SUMMARY OF FAITH & PRACTICE
(Dharmavidya, inspired by Honen's Ichimai Kishomon)
For those having a karmic affinity with Amitabha Buddha wishing to practise a religious life in truly simple faith, freeing themselves of sophistication and attachment to all forms of cleverness, the method of opening oneself to Amitabha's grace is the practice of Nien Fo with body, speech and mind, particularly verbal recitation of Namo Amida Bu. This is not something done as a form of meditation, nor is it based on study, understanding and wisdom, or the revelation of deep meaning. Deep meaning is indeed there for the nembutsu is a window through which the whole universe of Buddhas teaching can be perceived in all its depth, but none of this is either necessary or even helpful to success in the practice. Rather such study cultivates secondary faculties to be held separate from the mind of practice itself.
The primary practice requires only one essential: realise that you are a totally foolish being who understands nothing, but who can with complete trust recite Namo Amida Bu; know that this will generate rebirth in the Pure Land, without even knowing what rebirth in the Pure Land truly is. This is the practice for ignorant beings and ignorance is essential for its accomplishment. This practice automatically encompasses the three minds and the mind of contrition as a fourth. To pursue something more profound or more sophisticated, or to have a theory, or to think that understanding will yield greater enlightenment than this is to be mislead and to fall back into self-power whereby the whole practice is spoilt. However wise, learned or skilled you may be, set it aside and be the foolish being completely in the performance of the practice. Nothing else is required and anything else is too much. Faith and practice cannot be differentiated.
The Buddha-body is delineated by the precepts. How deficient we are by comparison! By our daily difficulty in the preceptual life, we awaken to the presence of the myriad karmic obstacles without which we would already perceive the land of love and bliss, we would be as the vow-body of Buddha. Thus we know in experience that we are foolish beings of wayward passion. This knowledge of our condition is part of the essential basis when it gives rise to contrition. Thus all obstacles become impediments to faith unless we experience contrition and letting go. Saving grace, as was made clear by Shan Tao's dream and advice to Tao Cho, only comes through the sange-mon.
If you can perform the practice in this simple minded way, Amida will receive you and you may fear for nothing since all is completely assured. Dwelling in this settled faith you may then use your secondary faculties, your knowledge and skills and accumulated experience, as tools for helping all sentient beings. But do not then think that anything of relevance to your own salvation is thereby accomplished, nor that you are making something of yourself. Whatever merit there may be in your actions of this kind, immediately and totally dedicate it to the benefit of others, that they may enter the Pure Land and that you yourself may not be encumbered by consciousness of virtue which will only contaminate the practice. As Honen says, without pedantic airs, fervently recite the Name.*
For those having a karmic affinity with Amitabha Buddha
wishing to practise a religious life in truly simple faith,
freeing themselves of sophistication and attachment to all forms of cleverness,
the method of opening oneself to Amitabha's grace
is the practice of Nien Fo
with body, speech and mind,
TEXT: particularly verbal recitation of Namo Amida Bu.
"Namo Amida Bu" is an anglicisation of Namu Amida Butsu. In Chinese it is Namo Omito Fo. In Vietnamese Namo Adida Phat. When I met tribesmen in the extreme East of India they said "Om Ami Dewa Hrih". The form of the words does not matter. When Rennyo was first teaching he used the ten syllable nembutsu "Kimyo jinjipo mugeko Nyorai". This is not a magic spell or password. It is an expression of gratitude and intention. As intention it is a turning of the mind toward the Buddha - Amitabha Buddha especially, but all Buddhas in principle.
Much is sometimes made of the difference between verbal nembutsu and contemplative nembutsu. The early propagators of Pureland in China, such as Shan Tao (7th century), recommended verbal utterance since it involves a more clearly intentional act. As a matter of fact, using the voice does arrest the mind more than just thinking something. It is said that before that nembutsu had been contemplative, meaning that it was done by meditative or contemplative exercises such as visualising Amitabha Buddha. When Hui Yuan started the first White Lotus society on Mount Lu in the year 400 with a group of people who vowed to all be reborn in the Pure Land, it was probably contemplative nembutsu that they practised. However, it seems likely that even back in India at the time of Shakyamuni and certainly soon after his death, the practice of circumambulating relics while chanting was established and the form of such a practice is probably extremelt ancient, predating Buddhism itself. Therefore, in chanting the nembutsu we are joining in a tradition that may well go back to the stone age.
Nembutsu is a form of the refuge formula and as such is found in every branch of Buddhism. When I was shown how to do walking meditation by a Theravada monk in Thailand he told me to inwardly say "Buddho, Buddho..." as I walked. Why? I asked. "So as to invoke the help of Buddha," I was told. I told him that this was very like our Pureland practice and he smiled. I asked if this was really compatible with the big sign outside the temple that read "Self Power Institute" and the short talk I had received earlier about how Theravada Buddhism had nothing to do with any external power, but was entirely about doing the practice by oneself, for oneself and achieving one's own enlightenment by one's own effort. He smailed again and said that that was "for Westerners - they like that kind of thing."
So, throughout the Buddhist world - outside of th West at least - Buddhists take refuge and have various verbal formulas for doing so. In Pureland, this has become the primary practice. In some forms of Buddhism, taking refuge is seen more as a way of gaining entry so that one can then get access to the really important teachings and practices that make one into a wise and compassionate Buddha oneself, but in Pureland, the refuge is it and it is the other practices that are auxiliary.
This probably means that Pureland is in direct descent from the Buddhism practised by lay people especially at the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni and immediately after his demise.
COMMENTARY ~ Part Eight
Text: This is not something done as a form of meditation.
This phrase tells us that nembutsu
1. is not a self-power practice.
2. is not a personal development exercise
3. is not a therapy
4. is not something in which there is any premium upon technical proficiency
5. is different from many of the practices found in other schools of Buddhism.
Thinking or Not Thinking
The term meditation has come to have new meanings as a result of popular interest in Buddhism and yoga. In standard English, to meditate means to think. To meditate upon something is to think about it or to contemplate it, perhaps as a possible course of action in the future. However, nowadays, when people think about mediation they tend to think about mental exercises that have the cessation of thought as a proximate goal and spiritual enlightenment as an ultimate goal.
To Awakening or From Awakening
When contemporary Western people think about Buddhism, they generally think that it is a path to enlightenment and that meditation is the method by which enlightenment is to be accomplished. When we look closely at the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, however, it is not so much concerned with how to arrive at enlightenment and more concerned with how an enlightened person actually lives. In other words, it is how to proceed from enlightenment.
Not Earned, Achieved, Constructed, or Demanded
Nembutsu is not meditation in this sense of a means to achieve enlightenment. It does not aim to bring about enlightenment. In fact, it is associated with a belief that one is incapable of bringing about enlightenment by one’s own effort. Enlightenment comes as a gift and cannot be earned, achieved, constructed, or demanded. Nor is enlightenment in this life taken as an object of practice in Pureland. The spirit of Pureland is more that of having gratitude for whatever light one has. Live that to the full. Let any further development take care of itself, or be taken care of by the Buddhas. It is not possible for delusion to go beyond itself, but it is possible for a deluded being to be liberated. The Buddhas come precisely for the sake of deluded beings such as ourselves.
