Continuing our commentary upon Summary of Faith and Practice...
TEXT: Be the foolish being completely in the performance of the practice.
The ‘practice’ in Pureland Buddhism can be thought of in a concrete and a metaphorical way. Let us first think concretely.
As a concrete practice, in Pureland, we have a primary practice and we have auxiliary practices. The primary practice is to say and to hear the nembutsu.
It is even more important to hear and heed the nembutsu than to say it, though, of course, to say it is also to benefit others. We can also distinguish intensive practice from extensive practice. Intensive practice is what we do when we deliberately come together in order to practise collectively, usually in a special place. Extensive practice is continuing the practice in the midst of everyday life in an informal way.
When we live in a nembutsu community, people are saying the nembutsu on and off all the time. When they meet or when something happens, “Namo Amida Bu”. When somebody drops something and somebody else says, “Namo Amida Bu!” there is a little moment of joy in the midst of the small misfortune. This is exactly the spirit of Amidism. This is yugen - the quintessential quality of the poetic life where bitterness and sweetness come together in a single moment.
We are ordinary people with human failings, but we live together and our life together is continually punctuated by “Namo Amida Bu” and these are sparks of mutual recognition as well as invocations of greater power. This is extensive practice. In this recognition there is both celebration and compassion, recognition of strength and frailty all at once, invocation of mortality and immortality all together. When we live in this way, although we are all faulty beings, something miraculous starts to happen. As we bring Buddha into all our affairs, what starts to predominate is his light rather than our discordance. We are all jangely beings and Buddha somehow makes a symphony out of it all.
The concrete auxiliary practices named by Honen Shonin are reciting sutras, making prostrations, making offerings (including praise or worship), and contemplation. There are many possible contemplations, many sutras, many offerings, and many ways to bow. The point, however, is not that one get the right practice and do it according to the right protocol. The point is that what one does should be auxiliary to the nembutsu, supportive of the act of taking refuge. When we do the practices in order to obtain something for our own body or mind we have missed the point. When we do it for fame and gain even more so.
I, a foolish being, make prostrations, recite sutras, contemplate and make offerings. I do not do it perfectly. When I stop to think about it I see that I am lazy in my practice, often inattentive, at times with my mind wandering away onto all kinds of extraneous things, missing my lines and so on. I am not sure that in all the thousands of times I have recited the morning prayers I have even once been attentive throughout or managed to do it without forgetting a word. So I am a poor priest. It is for me that Amitabha smiles and I am happy in that. Tomorrow I will try again.
Not only are we foolish beings in the performance of the practice, but the practice acknowledges our foolishness. It is, I think, very difficult for Western people to really understand the spirit of this. We have had two millennia of a religion in which to expect judgement. Judgement is built into us. This, perhaps is why, in the West, Quan Shi Yin is often more popular than Amitabha. Quan Shi Yin is the Buddha of mercy. We can understand being forgiven, but it is much more difficult to really understand not being judged in the first place, which is the meaning of Amitabha. We deeply, deeply think that religion is about being good, perfect, even. When we stop and look at the evidence of our life we feel we must do better and must make amends, but there is no way that we can mend the vast stream of karma that we have created through endless time. Indeed, we could not even really mend the karma of one day. In a strange way, such intention is a kind of fantasy of omnipotence. We feel that the goal of being the good person that we believe ourselves to be is always just out of reach, but still believe that we are going to get there somehow. This is not Buddhism. In Buddhism, we are what we do. The evidence of our life is the manifestation of the karma that we are. We are no more and no less. There is no hidden perfect self to realise. It is as it is. Yet the Buddhas smile upon just this. If I were a perfect being there would be no practice, no religion, no consciousness and nothing to do.
We can also consider the practices in a metaphorical way. To prostrate is to put oneself in a powerless position before another. Exposing the nape of my neck I give the other the option to end my life. On my side this is faith. It is also empowerment of the other. Anything that empowers another is a prostration. To bring assistance to another in their work is a prostration. When the disciple assists the teacher in his Dharma work, it is a prostration. When we seek to make another successful in some way it is a prostration.
Reciting sutras we immerse ourselves in the Dharma. Yet we can also immerse in the Dharma by listening to the wind in the trees, by hearing the sound of a frog landing in a pond, by reading the patterns of nature and even those of human work in the environment around us. Everywhere there is Dharma. In every direction there are Buddhas preaching. Yet one has to be a foolish being completely in order to read them.
There are innumerable contemplations that one could undertake, but the principle meaning of contemplation is to abide in gratitude. When we are still and silent in ourselves we can receive grace without limit. Every impulse of true gratitude is a contemplation. It is more important to feel it than to master it.
When we live in this way, then everything is an offering and a prayer. Only a completely foolish being can make a real prayer. The person who has faith in his own wisdom has his reward in himself, but the person who knows the vast extent of his ignorance is open to anything and receives all as grace. Such a person fills innumerable worlds with blessings. To have a small self-made benefit is not much. To participate in infinite glory is something.
So when we practise the auxiliaries intensively and extensively from the position of the completely foolish being, we make refuge real; we recognise the sharp difference between oneself and the source of grace. Great saints are like this. You know, criminals often think themselves good and clever, but saints are far more conscious of their failings even than the ordinary person is.
Nembutsu is refuge. Refuge is to be a refugee. To be a refugee is to have lost everything. While we rely upon our own power we do not fully perform the practice. To have lost everything is to ‘be the foolish being completely’.
Thank you so much Dharmavidya.
Thanks from my heart Dharmavidya
Namo amida Bu