Earlier this week, I was dozing off in my office at the temple while attempting to read a challenging passage from Shinran’s writings in Japanese when the chime for the outside doorbell woke me with a start. As I sprang to my feet to answer the intercom, my glasses slipped off my face and fell to the ground. The hinge that holds the right temple in place broke apart as it hit the floor, rendering my glasses unwearable. Ideal vision is traditionally described as being able to see clearly at a distance of 20 feet the same object that a normal person can see at 20 feet, often expressed as the fraction 20/20. The largest letter at the top of a standard eye chart that you find at an optometrist’s office often corresponds to 20/200 vision, which is the eyesight of a person who needs to be 20 feet away to see an object that a normal person can see from a distance of 200 feet. Without my glasses, I have a hard time seeing that big letter E at the top of the chart.
I searched through my drawers and found an old pair of glasses I had purchased when I was living in Kyoto. The first time I bought a pair of glasses in Japan, I remember complaining to the optician, “You got my prescription wrong. Every time I have gotten new glasses in the past, I could see more clearly. With these glasses, I can see less clearly than with my old glasses.” When I suggested that they switch out the lenses to give me my old prescription back, the optician calmly explained to me, “From our perspective, your previous prescription was too strong. Your left eye is stronger than the right, so you favor your left eye. By slightly reducing the strength of your prescription in the left eye, we are creating a balance so that you will use both eyes equally. This will reduce fatigue.” I was skeptical, but the optician was adamant, so I decided to give the new prescription a try. Prior to moving to Japan my prescription would increase slightly every couple of years. During the six years I spent living in Japan, my prescription didn’t change at all, so in time I became a believer in the approach my optometrist in Kyoto was advocating.
When I went to update my glasses here in California for the first time after moving back from Kyoto, my new optometrist made the comment, “The prescription for your right eye remains the same, but we’ll need to increase the prescription in your left eye.” When I explained the rationale for the prescription I had from Kyoto, my optometrist was dismissive. “You want to be able to see as clearly as possible. I am not aware of any research that supports deliberately under-correcting in one eye.” I was not about to argue the science of optometry with a doctor, so got my new glasses and enjoyed being able to read distant signs on the freeway in time to change lanes and avoid missing my exit.
Wearing my old glasses from Kyoto these past few days as I wait for my current glasses to get repaired, I find that indeed my eyes do not get fatigued as much when I am reading. That first optometrist I saw here in California was most intent on bringing the object of sight into crystal clear optical focus. To him, the best prescription was determined by how clearly I could see an object across the room from where I sat. For the optometrist I saw in Kyoto, the best vision was determined by taking into account both the subject who saw and the object that was seen. Rather than focusing on the external object of sight as the sole criteria for determining the prescription, my doctor in Kyoto also took into account my experience of seeing through the lenses all day long. In our conversation, I was encouraged to consider not just “What can I see?” but also “How do I see?”
A plaque hangings in the Buddha Hall of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple that reads “見真 kenshin” which means “see truth.” Kenshin Daishi is the honorific title bestowed upon Shinran Shonin by the Meiji Emperor of Japan. These words capture the spirit of our life in the Nembutsu, in which we endeavor to see the truth that is illuminated by the wisdom of Amida Buddha. In reflecting on his own experience of seeing, Shinran composed the following verse in his Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu:
The person burdened with extreme evil should simply say the Name:
Although I too am within Amida’s grasp,
Passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see him;
Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.
The clear sight that I receive in the Nembutsu arises from seeing my life illuminated by the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, which helps me see how my perceptions are clouded by the greed, anger, and ignorance that arise moment to moment in my mind. As I welcome the New Year 2020, I am grateful for the light of Amida Buddha that guides me to clearly see the truth of wisdom and compassion each day.
Namo Amida Butsu