. Let us return prior to that, to our original self, the original state of suchness, leave behind the artificial constructs of beauty and ugliness, and dwell in “everydayness.” Making distinctions of beauty and ugliness is a mental disease. What we must do is regain the original well-being of “buji,” where nothing “happens” to us even when we are at our busiest. To do this we must first discard our small ego-self, for if the slightest flicker of attachment lingers illusion will not leave. Then, we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by discrimination, for as long as we lean on our own judgments we shall never find our way free of the world of duality.
That is where purity and innocence come in. There is a more than small measure of truth in the fact that so many saints have extolled the quality of childlikeness. The Japanese priest Myozen is said to have always taught that an infant’s Nembutsu is best. Such statements endeavor to expose to us the shortcomings of discriminatory thinking. They do not mean that it is totally valueless, but unless it is broken through we can never go beyond duality. Hence the deep suggestiveness of the infant’s innocent mindlessness. It is not a return to the cradle being recommended, rather an attainment of the realm of selfless and unimpeded freedom. Once there, nothing can go wrong; even though we err, the error remains just as it is, and is no longer error. We may say this is the virtue inherent in no-mindedness. Once detached from its realm, however, even those things which are not wrong fall into error. The very fact that they assert they are not wrong is the proof that they are. How often it is that things which the world boasts of as beautiful prove to be ugly.
The problem, then, must not be allowed to turn upon beauty and ugliness. How effective could any standard for measuring beauty and ugliness be? Anything which could be so measured should never be spoken of as beautiful. True beauty is native to a realm which Buddhism calls “Mu” (nothingness). Nothing should be praised as beauty which has not reached the profundity of this realm of nothingness. (Beauty and ugliness are mere forms of beingness.) Fortunately, the essence of man does not reside in forms of being, and that is why his original estate is said to be innocent and pure. Impurity is the vestiges of the sins he has produced.
The Zen master Rinzai says, “Just don’t strive!” For as long as the slightest ambition to make or to do remains, everything, both the beautiful and ugly, will be tainted by the ugliness of artificiality. Yet if “non-striving” or “artlessness” is then attached to, that will be just another form of striving. We find good substantiation of this in raku ware bowls, in which the effort to make beauty inevitably results in ugliness. As long as any such conscious effort or intention remains, the result cannot help being ugly.
Were men all in their native purity where distinctions of beauty and ugliness have yet to appear, they could never fall into error, the error, for example, of creating differences between men. The commonsense view would say that the world of beauty is one which requires genius. The notion that genius alone can produce great art strikes most people as reasonable. But it is only a partial truth. The amount of talent people have, the distinctions of intelligence between them, are trifling and foundationless considerations fathered by a relative world. They only arise because everything which forms a part of that world works to breed distinctions between the superior and the inferior.
Prizing the good and loathing the bad being the norm of that world, while we remain within its confines we have to comply with its laws. Respect for genius and reverence for sanctity would seem to be most commendable. But we must not overlook that they belong to the world of dualism. Once in the different dimension of the non-dualistic world, differences such as intelligence and stupidity, goodness and badness, hold very little meaning. Zen teaches the profundity of “not thinking good and not thinking bad.” It tells us we should “Be careful not to do good”—for then there can be no rationale for doing evil. These voices come from a realm beyond duality.
So even with the differences between good and evil, a world exists in which those differences as such disappear, where contradictions as mere contradictions melt away. Nembutsu followers call this the Pure Land, but it might also be called God’s Heaven. It is the land of equality, of freedom, of peace of mind, and harmony. There, where opposing principles do not exist, the contention of opposites never materializes and one could not separate beauty and ugliness even if one wanted to. All things and all people are in a state of salvation. Whatever anyone might make, it cannot disturb the working of the Buddha’s all-embracing compassion. The genius is taken in and so is the ordinary man. There are no ranks or distinctions at Heaven’s round table. Those are the product of our discrimination. The Buddha’s eye and our eye are not the same.
The belief that the artistic genius is the only one who can accomplish work of outstanding merit betrays an extremely narrow way of thinking. The ordinary man should be able to produce splendid work as an ordinary man. Did not the Pure Land teacher Honen (1133-1212) say: “If you cannot recite the Nembutsu as a priest, then recite it as a layman.. .The bad man should recite it just as he is”? The Pure Land is not a place ever to be attained through one’s own power, a power in any case ordinary men could never boast of. But Self-power is not the only gate to salvation. Another, belonging to the Other-power, has been erected for him. Through it, everyone, however dull-witted, can make their way to safe haven on the “Other shore.” Not by working the oars, but by letting the wind swell the sails. Honen’s brief “One-Sheet Document,” which tells ordinary men in unmistakable terms how to attain the Pure Land, has in this sense an indeed wonderful message.