However, we can also note that it is probably the case that most modern people who meditate do not actually think that they are going to get enlightened thereby either. The idea of enlightenment has been made so elevated and remote that most people believe it to be completely out of reach for practical purposes. Meditation remains popular as a self-development exercise or as a quasi-therapy. People find that meditation relieves stress. It teaches them some disciplines, such as restraint and patience, and it trains them in tolerating silence, stillness and calm. In the mad helter-skelter of modern life these disciplines are worthwhile. Meditation therefore has some intrinsic value, but that value, for most people, is not really spiritual. By this I mean that it is not "akaliko", not timeless. It is, rather, utilitarian. Now nembutsu, in essence, is not utilitarian. It points at what is akaliko. it is the intention to indicate that which is akaliko that makes it nembutsu.
The Intention is the Substance
This does not negate the fact that those who practice nembutsu may derive some practical benefits from doing so. They may, but this is not the reason or motive for the practice. Any such benefit is incidental. If the attaining of such a benefit were to become the primary motivation then it would have ceased to be nembutsu, even if the form of words remained. The form would have become empty. On the other hand, so long as the intention is there, the substance is there, even if the form of words were to vary. It is for this reason that nembutsu can, in fact, take many forms and for a person who has genuinely made the selection (senchaku) of nembutsu, many practices can and do become forms of nembutsu. this is what makes Pureland into a generic form of spirituality. The wine can be poured into bottles of many different shapes. The Pureland practitioner can, therefore, appreciate many different forms of religion. Superficially this seems a paradox - that selection enables inclusivity - however the inclusivity is not inclusion of diversity in the manner of ecclecticism, it is recognition of commonality of deeper significance in the manner of transcendent inspiration.
In Pureland there is far more emphasis upon what is already the case than upon the prospect of achieving something in the future. In particular, the Dharma is already in the world, Shakyamuni has revealed the teaching, Amida’s light already shines upon us, and we are already fortunate to have these gifts, living, as we do, in samsara. Pureland practitioners do expect to become Buddhas some day - have more confidence in it in fact than most self-power practitioners - but they believe that this is and will be all taken care of and is not something that they have to worry about personally. The person of Pureland faith, therefore, has a great sense of assurance and this gives confidence and ease.
No Efficacious Method
Actually, much of what we are here saying about Pureland is more generally true. Shakyamuni Buddha does not teach that meditation necessarily leads to enlightenment. Even after somebody have achieved proficiency in all the dhyanas there remains something to be done and some people in the Buddhist record clearly achieved enlightenment without ever mastering the dhyanas. In fact, there is no efficacious method for becoming enlightened. My own Zen teacher used to say that one does not become enlightened by trying to; it happens as a by-product.
Contrivance is not the Genuine Article
Life throws up koans. We confront them or run away from them. We encounter circumstances that disrupt our taken for granted certainties. We come under the influence of inspiring examples. At some point, we may experience a great change of heart, an opening, a new perspective, but this is not something that one can contrive any more than one can contrive to have an accident. If it is contrived it is not accidental. Achieved enlightenment would only be an imitation.
The Pureland practitioner, therefore, simply celebrates the good fortune already manifest - the presence of the Dharma, the merit of Amitabha. We express our gratitude by saying the nembutsu, which is a continual reminder. The rest we leave in the hands of the gods and Buddhas.
Don't Get Sidetracked
This does not mean that a practitioner is forbidden to meditate. If one finds meditating, either in the old fashioned sense, or in the contemporary one, useful, go ahead, but do not expect thereby to become enlightened and do not let your attachment to this or any other practice displace the centrality of nembutsu in your religious practice. It is alright to have enthusiasm for practical gains of one kind or another, but don't let them overwhelm your religious consciousness - they are ephemera.
In Amida Shu we do have meditative exercises... in particular, nei quan and chih quan, that are designed to deepen one’s understanding of the nembutsu. They are referred to as auxiliary practices. From a Pureland perspective this is the right order of priority. Meditative exercises can be useful as a support. They are not essential and nembutsu itself has a special merit that is well beyond them, but if one finds them useful then they have some intrinsic relative value and there is nothing wrong with that.
Zazen Can Be Nembutsu
In Kamakura Japan there arose new forms of Buddhist practice such as nembutsu, zazen and daimoku. Although new in a certain sense, all these practices have their roots in earlier forms of Buddhist practice in China and India. It is worth our saying something here about zazen particularly because zazen means sitting meditation. The point is that many people practising zazen are thinking that this is a means to becoming enlightened. However, the founder of the zazen movement, Eihei Dogen Zenji said that zazen is already enlightenment and that sitting with an aim is not true zazen. This surely is simply a different way of saying the same thing as Honen was saying about nembutsu. If one understands zazen correctly, then it is surely simply a form of nembutsu. It is akaliko, which is to say that it is a celebration of timeless wisdom already present.
A Style for Ordinary Beings
So, when we say, "not done as a form of meditation," we need to understand the intention of the phrase as distinguishing nembutsu from self-power or utilitarian practices or treatments. All Buddhist practices, meditation included, when correctly understood, are consistent one with another, which, from a Pureland perspective, means that they are all forms of nembutsu, just as a person looking from a Zen perspective might say that they are all forms of zazen. The difference between schools is fundamentally one of style. The distinctive character of Pureland is its focus upon the condition of the ordinary person, and, therefore, upon gratitude and humility and upon taking refuge in the grace that the Buddhas bestow upon us rather than in our own meagre proficiency. In Pureland we say that nembutsu is not meditation (just as we say that it is not a mantra) to distinguish the particular style of Pureland practice, which is a style not for the highest kind of spiritual being, but for ordinary, vulnerable, fallible creatures such as most of us are.
COMMENTARY ~ Part Nin
Text: nor is it based on study, understanding and wisdom or the revelation of deep meaning
Searching for a Solution
This phrase is interesting in part because we can say that historically the emergence of the nembutsu teaching of Honen did come at the end of a period of study, understanding and wisdom that had, indeed, culminated in a revelation or realisation of deep meaning. Honen became a monk at an early age and because of his intelligence and scholastic ability was sent to Mount Hiei, the great centre of Tandai Buddhism, to further his monastic studies. There he practised nembutsu as a meditative practice and also studied. He was an avid scholar and in his element in the excellent library. He became extremely learned and knew the doctrines of all the schools of Buddhism in Japan. This did not come about because of an ambition to be a scholar but rather because he was energetically searching for a solution to the problem that had preoccupied him since the death of his father when he was nine years old. This question was to do with the means of salvation for ordinary people.
