By Ruth A. Sonneborn – Illustrated by Eric Gurney
Fear. There is something about the emotion of fear that is unlike any other. Fear spans from the kind found in the children’s book Someone is Eating the Sun of barnyard animals ignorant of an eclipse to the reality we see in eyes of animals in an abattoir struggling to escape.
Fear. It is the evolutionary process we inherited from those who came before us who succeeded either to fight and survive or run away from physical or emotional danger and survive. It triggers a signal that can be danger, or a threat or even act as motivation to perform. And, there are fears or anxieties we experience in everyday life that are difficult to explain to others who have no understanding of them. Modern medicine calls them phobias.
In the story of the River of Fire, River of Water the person is running away from the real fear of wild animals and bandits that if caught, will mean certain death. There is a river that must be crossed to get to safety and the bridge crossing it is a narrow, very narrow white ribbon of a path. The problem is, that narrow white path needed to get to safety crosses a river that has raging flames of fire on one side of it, and raging waves of water on the other. One slip into either side of the white path across means certain death.
Those who attend our Sunday service during the Spring and Fall equinoxes know this story, it is retold twice a year. We retell this story because it contains the two types of fear, the real fear of animals in an abattoir and the fear from ignorance in the children’s book about the eclipse. And each time we hear the story of the River of Fire, we hear it differently. We notice a bit that jumps out at us because we had new experiences from the last time, experiences that connect.
Fear plays its role in our daily lives. We listen to that little voice that signals something isn’t quite right and we need to be vigilant. What about fears that limit our ability to live this life fully? Shin Buddhism teaches us about the concept of Amida Buddha, the Buddha reaching out to us, just as we are. Entrusting in Amida Buddha liberates us from ignorant fears. The Buddha is waiting for us on the other side of the river of fire, river of water. We reach Amida Buddha only by crossing what looks like the narrow ribbon of a white path that appears impossible to walk upon.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Tanaka writes about the translation of Shinjin into English as inadequate if we simply use “entrusting.” This concept is better conveyed if we think about Shinjin, or entrusting as true realization – “realization conveys a sense of fulfillment on the part of the seeker to experience deeper levels of reality and of oneself… ‘to realize,’ conveys a greater sense of active and dynamic qualities…”1
By using true realization, the realization of reality, this understanding of Amida Buddha, can we reduce if not eliminate fears based on ignorance and live a more liberated life? This is what we do in Shin. The Sangha is one of the three jewels of Buddhism. We gather once a month to bring together the Sangha with the Buddha and with the Dharma. In a safe place we hear the teachings, rational teachings we are asked to put to the test ourselves before we accept them as true. It is in a Sangha where we learn to realize the white path to the security on the other side of that raging river of fire and water is not a narrow dangerous path, but…
a path that is wide, safe, and doable: a path that leads to liberation.
Namo Amida Buddha
Namo Amida Buddha
Namo Amida Buddha
1 Excerpt in gratitude from: Kenneth K. Tanaka, Revisioning Shin Buddhist Teachings for Today: Thirteen Contributors to the Book, The Tide of Wisdom; Shinran’s Wisdom, Authentic Individuality and Social Engagement. (The Dr. Taitetsu Unno Memorial Lectures, March 19, 2021)