Well Begun Half Done
by Rev. Nobuo Haneda
Shinran emphasized the importance of “the Start” in Buddhism. Without the true start the true Buddhism cannot exist. Although many Buddhists of his time talked about the importance of the goal in Buddhism - Enlightenment, Shinran rather taught the importance of “the start” (which he called “shin - awakening”). For example he said:
For a foolish being it is not the ultimate attainment of Enlightenment (i.e. the goal) that is difficult. It is the shin (i.e. the start) that is difficult. (Volume “Shin” in the Kyogyoshinsho)
In this way Shinran teaches us “Well begun is half done.” If! compare the Buddhist path to a trip by a train, Shinran is saying here that the most difficult part of the journey is catching the right train. He says once the traveler gets into the right train, the trip is half finished. He will effortlessly reach the destination.
What then, is “the start” in Buddhism? What does it mean to get into a train that easily carries us to the destination?
For Shinran, “the start” meant the experience of meeting with the Buddhist teacher. When Shinran at 29. met his teacher Honen. the true Buddhism began for him. How much difficulty, agony. and frustration Shinran had before the meeting! How much joy and happiness he had after the meeting!
When Shinran met his teacher, he was deeply moved by him. After the meeting Shinran’s Buddhism was nothing but re-experiencing the spiritual communion that he experienced in the initial meeting. He kept on appreciating the deeper meaning of the meeting.
It is because Shinran met a person whom he considers a Buddha that a Buddha existed for him. It is because he bowed his head before him the Buddhism - “a religion of bowing (or refuge-taking)” - existed for him. Here I recollect Reverend Manshi Kiyozawa’s words:
It is not because a God or Buddha exists that we believe in him. It is because we believe in a God or Buddha that he exists for us.
(“Religion Is a Subjective Fact”)
Here Kiyozawa emphasizes the importance of actual experience - actually meeting with a Buddha. If we have not actually met a Buddha, if we have not actually been moved by him, how could we talk about the living Buddhism? Of course, we can read books and can know about the Buddha, but that is mere doctrinal information, mere remnants of the past.
In my personal experience it is not because Buddhism exists as a doctrine that I study it. It is because I met a teacher by the name of Shuichi Maida and was moved by him that Buddhism exists for me, a Buddha exists for me. For me Buddhism means investigating the profound spirit of my teacher. Simply because I want to know more about my teacher, I cannot help reading various books on Buddhism. It is not because I desire to be a learned person that I read them.
Since the crucial thing in Buddhism is “the start”, we must ask ourselves if we have truly experienced “the start” if we are truly re-experiencing “the start”. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is the perfection of “the start”. (8/22/95)