Honen was aware of his own status as one of the most erudite monks. However, he reasoned that if even he, who knew more about Buddhism than anybody, was as incapable as he found himself to be of fulfilling the demands of the Buddhist scriptures for perfect morality of body, speech and mind, great attainment in samadhi and profound wisdom, then what hope was there or the ordinary person who was not as endowed or as privileged as he had been? It seemed as though the vast mass of the population were not catered for by the Buddhism that he read about. The standards required were super-human, yet most of the population of Japan in Honen's day were illiterate and were bound by a rigid caste system to work in occupations that they had been born into that consumed all their time and effort. Could Buddhism say anything to people such as these who had no opportunity to meditate and whose imposed lifestyles made it impossible to keep all the precepts?
Of course, this is not a problem limited to the time of Honen. How many people do you know who really keep all the precepts perfectly, never give rise to a passionate impulse, have completely given up desire, have mastered all the dhyanas, samadhis and bodhisattva bhumis - or even just one or two of them? It seems quite inadequate to say that it takes a long time, as one often hears. Many people nowadays practise Buddhism, but do they really come close to what the scriptures seem to demand?
The Incidental Scholar
Honen could not believe that the all-compassionate Buddhas had created a situation where all ordinary people, perhaps absolutely all people, were bound to fail. Therefore, he scoured the scriptures and commentaries searching for a method that was possible for the ordinary person. Doing so he incidentally picked up a vast amount of learning.
It was while he was reading the commentary on the Contemplation Sutra written by the great Chinese master Shan Tao that he had his sudden revelation. Shan tao said that if one simply dedicated oneself to keeping the Buddha - particularly the Buddha Amitabha - in mind then the merit of that Buddha would itself take care of one's salvation even if one remained a fallible, deluded, or even evil being.
Even the Worst of the Worst
Honen had, at last, found what he was looking for. Shan Tao's whole approach went some way to turning conventional Buddhism on its head. In the Contemplation Sutra there are listed nine grades of persons. First all are divided into three categories - the best, the middling and the worst. Then each of these strata are gain divided into three in a similar way, giving nine grades. This hierarchy is generally taken as indicating that one should strive to be one of the best and even the best of the best because only they will be fully accepted into the Buddha's Pure Land. However, Shan Tao interpreted this passage as indicating that even the worst of the worst were able to enter.
In 1175, Descent from the Mountain
All of this spoke to Honen's condition. Soon after, in 1175, he descended from the mountain and went to live with a hermit friend in a hut in the mountains to the east of Kyoto. Soon after he started to teach the nembutsu practice and this became his work for the rest of his life.
Ignoble & Useless
Now we can remember that Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened after a period of intense ascetic practice, yet, when he became enlightened he said that such asceticism was vain, ignoble and useless. One does not necessarily arrive at the insight that a great sage had by following the same path that that sage walked. We each have to make our own mistakes.
Honen similarly said that you will not understand the nembutsu by entering upon the kind of career of scholarly study that he had followed. The essence of nembutsu has nothing to do with such erudition. It is not that erudition is necessarily a bad thing per se - it has some natural benefits - but it will not improve your nembutsu. The essence of nembutsu is a turning - to turn one's heart toward the Buddha, just as one might go outside on a full moon night and stand in that wonderful light.
To make such a turn does not require study, understanding or wisdom. It simply requires a simple faith and willingness. Actually the nembutsu is a very simple thing. It is just the name of the Buddha. Saying the name we bring the Buddha to mind. We let him into our heart. He will do the rest. Nothing else is necessary.
Fallible Deluded Beings
Some religions are said to be based on revelation. Revelation tends to imply some kind of infallibility of doctrine. This has been a problem in the history of religion, leading faith communities to clash with one another. Nembutsu is not like that. Nembutsu tells us that we are fallible deluded beings. We are not the possessors of something that makes us right while dooming everybody else to hell. Nembutsu is simply a form of refuge - a reliance upon Buddha who is much wiser and kinder than we are. Buddha is not going to persecute anybody nor fight any kind of supposedly holy war.
Buddhism contains profound meaning, but even if we do not grasp it, we are still saved by the nembutsu. This is the simple message of Honen and the simple practice that can be a complete assurance to us even today. It is a timeless message offering salvation to all irrespective of intelligence or goodness.
COMMENTARY ~ Part Ten
Text: Deep wisdom is indeed there, for the nembutsu is a window through which the whole universe of buddha’s wisdom can be percieved in all its depth…
Although the nembutsu seems to be and is a very simple practice, we should not, for that reason, think that it negates any part of Buddha’s teaching. The Pureland teaching is one perspective on Buddha’s whole Dharma. Furthermore, it is not, as some say, a later modification, revision, departure or tangent to or from that Dharma. It is the whole original Dharma. Even further, we can claim that this is the original Dharma of Buddha presented in its pure and simple essence. How so?
Refuge First and Last
The first thing the Buddha taught was refuge. The last thing the Buddha taught was refuge. Everything that he taught in between was an amplification, an unpacking, of this teaching. Nembutsu is that refuge, nothing more nor less.
A Window from the Other Side
This means that all the standard Buddhist teachings can be appreciated from the perspective of, or, we could say, through the window of, nembutsu. However, when we do this we often find that the resulting interpretation is different from, even in some respects the opposite of, that which has elsewhere become standard. This window is often found to be on the opposite side from the other windows. This does not necessarily mean there is contradiction, different windows give different angles. However, the nembutsu interpretation is often more coherent and, I suggest, has a strong claim to being the original meaning intended by Shakyamuni Buddha.
Example: The Four Truths
Western Interpretation: Let us take the Four Truths as an example. There are two standard, conventional interpretations with many minor variations. The two are a Western version and an Eastern version. The Western version says that dukkha (1st truth) is mental suffering. This is somehow distinguished from physical suffering. It is said that such suffering is caused by desire and craving (2nd truth), that desire and craving can be overcome (3rd truth) and that the eightfold path (4th truth) is the means whereby this is achieved. In this interpretation the 4th truth is the means toward the elimination of the 1st and 2nd. Buddhism is then said to be a way to eliminate suffering, or, more positively, a path to happiness. However, the idea of anybody attaining to a life that is totally devoid of suffering in this world of unreliable conditions is unconvincing, The distinction between mental and physical suffering is also unconvincing and in any case the idea of eliminating dukkha in this life cannot tally with the Buddha’s words in the text since within dukkha he includes getting sick and dying, as well as many of the kinds of mishap that can occur to anybody whether enlightened or not. The Western theory, while of some general use, falls apart when examined closely.
