This is Part Fourteen of our occasional commentary upon the Summary of Faith and Practice
Text: without even knowing what rebirth in the Pure Land truly is
Acknowledged Ignorance is the Basis of Enquiry
In his book ‘Revaluing Ethics’ Thomas Smith, writing about Aristotle, Plato and Socrates says, summarising their attitude, “Unless we know we do not know what virtue is, we cannot hope to attain virtue” p.57 The ancient philosophers are too often taken as asserting positions when what they are really doing is advocating enquiry. Positions are like landmarks along the path of enquiry. Unless we realise that we do not know what the Pure Land truly is, we cannot be on the path toward it. Such lack of awareness of our own ignorance tends to send us to one or other of two extremes. At one extreme, we think we know and so become dogmatic, fixed in one perspective and our enquiry comes to a halt. At the other extreme, we think that knowledge is impossible or worthless and our enquiry never even starts. However, it is the travelling that matters so it is important to start and not to get stopped. As one old Buddhist saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath one’s feet,” and as another says, “Travelling is hindered by arrival”.
Humility vs. Knowingness
Awareness of one’s ignorance is a necessary humility. In Buddhist psychology, we talk about vedana. It is the 2nd of the skandhas. Vedana is often translated as ‘feeling’ but this is quite a misleading translation, only catching one bit of the matter. Vedana is actually the mentality of the common person. The literal meaning is ‘knowingness’. Knowingness has the implication of thinking that one already knows more than is actually the case. Vedana includes our tendency to react to things, ‘for’ or ‘against’. In the Chinese Buddhist poem Hsin Hsin Ming it says “The oerfect way is without difficulty save that it avoid being for or against”. This does not mean going to the extreme of being unable to make a decision, but it does imply a certain tentativeness, willingness to be wrong and appreciation of the fact htat there are always many ways of seeing something. As Dogen says in Genjo Koan, the ocean is not just a great circle of blue, to the Naga King it is a jewelled palace, to the gods it is a string of pearl, to the fish it is a life world and so on.
Room for Everyone
The same is true with the Pure Land. When we first read this phrase it can come as a great relief. It is a relief personally, because we no longer feel that we have to understand something mysterious before we can proceed, that we are not in danger of being expelled from the community if we think something unorthodox and that if we change our mind tomorrow that will not be a disaster. It is also a relief in that it tells us that this is a broad church in which there is room for a wide range of open-minded people. All that we are required to wean ourselves of is too much vedana.
Many Perspectives Give All Round Appreciation
Evidently, there are many ways of thinking about the Pure Land. We can think about it literally and concretely and we can think about it metaphorically and poetically; we can imagine it sensorily and we can think about it cognitively; we can consider it as here and now, or as a goal for this world, as after death, as an ideal world far away, or as an aspect of eternity. If we have a zetetic rather than dogmatic approach, then we can appreciate all of these perspectives as each adding something to our all round appreciation of the matter, none being complete, ultimate and absolute, but each contributing something. This is similar to the fact that in Pureland we are not seeking a specific state of mind. One day we say the nembutsu and feel uplifted, another day, sad, another day reassured, another day challenged. It is not about arriving at the one right way to be, it is about fully investigating the Dharma in the light of the experience we have had and the wisdom that has been shone upon us.
The image of the Pure Land is never final, but it remains ever valuable to reflect upon as inspiration, as reassurance, as healing, as a resonance with things that are deeply archetypal within our being, echoes of the universe in the caverns of one’s heart. It can never be known in a final way for it is ever changing. The Pure Land is the field of influence of Buddha and Buddha is alive and eternally functioning. We are wanderers upon the Dharma path which means that we are wandering around the image of Buddha and his domain, now seeing it from this perspective, now from that, sometimes with little clarity, sometimes with more. It is not a matter of finding the one right vantage point. To know something more fully is not to have always seen it one way, but to have encountered it in many ways, times, circumstances and modes.
There is something here about deep and broad acceptance, of one’s own partiality and uncertainty as well as one’s interest, enthusiasm and investment, and also of others with their many perspectives and experiences. It implies a willingness to expand the heart and mind. In the reductionist approach, one rejects everything that one does not have certainty about and ends up living in a very constricted domain. In the expansionist approach one appreciates everything. There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the method of science. Many people wrongly take science reductionistically, taking it to be a matter of only accepting what has been firmly established. Philosophers of science will then tell us that there is nothing that has been really firmly established and that science is actually the tentative acceptance of everything that has not been firmly disproven. This latter is a much more valuable way. It enables one to think and imagine ‘out of the box’ as has done by all the great geniuses - like Einstein, Darwin, of Copernicus.
So this liberating phrase is a manifesto for an open attitude to spirituality. Interestingly, it also allows us to take on elements of religiosity that modern prejudice might lead us to reject as ‘old fashioned’ too, and this can give our spirituality a much more robust feel. We can take things as metaphorical and reinterpret it all in terms of currently politically correct thought, but we don’t have to. There are also other ways that have been found to be of immense value by great saints throughout the ages. Modern people tend to think themselves to be liberated and free from old fashioned prejudice when in reality they are just prejudiced against those ‘old fashioned’ styles of thinking. The truly open minded person can encompass both, but such people are relatively rare.
“Without even knowing” is an invitation to humility, but a humility that opens doors, widens the horizon and lets in a great variety of sacred influence, like water and sunshine for the little seedlings that we are.