Vanity and Substance

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Vanity and Substance

Master Jingzong; English translation by Foying, edited by Jingxin

Everything we do is basically done for one of two purposes–to massage our ego or to accomplish something of substance. The former is mere vanity while the latter has real benefits.

We must not pursue both purposes entirely for ourselves, leaving others empty-handed. If substance is what we want, saving the face of others will ensure an outcome agreeable to all. On the other hand, if we take all the credit for some achievement we will lose the real benefits. In other words, in habitually seeking to secure one’s own reputation and advantage, one may lose the respect of one’s peers, damage one’s character and lose some real benefits. Neither Heaven nor mankind tolerates attempts to gain both reputation and substance. Such attempts always entail the infliction of terrible sufferings.

A Chinese maxim says, “One loses by arrogance and gains by modesty.” The reverse has never been true. By sacrificing fame and vanity, modest people humble themselves and cultivate good character with concrete benefits. The arrogant person, his ego inflated, is full of himself, naturally forsakes good character and loses real benefits. This is the way Nature restores the equilibrium of things.

Humans are hypocritical and vain, hence the terms, “face-saving project” and “puffing oneself up at all cost.” These days, people place great emphasis on “branding” [in order to project a good public image] and society has practically entered the “face-saving era”. Why not take the opposite approach and seek real benefits as opposed to shallow posturing? Then authentic character and merit would surely be yours.

Ego and “face” are of no account to practitioners of the Pure Land School [who are guided by two kinds of deep faith.] Possessing the first kind of deep faith, one confesses this readily. “I am an iniquitous ordinary being subject to endless rebirth. Since time immemorial I have died and been reincarnated without hope of leaving the cycle of rebirth.” Such deep faith and conviction leaves no place for the ego or dignity of the practitioner, does it?

One gains a very real benefit by developing the second kind of deep faith, which says, “Amitabha Buddha embraces and receives all sentient beings with his 48 Vows. Without doubt or fear, we are certain of rebirth in the Pure Land by relying on the power of his vows.” Does any benefit of real substance outshine the jewel of rebirth and achievement of Buddhahood in the Pure Land?

We Amitabha-reciters are assured of the real benefits of rebirth and realization of Buddhahood in the Pure Land. Publicly, our faith may be the subject of teasing, scolding and slander. This is to be expected in a hypocritical world. If we feign diligence and righteousness to earn flattery from hypocritical sentient beings, the great benefit of emancipation from Samsara would surely be lost. Many a senior monk and renowned Dharma master revered as an incarnation of Buddha ended up on trial before King Yama. The tragic failure of such respected persons to die peacefully resulted from an obsession with fame and reputation.

By contrast, scores of nameless and faceless fools capable of nothing more than reciting “Namo Amitabha Buddha”, though reviled by those allegedly virtuous and diligent practitioners, were peacefully and successfully reborn in the Pure Land at the end of their lives. These happy fools secured the real benefits.

We should recognize that this world is flawed and superficial, but the Land of Bliss is perfect and unconditioned nirvana. Our egos crave the illusory and insubstantial, while Amitabha Buddha offers real benefit. Praise from others is superficial, while the acclaim of Amitabha Buddha is a real and true benefit. Feigning virtue, like an actor on the stage, is vanity, while true sincerity, like life offstage, brings real benefit. As you survey these pairs of opposites, which would you choose? Life is full of choices. Please be prudent in choosing the right one!

What are your thoughts?