Eastern Interpretation: The Eastern theory is more coherent. It is similar in many respects. The fourth truth is taken as the means to eliminate the first and second, but this is not expected within this life. Within this life the effects of past karma still unfold, even for a Buddha, and this is what keeps such a person in a physical body. Freedom from suffering is attained in parinirvana after death. The Western theory has been derived from the Eastern one but modified to accommodate the fact that many Westerners do not believe in an afterlife. However, without this element the idea becomes incoherent. The problem with the Eastern idea is that it is annihilationist and it seems not really to fit with the spirit of the Buddha’s actual life. It is hard to imagine Shakyamuni as the sort of person who was afraid of a bit of suffering.
Simpler interpretation: So how else can one look at these four? It seems that the correct translation is Four Truths for Noble Ones, which suggests that noble ones do not eliminate truths one and two either in this life or the next. Also, in most Buddhist teachings that are formulated as lists, the last item is the final point, not a means to one of the earlier ones. So a simpler interpretation is that dukkha leads to samudaya and if that is followed by nirodha then it leads on to marga. Here the path is the outcome, not the means. What then is nirodha? In practical terms, nirodha is nembutsu. Nirodha is that which tames what flares up in the waks of dukkha and what is it that tames? Refuge. Refuge, in Pureland, is nembutsu. Therefore, from an Amidist perspective, dukkha leads to samudaya and if samudaya is followed by nembutsu one is naturally already upon the path.
Thus, when we use the nembutsu as a window through which to look at Buddha Dharma we get a more parsimonious, coherent, practical understanding that is also more in line with the rest of Buddha’s teaching and with the example of his life. This, therefore, is original Buddhism.
Another way in which this is in keeping with Gotama’s actual life is that he did not become enlightened by following the eightfold path, he found the eightfold path by being awakened. For him it was an outcome not a means. It was when he gave up trying to make things right for himself specially that things came right generally. This was the point when the Dharma became his refuge. This was the inspiration of his whole ministry. His final words were "Dharma light - abode therein; Dharma refuge - seek no other."
Use Nembutsu to Convert Everything into the Buddha Way
This had been his guiding star throughout and is what he passes on to us. We may, in our different forms and schools have different ways of expressing it, but this is nembutsu - to keep the Buddhadharma in one’s heart such that no matter what shows up in life - triumph, disaster, pleasure, pain, affirmation, disappointment - you treat those imposters all just the same by taking refuge and so converting all circumstance, favourable or adverse, into the Buddha Way.
Outcome not Means
Thus the nembutsu is a window through which the Buddha truth can be perceived. Similar considerations apply in other teachings. What is so often seen from a self-power point of view as means or technique is, from a Pureland point of view, seen as outcome. Mindfulness is a current topical example. Nembutsu is mindfulness in the sense that it is to have a mind full of Buddha. Nothing else is required. This might or might not be a way to relieve stress, depression or lumbago, but that is not the point. The point is that a mind full of Buddha is all that is required.
Same Consciousness, Different Languages
This can. of course, be transposed into the idiom of other schools. A mind full of Buddha could also be a mind full of the Lotus Sutra. Namo Amida Bu could be Buddham saranam gacchami. All the same - just different languages. The essential religious consciousness is the same and it is this that we call nembutsu. It needs to be expressed one way or another.
Key to Deeper Depth
When we take Buddhism this nembutsu way, then we can study and be inspired by the whole of Buddha’s teaching. We can study all the sutras, not just a select few. We can even study the texts of other faith communities. We shall find the same essential truth, but we shall find it explained in a myriad different ways. We do not then see Pureland as a later add on, but as the central and original message and, furthermore, as a key that unlocks many of the parts of the Dharma literature that seems more obscure. In this way we enter the Dharma in all its depth, not struggling with trying to fit it into moulds (like popular narcissism) into which it does not fit.
Even more important, nembutsu is an easy window. Anybody can come in this way. Children can do this and all the way through to great scholars. Anybody. So it is a key - a single item that unlocks the vast and wondrous storehouse. Namo Amida Bu.
COMMENTARY ~ Part Eleven
Text: but none of this is either necessary or even helpful to success in the practice. Rather such study cultivates secondary faculties to be held separate from the mind of practice itself.
Nembutsu Contains the Whole Dharma
The point here is that the practice of nembutsu - or taking refuge - contains the whole essence of Buddhism and it is simply a matter of having a sincere intention. No particular intellectual knowledge is required. Of course, one can study Buddhism endlessly and such study can be intrinsically valuable, but it only adds explanation of the basic point which remains the same whether one has such explanation or not.
Honen Shonin (1133-1212) who spread the Pureland teaching in Japan was himself an extremely erudite scholar. he knew the doctrines of all the schools of Buddhism of his time, but the teaching that he spread was simply "Say the nembutsu." By saying, "Namo Amida Bu" or an equivalent phrase with the intention of invoking the aid and grace of Amitabla Buddha one is doing all that is necessary. This is the primary practice. Whatever else one does is either some form of this same practice or it is secondary or auxilliary to it.
Basic Buddhist Attitude
Thus, we can consider a teaching like the Four immeasurables. These define a basic Buddhist attitude. They are maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha.
So this is an ideal. Although we talk about four qualities, you can probably see that they are simply four aspects of one quality really. But how does such a quality arise? One might think that this is a prescription and that one must, by will power, bring about these qualities in oneself. Well, to a degree that might be possible, but there is something about doing it that way that tends to end up hollow or unreliable because it is contrived. Such feelings cannot be turned on like a tap and still be genuine.
Again, trying to do so, one might encounter various karmic or psychological patterns in oneself and conclude that one will only be able to express the right Dharmic attitude when all these problems have been solved. Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to solve some of one's problems. However, the well of karma is virtually bottomless. If one puts personal healing ahead of refuge one is, in a certain way, indulging in self-idolatry.
How then can one give rise to such feelings spontaneously?
Great Treasure Store
The Buddhist answer lies in the religious consciousness that is the heart of Buddhist faith, which is taking refuge. A Buddhist devotee feels the light and grace of Buddha everywhere, endlessly blessing and benefitting. Consequently, he or she feels great gratitude and also wonder. Gratitude because oneself is the recipient of this grace and wonder because one sees that everything else is too. A person who has such a religious consciouness lives in a great treasure store. Everywhere everything reflects the Dharma light of Buddha. When one lives in the midst of such wonder, the attitude expressed in the Four Immeasurables comes quite naturally. it does not require any effort at all.
Invaded By Wonder
So, the nembutsu is a window through which the whole universe of Buddha's teaching can be seen in all its depth, but all that is actually needed is one very simple point and this point centres upon sincere faith. Simply saying the nembutsu while inwardly turning toward the Buddhas, just as one might look up to see the moon shining in the night, is enough faith to unlock the vast treasure store of Amitabha's merit, just as when one does look at the moon one may feel invaded by wonder.