Those who enter by the Gate of Self-power may gain experience in the path of absolute self-dependence, though through it few are able to actually make their way to full attainment. The road is a steep one fraught with great difficulty. In contrast, those who travel the path of Other-power, placing all their trust in Amida and the promise of his Vow, reside in a realm of absolute dependence. A Way of salvation is given them despite their inferiorness. The reference to the Other-power teaching as the “Easy Way” (Ig yo-do) comes from this.
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Some people may still demur, and say that while universal salvation may indeed have been promised, what about all those mediocre people going around making this world progressively uglier. Why are they left unsaved like that? Was not the Buddha’s Vow a glorious pipedream after all? How long must we be plagued by such people? And how long will we have to go on deploring this state of affairs?
The answer is simple and clear. It is because the minds of those mediocre people persist in asserting their own insignificant egos. Because, in imagining they can achieve something through their own power (a fundamental illusion), they becloud their originally pure nature. Ugliness is the color produced by this defilement. But the Buddha’s Vow to save all beings never weakens because of this; in fact, it becomes all the more available to them. It is for them, the sinful and the mediocre, that the compassionate Vow continually rains down its benefits. It is one thing to be aware of one’s sins, but one should not for a moment doubt that they are redeemed by the Buddha’s great compassion. In the Yuishinsho (“On Faith Alone”), it is said: “You think it is impossible for you to be saved because of your guilt and sin, but do you realize how great the Buddha’s power is?” Buddha’s Vow is not swayed by the number of our sins. Despite the blessing such a favorable wind can provide, man foolishly insists on lowering his sail and rowing forward on his own—only to tire out in mid-journey. Ugliness comes into being when we place reliance on our own meagre self. So the Buddha tells us to abandon it.
In past ages of deep faith, people were more innocent and humble and closer to the truth. They could forget their self without much trouble. That was an advantage it would be difficult to overestimate. We in an age of deep scepticism see talented and untalented alike striving to understand things by themselves. That explains the separation of beauty and ugliness. It is not surprising those with little talent soon find themselves overwhelmed. Ugliness is a sign of their self-power’s insufficiency. Why is it they do not realize and realize keenly their ignorance? Or is it their ignorance is so deep they cannot realize it? If they throw themselves into the contest between beauty and ugliness their work is cut out for them. They are digging holes and burying themselves in the process.
From here on, countless numbers of ugly objects will no doubt continue to be produced—just so long as the small self, greed, and discrimination prevail. But we may still cherish some hope. We may believe in the Buddha’s attainment of highest enlightenment. We may place full faith in his all-encompassing Vow of salvation, which is a guarantee that everyone and everything is taken into a land originally prior to the beauty-ugliness duality. What hope would there be without this Vow? Salvation is not a mere possibility. Possibility assumes impossibility, and those are words in man’s vocabulary, not the Buddha’s. His compassion, to borrow Ippen’s words, is “neither too little nor too much.” It is only due to our own ignorance that we do not realize its wonderful meaning and thus lose out on its blessings.
Therefore, it falls upon those who have reached true faith to guide those who have not to the path to Buddhahood, even if that has to happen while they are still in the state of unbelief. They are to be guided so that even while they themselves are unaware of it, they dwell in the Buddha’s Land naturally. They would be incapable of returning there even were they told to do so, yet they are guided back, their inability unchanged, in an environment in which they will at some time find for themselves that they have been dwelling in their native land all along. This makes us realize what an extremely welcome thing tradition is for people of lesser abilities. It comes to the aid of those who cannot stand on their own, like a great safe ship that enables a small and insignificant being to make his way across vast ocean expanses. Tradition provides support for him in his frail individual existence. Indeed we should remember that many beautiful things in the world did not in themselves possess the strength to become that way. Their salvation is not owing to any specific qualifications on the part of the individuals who made them. Something greater than them is doing the work. Herein is hidden the disposition of the Buddha.
So although people say man creates beauty, that is not so. Buddha himself does the work. No, to make things beautiful is the Buddha’s nature. Beauty means a Buddha becoming a Buddha. Creating beauty is an act performed by a Buddha toward a Buddha. Beauty is the product of Buddhas working together.
from Material for Thought №10 (Fall 1983)