Chapter 2: Universality
When we talk about the true teachings, the next question is: How can we tell whether certain teachings are true and others are not? And how can we tell whether certain deeds or acts are in accord with the true teachings? As you go through the Sutras, it does not say every time that such and such teachings are true and others are not.
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Then, what is the criterion for a teaching to be called true and acceptable? The keyword is “universality.” Being universal means something is valid no matter where it is evaluated and when it is evaluated. In other words, it has to make sense no matter in which nation or culture it is presented and no matter at which time in history it appears. Buddhism has been transmitted through many nations and cultures over 2500 years. Christianity survived through many nations and cultures for 2000 years. These religions would not have survived all this time if they had not made sense to the peoples of various cultures and ages. They survived because they had some elements which were universally acceptable. In Shinran’s time more than 1750 years had passed since the days of Gautama Buddha, and Buddhism had absorbed many foreign elements and had been localized in many different cultures. It was Shinran’s life work to pick out only the universal elements of the teaching. Now, over 750 years has passed since the days of Shinran, and we must admit that even the present teachings of Shin Buddhism have many localized elements in Japan.
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There are no two cultures or societies that are the same. Every culture is unique and every society is unique. So then what is universal? What is the same throughout nations, cultures, and societies? What has not changed over many millenniums and what does not change from culture to culture? The answer is the human being. As long as we are human beings, homo sapiens, we are fundamentally the same, no matter where we are or when we live. The moment we are born into this world, we start wearing various robes over our innate humanity. These robes are things such as male or female, older or younger among brothers and sisters, nationality, father, mother, uncle, aunt, profession, various titles at work, roles in the community, and so on. I often ask my students, “What do you have left if you take Japanese away from you?” Then many of them answer, “Nothing.” “No, you are wrong. You have your conditions as a human being left if you take Japanese away from you.” As long as you are saying you are Japanese, American, Canadian, German, or French, you only see the differences from others. But when you come to the level of the human being, you will realize you are all the same.
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Buddhism is a teaching about the nature of the human being, which is universal. In traditional Buddhism, earthly desires, which you have to overcome in order to attain enlightenment, are often compared to a river that you have to cross. Thus, there is a term “this side of the river” meaning the secular world. There is also a term “that side of the river.”
Although Buddhism and many other religions are often thought to be the story about “that side of the river,” Buddhism is actually the story about “this side of the river.” The story about “this side of the river” is the story about ourselves here on the earth now. When we talk about God or gods far up there in the next world, it is hard to come to an agreement, because every religion has different concepts and different definitions of God; but when we talk about various aspects of the human being, we cannot but agree. Even in Christianity, although the Bible talks much about God, it has many references to the nature of the human being. For example, when we do something good, most of us want other people to know our good deed, and that is our human nature. In Matthew Chapter 6:2-4, it says:
2 So when you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it, as the hypocrites do in the houses of worship and on the streets. They do it so that people will praise them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. 3 But when you help a needy person, do it in such a way that even your closest friend will not know about it. 4 Then it will be a private matter. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you. (Good News Translation)
It is not of much concern who says it or where it is written. It is the content that matters, speaking to the commonness or the universality of human beings.