Keeping the Horse Ahead of the Cart
At the same time, there is no harm in studying all manner of things that cultivate "secondary faculties" so long as one does not let them become the primary motivation of one's life. As secondaries, they support the nembutsu. They enable one to put one's love, compassion, joy and equanimity into effect more consequentially. In this sense they are derivative. The important thing is not to put the cart before the horse. In Pureland - and all Buddhism - one first makes a choice to take refuge. That is primary. In Pureland it is expressed as nembutsu. Having made such a choice - having made it central - then many other things can fall into place as expressions or supports. However, if one takes those other things as primary, then one will close a door upon the light and grace and will cling to one's own power and ability which is nowhere near enough. In this latter case, although one leads some kind of spiritual life, the central necessity will be missing and it will be hard work to sustain the joy and devotion. One might give up or one might become puritanical, but the spring of original joy will be closed bacuse one is no longer being fed.
Buddhism means to be in love with Buddha - all the Buddhas - with the Dharma and all the radiant wonder that is the light of Buddha in the world. This is bhakti - devotion. It is the essential ecstacy. ecstacy means to be taken out of oneself. the self can never get out of itself, but the grace of Buddha can lift you out of yourself in the best possible way. When one is carried away by anything less there will be lesser or even deleterious effects, but the Buddhas are a reliable refuge because they are pure love and that can be trusted completely.
COMMENTARY ~ Part Twelve
Text: The primary practice requires only one essential
Honen Shonin, the founder of the Pureland Schools of Buddhism in Japan stressed senchaku. Senchaku means selection. By this he meant that one should make a decisive selection of the nembutsu as primary religious practice. Honen saw that there were many ways to practise Buddhism and all of them are true paths, but he taught that in the circumstances of his and our times most people are incapable of practising them. How many people keep the precepts perfectly? How many people have mastered all the samadhis? How many people have a achieved all the Lam Rim realisations? How many people have achieved even the first bodhisattva bhumi, let alone the higher ones? How many people do you know who can enter the eighth dhyana? and so on. This consideration, therefore, also has relevance to our own day. Increasingly people practise Buddhism with no expectation of enlightenment. they do it for better health, less neurosis, more calm, effectiveness at work and so on, but they no longer have any real expectation of true religious salvation. Increasingly people are losing the whole idea of what that means. The state of radiance that comes through faith is gradually disappearing from our materialist world. The light is going out. Honen still lived in that light and he wanted to transmit it to others. He was remarkably successful in doing so and part of the secret was to identify the one essential that would work for ordinary people.
Nan & Ig
In the logic of Honen’s approach it all comes down to two basic options, nangyudo and igyudo. Nangyudo means difficult path and igyudo means easy path. The difficult path is the way of attainment of enlightenment by ones own effort in keeping precepts, attaining samadhi and mastering prajna. That is a good way for sages, but most of us are not sages.
Igyudo is tariki. Tariki means reliance upon other power. This is the Pure Land Gate. Other power refers to the help one can receive from the innumerable Buddhas. In the Lotus Sutra, for instance, we learn about myriads of Buddhas. Each Buddha has a Dharma, hence myriad Dharmas. These myriad Dharmas already exist. We do not have to reinvent the Dharma Wheel.
Refuge: First, Last & Always
The way to practise in the Pureland approach, therefore, is to revere and have gratitude for the power that is already in the world by turning our heart and mind toward the myriad Buddhas. This is what, in Mahayana Buddhism, is meant by taking refuge. This turning is the essential.
We should remember that refuge was the first thing taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. When, immediately after his own enlightenment, he was on the road and met two merchants who had faith in him, he gave them refuge in Buddha and Dharma. They thus became the first two Buddhists. When he was dying, his last instruction was to let Dharma be your light, in other words, again take refuge. Not only was refuge his first and last teaching, every teaching in between can be seen as an expansion of refuge. One enters on the eightfold path by taking refuge. One practises non-self by taking refuge. One avoids being trapped in the fire of greed, hate and delusion with which the whole world is aflame by taking refuge. Or, to put the same thing in the idiom of the Lotus Sutra, one escapes from the burning house, by taking refuge. Refuge is the core of Buddhism, in its early and later forms.
Zo & Sho
There are many ways to express refuge. Honen divides these into zogyo and shogyo - miscellaneous practices and right practice. Again, all the practices are good, but some are better. Among the right practices he selects nembutsu as pre-eminent. If you make this choice then you are a Pureland Buddhist. If you make a different selection, then you may still be on a good path, but you have a different Buddhist style. If you choose zazen then you are a Soto Buddhist. If you choose reciting the name of the Lotus Sutra you are a Nichiren Buddhist, if you choose Chenresig Sadhana then you are probably a Kargyu Buddhist and so on.
Why was selection important? Because Buddhism in Japan had become too complicated and inaccessible. Honen’s message struck a chord. In his own lifetime many people turned to nembutsu and by a generation later the practice was all over Japan. It was a mushrooming fashion, a bit like mindfulness is these days, only more so. However, it was not just a passing fashion. It is still the most popular form of practice in Japan to this day.
Why did Honen choose nembutsu as the best form of refuge? Because of all the myriad Buddhas, Amida is the Buddha of all acceptance. Amida demands nothing of us beyond our act of turning toward him. Therefore, in Pureland Buddhism one has an invitation to face one’s own bombu nature more fully. Virtually all other forms of Buddhism place an onus on the person to self-improve in some way. Thus can easily arise affectation. When I asked Gisho Saiko why he chose Pureland Buddhism he said because it accepts human nature just as one is and so is more realistic.
Does it matter if one finds that one relates more easily to another form of samghogakaya - say Quan Yin or Mahasthamaprapta or Manjushri? Not really. The nature of samghogakaya is that the Buddha will appear in whatever form is appropriate to the person. The essential is to get away from thinking “What should i be doing?” and “What should I be becoming?” If we make a decisive selection then the matter is done with. We do not need to go on thinking “What kind of meditation is best for me?” or “Which Buddha should I worship today?” or “How can I get rid of my latest neurosis?” Just do the practice and see what happens. If Quan Shi Yin visits you, fine. If Amida grabs you, fine. If Manjushri instructs you, fine. No problem.
So what is the core of taking refuge? Taking refuge at the simplest means “bring to mind”, however, what is likely to happen is that a heart to heart feeling starts to develop. Refuge is a heart level meeting. It goes beyond the abstract or conceptual. When one feels the Buddha(s) close at hand one receives a deep assurance. This is called anshin - settled faith or heart at peace. So refuge is something that can be readily taken on by the simple act of selection and bringing to mind, but it is then an ever deepening phenomenon in one’s life. Honen advocates saying the nembutsu continually - a kind of unceasing prayer. It is not that there is a point to get to - the simplest level of refuge suffices - but in practice, refuge does tend to go deeper and deeper with ever increasing solace and energising.
