Ultimate Understanding?

I received an email that said:

I found video of an interview with your teacher Nishijima Roshi and I don’t understand it. In the video he says he arrived at the ultimate truth of Buddhism after studying for more than 60 years,  when he was 88 years old.

What does he mean by that?

I thought that he had already found the ultimate truth by awakening to it and that is why he become a teacher. 

Nishijima Roshi’s English could be a little hard to follow sometimes. I have revised and edited the transcript that YouTube provides. Here is what I believe he is saying. “I studied Buddhism diligently for more than 60 years. But in order to arrive at the ultimate point, it took more than 60 years. When I was 88 years old, in the spring of this year (2008), I think I arrived at the ultimate point of Buddhism at last at that time. That is my feeling.”

The person who wrote to me wonders why Nishijima Roshi would have taught Buddhism for many years before he “arrived at the ultimate point.” I’m not sure precisely what year Nishijima Roshi received dharma transmission from Rempo Niwa Roshi, but I believe it was sometime in the 1970’s. In any case, he received dharma transmission  — which gave him authorization to teach independently — long before 2008. 

A person doesn’t need to have ultimate enlightenment in order to teach Buddhism. Just like I don’t need to have complete knowledge of the Japanese language in order to teach Japanese to someone who doesn’t know any Japanese at all. If you don’t know any Japanese, I can teach you as much Japanese as I know. You can learn some useful Japanese from me even though I don’t speak perfect Japanese. I can teach you how to order food at a restaurant, or figure out the announcements on the subway system, or even read a book about Godzilla (as long as the book isn’t too difficult).

In fact, if I am good at teaching, you could learn more Japanese from me than you could learn from some other person who can speak perfect Japanese but is not good at teaching. 

If you continue to study Japanese, eventually you might want to find a teacher who speaks better Japanese than me. That might be necessary. Or maybe it won’t be necessary. Maybe, if I teach you enough of the basics of Japanese, then you may not even need another teacher. Maybe you will be able to learn the other things you need to know without a teacher, for example, by speaking to Japanese people or reading books in Japanese, and so on.

I think Buddhism is like that. There have been cases where the student understands Buddhism better than the teacher. But still, in many of these cases the teacher was necessary in the early part of the student’s study. This is because understanding Buddhism is sometimes a very delicate thing. Sometimes a person might understand Buddhism but might lack confidence in her or his understanding. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a teacher in order to become confident.

I think a lot of people go wrong in their search for a Buddhist teacher because they believe that only someone who has “ultimate understanding” can teach Buddhism at all. But how do you judge whether someone has “ultimate understanding” if you don’t understand Buddhism yourself? If I had no idea about Japanese, someone could teach me a bunch of nonsense syllables and claim it was Japanese and I wouldn’t know. He might be teaching me his own made-up language. Or he might be teaching me a bit of Japanese with a bunch of other things tossed in.

This is why honesty is more important than “ultimate understanding.” It’s more important to find an honest teacher than it is to find a teacher who is supposedly fully enlightened. 

I’m not sure why Nishijima Roshi said he had arrived at the ultimate point when he was 88 years old. My guess is that it was a personal thing. He probably had some sort of experience of understanding in the spring of that year and this experience was probably very powerful. I knew him in 2008, but I had already moved back to the United States in 2004, so I wasn’t speaking to him as often as I did when I lived in Japan. I don’t remember him telling me about any specific experience of “arriving at the ultimate point.” But, then again, I wouldn’t have expected him to tell me about that. That was not his style. 

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