SUMMARY - Part fifteen
Text: This is the practice for ignorant beings and ignorance is essential for its accomplishment.
This sentence has two parts. The first part we can say is reassuring and the second part challenging.
The Reassuring Part
The reassuring part is that this is a teaching for ignorant beings so however ignorant we still are this is for us. We do not need to fear or despair. In fact, to a substantial degree we can say that Pureland is the approach to Buddhism suitable for those who have already failed at one or more other approaches. Generally Buddhism is presented as a methodology with a guaranteed result for those who sincerely do the practice, but however long you meditate or however strict you are in keeping the precepts, there will still be many people who, after many years, have not accommplshed Buddhahood, not entered nirvana, and are still beset with troubles of various kinds. It is partly for this reason that most of the great acknowledged masters of Pureland from the past began their Buddhist career in some other school of Buddhism, only discovering Amida Buddha later. When one does so one either thinks that Pureland is complete nonsense, or one feels a huge sense of relief. Sometimes both.
In China it is common to do ‘dual practice’ which means to practice Zen and Pureland concurrently. This is because it is said that Zen is the most direct route to salvation, nirvana, and Buddhahood so it is good to practise Zen. However, since most people fail in this respect, it is good also to have an insurance policy and the insurance is Amitabha who will not reject one however badly one fails, just so long as one turns toward him.
For somewhat similar reasons, Pureland tends not to be the first form of Buddhism to become established in a culture. When the Dharma is new in a country people have little faith in it, but they are willing to try if they think they can get results. Thus approaches that offer a method and seem to keep the practitioner in control of his own effort and achievement have the most chance of being accepted. After some time there come to be an increasing number of people who have developed some basic faith because of having gained something from their years of practice, but who still feel something is lacking. These are the ones who may turn to Pureland and take an extra step of faith.
Honen said: “According to the self-power doctrine, we must develop our intellectual faculties to the very highest if we would get free from the fated transmigratory round, whereas the Pureland (Jodo) practice requires us to return to our native simplicity in order to get birth into this blissful land.” (p.738 vol 5 Coates H.H. & Ishizuka R. 1949 Honen the Buddhist Saint: His life and teaching compiled by imperial order. Kyoto: Society for Sacred Books of the World)
The Challenging Part
Then there is the second part of the sentence which says that not only is this a practice offered to ignorant beings, but that ignorance is essential. The nembutsu is only nembutsu when said by an ignorant being. What does this mean? How can an ignorant being be sure that he is a sufficiently ignorant being? This seems like a kind of koan.
There is a book called Tannisho which records some of the sayings of Honen’s great disciple Shinran. There we read of Shinran saying, “Even good people enter the Pure Land, how much more so bad ones!” This is startling, isn’t it? Pureland is not the ordinary way of thinking.
Ignorance here is avidya in Sanskrit. Avidya is what we are trying to get rid of, isn’t it? Isn’t ignorance the root of delusion, folly, and continuing birth and death, tied to the wheel of samsara? Yes, indeed! So how is it essential?
It is not possible to abolish ignorance by ignorance. The actions and thoughts of an ignorant being are ignorant. Thus even the practice of a deluded being is deluded practice. Our situation, therefore, is completely helpless and hopeless.
Some people say that Pureland is about it being ‘OK’ that we are less than perfect, but actually it is not OK. The ignorant person goes on sinning, goes on making mistakes and doing harm, goes on from one folly to another. There is nothing OK about this. This is not about self-acceptance.
In fact, reinterpreting Pureland as 'self-acceptance' is the ego’s attempt to claw back control. This is spiritual materialism and it destroys the heart of nembutsu because it neutralises contrition. A person who relies upon self-acceptance is not 'helpless and hopeless'.
So the challenging aspect is that we can always reflect in our nei quan exercise how we are busy trying to get back ego control and establishing it like a cancer in the vital organs of our nembutsu faith.
Amitabha can only obtain access to a mind in which the self-power has died down, just as moon light only shines into a dark room.
Faith involves letting go. Our struggle is that we read about letting go and we want to do it, so we want to be in control of letting go, but this is a contradiction of terms.
When Honen was sent into exile he welcomed the opportunity to take the Dharma to people in the distant provinces. Faith is a kind of ‘trusting in providence’. Whatever comes along is the Way. Actually it is exactly the same as Dogen Zenji’s teaching that one should ‘accept one’s lot’. On the way into exile Honen had encounters with a samurai warrior and a also with a prostitute. Each was worried that they would go to hell because of the sinful lives they had led. To the prostitute, Honen said, “If you can change your ways, do so; but if not, then simply say the nembutsu and have faith.” To the samurai who evidently was in no position to change and was, in fact, on the eve of a new battle, he said, “Do not worry about achieving the right state of mind; Amitabha will receive you anyway.”
Faith is self-abandon. It is like falling and trusting others to catch you or going into a perilous situation simply trusting that all will be well - like Shakyamuni going to meet Angulimala. All is completely assured. Even if this body is destroyed, all is taken care of. The samurai died in the battle and purple clouds appeared in the sky.
The haiku poet Sumita Oyama once told the story of his mother’s love. At the beginning of the story, he said how that very day, in the previous night’s dream, his mother, who, in reality, had been dead 27 years, came to his bedside and. noticing that his shoulder was cold, had come round the bed and tucked him in. Continuing his story he said that before he was born, as soon as she knew she was pregnant, his mother had gone every day to the Quan Shi Yin temple to pray. Thus, from the very beginning he had been watched over. When he was born, his mother was very solicitous. Nonetheless, as a young man, he was not at ease in life nor with himself. He grew up and got a job and moved away from home. Then, one day, he got a telegram that his mother was in a coma and he hurried back home, making a difficult journey through the night. When he arrived the doctor told him that she had had a stroke and had still not regained consciousness. He went to her room and stayed with her for two days, sleeping on the bed beside her until he was awakened by her faltering voice. By this time his wife had also arrived. As he was waking up, he realised that what his mother was trying to say was a call to his wife to come and cover up his shoulder because he must be cold. In other words, his mother, who was almost at death’s door herself, was still more concerned about his small discomfort than about her own severe condition. He said that it was at that point that he realised what the love of Amitabha must be. This story is recounted by the Buddhist nun Shundo in her little book Zen Seeds (1990, Kosei Publications, Tokyo, p.111 et seq.).
I think this story illustrates the kind of simplicity of faith, love and trust that Honen is talking about when he says ‘native simplicity’. It is not something one can contrive nor use as a method with an alternative agenda. There is nothing clever about it. To be like this one has to just be the ignorant, sinful person that one is, full of good and bad, cleverness and stupidity, yet with a trust that, even though one has but little comprehension of it, somehow, in the background, are the Buddha’s all encompassing, welcoming hands and it is exactly this naive or 'natively simple' faith and letting go that is the essence.