What about other practices? When one has made a decisive choice for one practice - in this case nembutsu - then other wholesome practices become auxilliary to it. They become what Honen calls irui-no-jogo. Jogo means auxilliary practices. Irui-no-jogo are all the practices that correspond to and support nembutsu. If one’s selection is firm and deep then irui-no-jogo eventually includes the whole of Buddhism - though one might not reach that point until one is in the Pure Land itself and sitting at the foot of Buddha. . What has changed is one’s attitude. Everything is now nembutsu. If one sits in silent contemplation it is a way of being with Amida. If one makes prostrations it is a way of honouring Amida. If one recites sutras it is to express the Dharma of Amida, if one sings a Christian hymn it is to the glory of Amida. To worship one Buddha is to worship all Buddhas, so, although Amida is most accessible, all are included. When one goes to the Pure Land of Amida, as it says in the Smaller Pureland Sutra, one’s main occupation will be gathering celestial flowers and offering them to all the other Buddhas, so none is excluded.
Narrowing Down in Order to Open Out
Thus in arriving at the one essential there is first a narrowing down and then an expanding out. we narrow down to a decisive selection - senchaku - then from this refuge we go forth into the whole universe and depth of the Dharmas of all the Buddhas. This, therefore is a heart to heart connection that deepens faith yet provides a ground for inclusivity and universal love. It is in this way that Pureland is actually a very generic form of spirituality. The principle of taking one essential point as refuge which then facilitates an opening out into universal love and compassion is the essence of not just one true religion, but all of them.
COMMENTARY ~ Part 13
Text: realise that you are a totally foolish being who understands nothing
Delusion is Normal
Whereas most Western psychology sets up normality as a goal, Buddhism is founded upon the idea that the normal condition is one of delusion - a kind of sleep. A Buddha is somebody who has awakened from the condition of delusion. Again, whereas many approaches to Buddhism emphasise the similarities between the nature of the ordinary person and the nature of Buddha, Pureland Buddhism emphasises the difference and the distance. There is a huge difference between being awake and being asleep and we are asleep. Again, when this difference is acknowledged, other forms of Buddhism tend to go directly to the question of how to wake oneself up, whereas Pureland starts from the observation that people who are asleep do not wake themselves up. They might be woken by something from outside of themselves, but generally speaking a person does not wake up because of some decision made while sleeping. So, on this analogy, we are deluded beings who do not have the power to awaken ourselves. Therefore, Pureland Buddhism does not rush to look for spiritual methods, but rather starts from a thorough acknowledgement of the human condition.
This human condition is called 'bombu' which means that we are 'foolish beings of wayward passion'. We are vulnerable and prone to error. The body is not reliable and the mind is not reliable either. Our knowledge of our situation is necessarily limited. Far from achieving the 'theory of everything' humans are in a situation where what we know compared with what we do not know is as a bucket of water compared with the ocean.
Pureland puts fallible human nature right up front rather than arguing that it must be overcome before any other work can be done.This means that a much fuller appreciation of human psychology is possible. From out of the bottomless pit of karma all manner of things may surface in the course of a life. To think that one is close to being 'sorted out' and that because one has 'worked upon an issue' that it is now gone forever, is folly.
We all make judgements. however much one may tell oneself to be 'non-judgemental' one will continue to assess things. How we assess them depends upon our baseline. If the baseline if high, the things we assess against it will mostly fall short. If the baseline is low, the converse. Thus, we are likely to be much more condemnatory if we hold to a high baseline and much more appreciative if we hold to a low one. The baseline that we rely upon much of the time is our own (deluded) image of ourselves. When we try to hold ourselves to a high ideal, we are likely to blame and criticise everybody who does not live up to the ideal that we are trying to hold to in our own case. If, however, we have a lower self-assessment we are likely to be more tolerant, compassionate and appreciative.
To genuinely realise one's bombu nature is not the same as making an excuse for oneself. in fact, it is the opposite of doing so. To not try because one might fail is actually a form of pride. One does not want to be found lacking. To realise one's bombu nature is to abandon such pride. The person who truly realises his or her limitations does the best they can because they are not frightened of the judgement that others might make. Rather, they are pleasantly surprised when they do manage to do something and this tends to lead them on to do more. This is more like the mind of the child who is always trying to master new things while still achieving only a child's level of accomplishment.
It is All Grace
To realise one's foolish nature is a liberation that permits one to be natural. Many people who have tried for many years to accomplish the supreme virtues of body, speech and mind described in the Buddhist texts experience a profound sense of relief when they encounter Pureland. They experience something of Amida's total acceptance enfolding them. The essential sentiment of the Pureland Buddhist is: "How wonderful and amazing that Amida Buddha has compassion even for one such as me."
The root of all religion and spirituality can be found in the experience of awe. Awe is the feeling that one has when, aware of one's own insignificance, one come face to face with the sublime. It is a shame that the word 'awesome' has been trivialised by usage, since, when taken seriously, it is one of the holiest of all words and to talk of mundane things a 'awesome' is really a kind of blasphemy of the worst kind. To experience real awe one must needs diminish oneself and this is only genuinely done by a sincere recognition of one's bombu nature.
This also implies a sense of unworthiness. This is the complete opposite of much contemporary pop psychology that tries to indoctrinate people with the idea that 'you are worth it' and 'you deserve it'. In Pureland, the emphasis is upon gratitude. Not only is this a gratitude for the grace of Amida Buddha who will take us to his Pure Land, it is also a general gratitude for all the forms of support that we receive in this life.
Consider the air that one breathes: one did not make it, one does not own it, one did not earn it, it is not from oneself, yet life without it would be extremely brief and painful. Each breath is a precious gift. In the course of a day one makes use of or relies upon the work of millions of people past and present. Let alone a day, in every few minutes of life one benefits in innumerable ways from people, from other creatures, from the inanimate forces of the universe. This is a cause for limitless gratitude and from gratitude flows a multitude of other virtues.
Investigation is a factor of enlightenment highly recommended by the Buddha. In order to be motivated to investigate one has to have a sense of the inadequacy of one's present knowledge and understanding. If one does not have such a sense then one is simply complacent. The person who follows the Dharma always feels a sense of an open frontier in this way. Buddha Shakyamuni said that a day without striving was a wasted day. The kind of striving he had in mind was investigation going beyond one's existing limits. Realising that one is a limited being is not an invitation to huddle within one's smallness, but rather to be endlessly reaching out beyond it.
At the moment we have a young kitten in our community. It is fascinating to watch the little creature constantly finding out about everything. Everywhere there are new forms, new smells, new challenges. The activity of the kitten is a demonstration of fullness of life and vitality. Realisation of one's bombu nature makes one into a kind of kitten, like that.
The ideal of Theravada Buddhism is the arhat. The arhat is a person who has defeated greed, hate and delusion and become pure and saintly. The idea of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the epitome of altruism, living for the benefit of all sentient beings. These are both wonderful ideals. However, the ideal of Pureland is the myokonin. The word means a shiny person, one who glows with the light of faith. It has a bit of an implication of being a holy simpleton. Myokonin are not necessarily monks or important people or even highly intelligent. They are those whose faith carries them through daily existence in a modest, friendly way, full of appreciation for the miracle of life unfolding around them and the grace of the Buddhas supporting them.
