When I first encountered the Jodo Shinshu teaching, I remember being startled to hear the minister giving a Dharma talk say, “In a house full of good people, the fighting never ends.” My idea of a “good person” was someone who knows what is right and always does the right thing. I had been studying Buddhism in the hope of becoming that sort of good person, so I was taken aback by the minister’s words.
I figured that if a house was full of good people, everyone would think and act correctly and they would all live together in harmony. However, recalling the various houses I had lived in up to that point, it occurred to me that differing perspectives on what was “correct” had given rise to many fights over the years. Between parents and children, spouses, and roommates there are a variety of different ideas about what is correct with regard to childrearing, politics, driving, cooking, clothing, and even hairstyles. When people living together think of themselves as good people who have the right ideas and know the correct way of doing things, conflicts easily arise and the fighting never ends.
As an example, when children are around middle school age, they might argue with their parents about their way of dressing or their hairstyle. A parent whose idea of good dressing is to wear clothing that shows respect for others and inspires others to respect oneself, might say something like, “Don’t go out dressed like such a slob!” In response, a teenager whose idea of good dressing is to wear clothing that pushes the boundaries of convention and express new perspectives on style and beauty might say, “You’re so behind the times, you’ll never get it!” If those two people are both sure that they are the good person with the right perspective, it seems unlikely that the fighting will end.
The idea of a “house full of good people” is not just limited to a single family’s home. Do we not see similar patterns of ongoing conflict between different groups in society, regions of the country, and nations of the world? It strikes me that the fact that we live in a world with so many who see themselves as the “good people” may have something to do with all of the conflict we see day after day.
In the same Dharma talk where I heard the expression “In a house full of good people, the fighting never ends” the minister said something which was even more surprising: “In a house full of bad people, the smiles never end.” A bad person could be described as someone whose mistaken ideas and wrongful acts cause harm to others. When I awaken to the truth I am the bad person, I can honestly acknowledge my own mistakes. How might that fight between the parent and their teenaged child over clothes and hairstyles change when they open their minds to the possibility that they are the bad person? Perhaps the parent might say something like, “It was bad of me to disparage your way of expressing yourself. I’m sorry.” Hearing this, the child might say something like, “It was bad of me to refuse to listen to what you had to say when you were just trying share what you’ve learned from your experience. I’m sorry too.” A house full of “bad people,” where each person acknowledges their own mistakes and tries to understand the others’ perspectives is surely a place where the smiles never end.
In the Tannisho (Record in Lament of Divergences), we find the remarkable phrase,“Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.” These words of Shinran Shonin make it clear that the compassionate vow of Amida Buddha is intended precisely to provide a path to liberation for the bad person. When I awaken to the reality that I am the bad person, I am inspired to seek the path to truth. Recognizing that the path to truth is nowhere to be found in my self-centered mind, I turn my ears to truth of awakening expressed in the teachings of the Buddha.
Namo Amida Butsu