Izuru iki

Chapter 16 of the Tannishō 歎異抄 is about whether it is necessary to re-"convert" (廻心, literally "turn your spirit around") every time you get angry or mouth off to someone. The answer given is no: "conversion" happens only once, when news of Amitabha's marvelousness first pierces your ignorance and you realize that he's your ticket out of this dump.

The chapter elaborates as follows:


This is not a strict translation, but in summary, if it were necessary to re-convert after every single event, morning and evening, in order to be reborn in the Pure Land, we would be in trouble, because "the departing breath does not wait for the arriving one." Every time we breathe out, we don't know if we'll ever breathe in again. We might die at any moment, without having re-converted or reconnected with virtues like gentleness and forbearance. If dying in such a state excludes people from coverage under Amitabha's vow to get everyone into paradise, well, that wouldn't be much of a vow, right? Ergo, that must not be the case, and conversion must not be necessary every time you sneak an extra cookie.

The breath imagery in that passage is a well-known proverb, but I was surprised to find the inhale/exhale pair called into service on the opposite point in a poem by Ryōkan 良寛. ABE Ryūichi and Peter HASKEL's Ryōkan book Great Fool sez:

Someone recited a poem that read:

  The breath going out, the breath coming in
  Over and then over again
  Only leaves me to reflect
  What a fleeting world this is

(izuru iki mata iru iki to bakari nite / yo o hakanaku mo omooyuru kana)

To which the Master replied:

  The breath going out, the breath coming in
  Over and then over again
  Know that this is itself the proof
  That this world never ends

(izuru iki mata iru iki wa yo no naka no / tsuki senu koto no tameshi to zo shire)

Stephen D. CARTER, in his anthology, translates the second poem quite similarly:

The way breath goes out,
and then again breath comes in:
know this as a sign
  that this world we live in
    never comes to an end.

I'm not sure I get what Ryōkan means here. Is it "there's plenty of breath to go around, life goes on; it's not a fragile world, though we who live in it might be"? Or could it be that the translators above are mistakenly adding the "never" and Ryōkan is pointing out that over the course of our lives, every individual inhalation is triumphant proof of our continued existence?

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I want to see the kanji! Or kana. Or commentator's version. But isn't it 尽くす? In which case, is that never implied in the state of not being exhausted? (Bah, I stink at poetry. Just say what you mean, dead Japanese people! In proper Chinese this time!)

(And I'm reminded of the pre-war debate over whether it's rude and blasphemous to pray to the spirits in Yasukuni for their aid. Because if they have exhausted their strength in the service of Japan, then they can't help you, and it's rude to imply otherwise.)


That dialog shares some qualities with the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament.

I also thought the characters used to represent "conversion", however that is defined, are worth a footnote in that 廻心 or 回心 when read e-shin refer almost exclusively to the Buddhist idea of conversion, while 回心 and by extension 改心, read kai-shin usually refer to parts of the Christian process of repentance-confession-receiving of grace, while "converting" is like e-shin assumed to be a one time event.


Togo's "complete works" of Ryokan has it:


See what I am wondering is if maybe that "tsukisenu" is meant to mean something like "if you're breathing in after breathing out, the world hasn't ended (yet)" rather than "...the world will never end."

Peter: Yeah, that is an interesting differential they use there. Of course the "pragmatics" of Pure Land Buddhism are structurally really similar to those of (protestant) Christianity in a lot of ways: there's paradise, everyone (even bad people) can go there, but the first condition is that you accept that as a regular human you can't make it there on your own -- by definition. (I suppose in this case the obvious parallel is to confession/absolution -- do you need it after every little sin, or is genuine faith enough?)


I think it's more of Zennish sort of thing, "The permanent world is hidden under our noses as the impermanent world."

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