The myokonin, Saichi, is famous for many short poems...
The ocean is full of water.
It has the seabed to support it.
Saichi is full of blind passion.
It has Amida to support it.
Buddhism places great emphasis upon 'realisation', but what is it that one should realise? The most useful thing to realise is one's own true condition. If we can arrive at a more realistic humility in relation to ourselves, we shall have a much more reliable foundation to everything else that we then attempt. We shall also be in a better position to feel companionship with others that we meet upon life's path. We shall appreciate their quirks as illustrative of the glory of life.
As a Buddhist teacher, I find the Pureland attitude an essential support. If I had to spend my time looking like a totally well-adjusted person all the time it would be intolerable. I do what I can to assist everybody who comes to see me, but I have no magical powers. All I can do is show them the nature of the situation and invite them to share with me in appreciating the fact that, although we are each of very small account in and of ourselves, still there shines upon us and is reflected in us a most extraordinary spiritual light.
COMMENTARY ~ Part 14
Text: but who can with complete trust recite Namo Amida Bu
In English we have the three words ‘trust’, ‘faith’ and ‘belief’. We also have related words like ‘confidence’ and ‘reliance’. Here the text uses the word ‘trust’. In this context trust implies something relatively non-cognitive, a simple, largely unconscious reliance, rather similar to the everyday instances of unconscious or unwitting trust as when one sits down on a chair and trusts or assumes that it will support one. This is entrustment. This analogy is apt. In saying the nembutsu one assumes that one will be held and supported. This is related to the fundamental meaning of the word Dharma. The word ‘dharma’ is related to the soothing noise (rendered in English as ‘there, there') that a mother makes when holding a baby. The baby has complete trust in being held.
In Western religion, questions of faith and belief have become rather heavy in their implications. In Buddhism, however, we have never had an inquisition into heresy in quite the same way. It is true that some ideas have sometimes been declared to be heretical, but not with the consequence that those who hold them shall face capital punishment. It is merely a matter for debate. There is room for many interpretations of doctrine, but the simple act of entrusting oneself transcends forms of belief.
Thus the notion of ‘complete trust’ implies that there is no need to analyse. A person who even lacks the intelligence to analyse can still have complete trust. Nonetheless, trust has to be expressed somehow. The trust of the babe in arms may be expressed by closing the eyes and relaxing. In Pureland Buddhism it is expressed by saying the nembutsu.
If we do analyse and ask, what is one trusting? then the answer is that one is trusting the vows of Amida Buddha, and, by extension, of all the Buddhas. All Buddhas have made vows to save all sentient beings. However, saving beings is a bit like throwing a rope to somebody sinking in quicksand. The person in question has to trust the rope and express this trust by taking hold of it. Thus even though there is Other Power, there is still something for one to do. The Buddha reaches out a hand. Does one take that hand, bite the hand, run away, or simply not notice? To say nembutsu is to take Buddha’s hand and allow oneself to be pulled to safety. To bite the hand is to think that one can look after oneself and reject help. To run away or not even notice is to be lost in worldliness.
Ippen was a disciple of Shōkū, a disciple of Honen. He is the most famous of all the hijiri, or wandering holy men of medieval Japan. He made pilgrimage all over the country giving people slips of paper called fuda upon which were printed the nembutsu. When he gave a fuda he asked the person to say “Namu Amida Butsu” ichinen. The word ichinen has several possible meanings. As Ippen used it here it means “even once” or “just once”. However, one day, Ippen met a monk of the Ritsu School. Ritsu means Vinaya. This monk’s practice was to strictly keep the precepts. He took ichinen to mean “single-mindedly” with the implication of having sincere faith. He refused to take the fuda saying that sincere faith had not yet arisen in him. This plunged Ippen into a quandary. On the spur of the moment he told the monk to take the fuda even if he did not have faith and the monk did so. Nonetheless, Ippen later pondered much over this incident. In due course he was granted a vision in which he was told to have faith himself in the nembutsu and not worry whether the other person to whom he gave the fuda had faith or not. His own faith could extend to an understanding that Amida Buddha would take care of everything, so there was no need to worry.
A Pureland Koan
This story of Ippen does highlight what is, in effect, a koan for Pureland Buddhists. All spiritual paths involve an on-going enquiry or struggle. Spirituality is not just adherence to a static belief set, it is a continuing striving. This is true for all people and all religious or idea systems. Even a complete atheist still has to confront the difficulty of living in an unreliable world in an unreliable body using an unreliable mind. Different spiritual systems, nonetheless, do give form to this struggle in different ways. For a Pureland Buddhist, the koan often takes the form of an enquiry into one’s own faith. Does one completely entrust oneself? When? How? Is one really more like the Ritsu monk and, if so, should one take the fuda or not? These are the kinds of spiritual struggles that one might engage in.
This brings up the matter of the different styles of different Buddhist schools. Trust is something that is largely unconscious. One trusts many things without ever examining or thinking about the matter over much. Consequently, Pureland practice is quite substantially an unconscious affair and certainly much more so than those of many other schools of Buddhism. Commonly, much of the methodology of Buddhism is aimed at increasing consciousness and awareness as much as possible.
However, when we ask ourselves what is genuine in a person, we have recourse to what they do naturally, to how they respond when caught off-guard, and to the things that arise from their taken for granted attitude, rather than those things that they do in a deliberate or contrived manner. The truly generous person does not do a generous act after long reflection. He or she does generous things as a matter of course with very little thought. It is arguable, therefore, that conscious awareness is merely a means, not an end, in the cultivation of virtue.
The times when one did have ichinen faith were more likely those times when one said the nembutsu without a second thought. Indeed, ichinen can mean exactly that.
Realising One’s Nature
So if we go back to the text “realise that you are a totally foolish being who understands nothing, but who can with complete trust recite Namo Amida Bu” we can see that this can be read in more than one way. Probably, when we first read it, we take it as an implied injunction. We take it as instructing us to recite nembutsu with complete trust, even though we are totally foolish beings.
However, a closer reading suggests that it says that we can realise that (a) we are totally foolish and (b) we are of the nature to have complete trust. It is asking us to face the fact that fundamentally we are innocents. From a certain perspective, one could see this as realising one’s Buddha Nature, or, again, as getting in touch with one’s ‘inner child’, though there are certain pitfalls in taking it in each or either of those ways. Nonetheless, to realise that one can have complete trust - that the ability to do so is part of one’s make up - is a profound realisation.
The Paradox of Consciousness
Here we hit upon a seeming paradox. Generally we take ‘realise’ to mean and imply conscious awareness. However, strictly speaking, the word merely means ‘to make real’. Conscious awareness is a faculty that we have that enables us to take control of a situation. That is its purpose and aim. Complete trust, however, is a faculty that we have that addresses situations where we do not have control. Thus to try to have control of our faculty for trust is self-defeating.
