Being Truly Settled

by Rev. Jon Turner.

Supported by the Buddha’s power, one immediately enters the group of the truly settled of the Mahayana. … Thus the path of easy practice may be compared in its comfort to being carried over waterways in a ship. Thus the path of easy practice… [is] the ultimate of the Mahayana.

Collected Works of Shinran, pg. 26

Kyogyoshinsho – Chapter II on Practice

We are very goal oriented in America. We live in the future. We want to know what do we have to do (practice) and what will we get for doing it (attainment). Here practice is the cause that will lead to the effect of some future goal. But Shinran is highlighting something very different in the above quotation. Shinran is identifying practice with attainment itself – the cause with the effect. This is foundational in Mahayana Buddhism.

When we realize that cause and effect occur simultaneously then the starting line is no longer separate from the finish line. Finishing a marathon is no longer the goal. Instead it is the process of running – the act of putting one foot in front of another – over and over and over again. The path is itself awakening. A runner is not someone who has finished a marathon. A runner is merely someone who is running. I would like to illustrate the identity of cause and effect through a very famous example.

In 2006, the NBA commemorated its 60th anniversary by selecting the 60 greatest playoff moments in NBA history. At number one is Michael Jordan’s game winner against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. This was the last of his six championships with the Bulls. It was the sixth game in Utah, the Bulls were down 86-85 and the Jazz had the ball. With 20 seconds left, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone and called a time out.

During the time out, I noticed something very strange. Everyone in the arena, all the Utah fans and everyone at my house knew it was over. You can still see this on YouTube. I watched it last week and the camera zoomed in on one woman who looked particularly nervous. She put her hand up to her mouth during the time out – she was frozen with fear. You could tell in her eyes that Utah had already lost. She knew that Jordan had already made this very shot years ago – in his mind.

We all knew that Jordan was going to take the final shot and the Bulls were going to win the series. Even Karl Malone knew it. And yet there was nothing he could do about it. The ball was inbounded to Jordan. Jordan then pushed off Byron Russell at the top of the key – a foul that was not called because Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. Then Jordan slowly rises and shoots a 20-footer with 5.2 seconds left in the game. Jordan lands with his right hand extended in the air in the goose neck position of a pure shooter and then he begins to step backwards while the ball is still in the air. The ball was not yet in the net, but the game was already over. The Bulls were champions. Jordan knew it, Karl Malone knew it – everyone knew it. This is being truly settled. In Jordan’s mind the ball had gone through the net a very long time ago – perhaps even years earlier.

Many forget that there was still 5.2 seconds left in the game. Utah inbounded the ball to Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, who took the final shot – a three pointer. The ball rattled out. He missed. Chicago had won 87–86. After the game, Stockton said that he really thought the ball was going in. That is the difference between Jordan and Stockton. Jordan knew the ball was going in while Stockton thought the ball was going in. Jordan was truly settled. Stockton was unsettled.

Being truly settled is a very alien concept. Nothing in my everyday life is truly settled. Not my family life, not my work and certainly not the economy. So being truly settled in one’s spiritual life is an amazing gift. One can be truly settled spiritually whenever the aspiration for Buddhahood is awakened from within. Then one is compelled to practice and can never back slide. It is no longer “a have to” but instead it has become “a want to.” One no longer needs to worry about the goal. It is now only process; the process of becoming, a process of truly living.

To Western people, these examples and processes are easy to understand and accept within our everyday lives; the life of a runner and basketball. But we do not accept this within our religious lives. It is as if these are two different realms with two different sets of rules: one every day and one spiritual. Religion is thought of as something difficult, hard and separate. Religion must be something mental, something understood.

For example, a dancer truly becomes a dancer only when their body is swept away by the melody. They begin to naturally choreograph in their mind whenever they hear or think about sound. They hear music in ways that we cannot understand. No longer is dance a series of steps memorized and performed to an eight count. Through this process, dance is ultimately easy. A dancer can no longer remember what it was like to struggle with a step. It is as if that was another person.

The mechanisms in Buddhism operate in very much the same way. They are working in this very same reality. When we are swept away by the Dharma, our life begins to live us. It becomes natural. This process is known as Nembutsu. It is a settling activity. It is in this way, that our minds become Buddha.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner