We are foolish beings

Who are the foolish beings? According to the Shin tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, we all are. Mark Unno explains that only by becoming aware of our limited self and acknowledging our fundamental foolishness can we realize the oneness of all beings and the limitless flow of compassion.

One of the implications of the Mahayana Buddhist idea of emptiness is that the important question is not “What does it mean to be a Buddhist?” It is “What does it mean to be a human being?” That’s because emptiness applies to Buddhism itself as much as it does to ordinary objects of attachment. It is only when one has been “emptied” of all preconceived categories, including those of Buddhism, that the deepest reality of being human becomes apparent. As the Zen master Dogen states, “To study the buddhadharma is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”

In our usual thinking about human nature, we tend to turn toward various specialists. For example, a scientist might consider our ability to stand erect (homo erectus) and use tools with opposable thumbs to be the defining endowments of human nature. A philosopher might regard the ability to think as the distinguishing characteristic of human nature, as the French thinker René Descartes suggested with his statement cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” Some point to the human ability to express sublime emotion through poetry and art or to make moral judgments. Others see skilled surgeons, artful ballerinas, basketball stars, moral leaders, and the like as the pinnacles of humanity. Parents hope their children will become mature human beings, making full use of their bodies, minds, and hearts, and will lead lives that are fulfilling for themselves and others.


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