Real realisation is, therefore, not necessarily conscious. Real Buddhas do not necessarily know that they are Buddha. One who has really realised his innocence may be innocent of having done so. We inherently have the capacity to say the nembutsu in every sense of the term ichinen, but the less self-conscious we are in doing so the better.
COMMENTARY - Part 15
Text: know that this will generate rebirth in the Pure Land
Birth in the Pure Land
Birth in the Pure Land means being born in the presence of the Buddha. Buddhists would all like to be reborn in the presence of Buddha and live their life within the Buddha Light. The word that we translate as Pure Land was originally Buddhakshetra. A kshetra is a ‘field’. The meaning is within the field of influence of Buddha. We can imagine that within the field of influence of Buddha a different kind of world comes into being. If everybody in the world was primarily influenced by wisdom and compassion the world would soon be a different place.
We all understand the expression “It all depends upon the light in which you see things.” The best light is the Buddha light and Amitabha Buddha especially epitomises that light. ‘Abha’ means ‘light’. Amitabha means measureless light. As Amida Buddhists, we hope that Amitabha will come and fetch us to his land of limitless light.
Who is in the Pure Land?
It says in the scriptures that in the Land of Amitabha there are shravakas and bodhisattvas. There are no pratyekabuddhas. Pratyakabuddhas are those who enlighten themselves by their own effort. In Amida’s Land, therefore, there are only those who are reborn through entrustment. This entrustment to Amitabha is expressed by the saying of nembutsu.
How to Enter
The sage Ippen was, on one occasion, asked if there were other ways of entering the Pure Land. Reliance upon the Lotus (meaning the teachings of the lotus Sutra) was mentioned. The questioner wanted to know which way was best. Ippen said that it really does not matter which excellent teaching you follow, so long as you do follow it and not just talk about it.
Shravakas follow the Dharma by heeding it. The word ’shravaka’ means somebody who heeds the Dharma. Such people are content to remain in the Pure Land listening to the Dharma until they enter nirvana. Bodhisattvas are shravakas who have additionally made vows to return to samsaric world in order to help other sentient beings. Bodhisattvas will one day become Buddhas. We can think that their arrival in the Pure Land is a temporary stay. They are willing to go forth again into the world of delusions for the sake of others, doing the Buddha’s bidding.
Thus, from this perspective, we can say that bodhisattvas may experience the Pure Land a number of times, perhaps a vast number. Those who do return to samsara do so “trailing clouds of glory” as the famous poet said. They do not entirely lose their connection with the land of bliss. This deep influence then shapes their life and ultimately brings them back to the Pure Abodes. Thus, for the bodhisattva, going to the Land is rather like a refuelling stop-over.
What do people do in the Pure Land?
In the Sutras it says that those in that land are occupied with gathering up celestial flowers that they take and give as offerings to other Buddhas. I think this passage is of great importance.
It tells us that in that land, celestial flowers fall six times per day. This really means all the time, since it is a reference to the old way of dividing the 24 hours into six ‘watches’.
What are celestial flowers? We remember that on the night of enlightenment Shakyamuni was assailed by the hosts of Mara and that he turned them all into celestial flowers.
The hosts of Mara are all the deathward tendencies in our mentality - anxiety, depression, cynicism, pride and so on. When these are illuminated in a new way they are found to be miracle flowers. “Inexhaustible are deluded passions - we vow to transform them all.” We transform them by living in the light of Buddha. All will then become celestial flowers.
Then, as in the practice of chih quan, we offer these flowers to ‘other Buddhas’. Why ‘other Buddhas’? Why not our own Buddha? Buddhism is not a tight exclusive club in which salvation goes with membership. The person inspired by Buddha has a heart that is open in all directions. This is very important - true religions honour other religions and other teachers. We can give celestial flowers to illuminated teachers of all religions, of all races, of all ways of life. Furthermore, just as deluded passions become flowers, so deluded beings become teachers when illumined by the light of Dharma.
COMMENTARY - Part 16
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.
So, when we are born in the Pure Land, we shall be cascaded with celestial flowers and surrounded by myriad Dharma and myriad Buddhas - just as we are now. The difference between here and there is that there one is close to Buddha so that everything appears in a new light. When everything appears in the Buddha light, then we see flowers in the sky. When everything is merely within our own little ego light it is tainted with the shadow of Mara.
Some people take these teachings literally and some metaphorically. It does not really matter. All religions have litaralists and metaphoricals and there are pros and cons with each. Different people need different doors, though one should guard a little against trying to fit everything into one’s own prejudice, of course, especially id one is proud of it.
So, saying the nembutsu in simple faith will generate rebirth in the Pure Land. The merit is not in oneself, it is in the nembutsu itself. This is because nembutsu is refuge. When we take refuge in the Buddha’s we participate in their limitless merit. Trusting this process is all that is needed.
SUMMARY - Part 17
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.
Text: this practice automatically…
In this initial phrase is introduced the idea of things happening without deliberate intent. When we think of ‘practice’ there is generally an intent. We do something hoping for a certain outcome. However, here we learn that many things happen outside of our knowledge or control.
Buddhism enters us through the skin as much as or even more than through the brain. These days a good deal of Buddhist teaching emphasises consciousness and awareness. The contemporary idea of ‘mindfulness’ is that it is a kind of deliberate attention. However, traditionally, mindfulness referred to what the mind was full of and much of the fullness or content was only semi-conscious. Mindfulness went with good upbringing and conscientiousness and although such things did involve some inculcation of rules and protocols, much was acquired simply by exposure to good example. When Buddha is asked what one should do he often says “Keep good company.” Good ways will rub off on one, just as bad ones will if one keeps bad company.
The nembutsu is good company. In it is encapsulated all the merit of the Buddhas. This is a mystical power. It is holy and good. We entrust ourselves to it not really knowing what ill happen. If we have too much sense of what we want to happen we shall only get in the way.
There is a story that Ippen once visited a house where a party was going on. The host left off drinking and eating to go and deal with the visitor. Ippen offered him a fuda, which is a paper with the characters of the nembutsu written on it and invited the man to say the Name of the Buddha which he did. The host then went back to the party and Ippen heard an ensuing conversation. One of the other guests asked who the visitor was and the host said, “Oh it was the charlatan monk, Ippen. He’s a pretentious idiot.” The other guest then said, “But why then did you take the nembutsu from him?” and the host said, “Well, you can’t fault the nembutsu whoever it is dispensed by.” Some time later Ippen was back with his own disciples and he praised the host of the party highly, saying that he had understood the main thing.
We see from this story that Ippen was not concerned for his own reputation and that it did not matter that the host was engaged in partying at the time. The two men shared a reverence for the nembutsu and that was the only thing that mattered.
So we entrust ourselves to the practice - to saying the nembutsu - and this creates the conditions for good things to happen. Yet even to say this is perhaps to say too much. Complete faith implies that one will accept whatever happens. There is no element of trade here. It is not that I will do my bit (say the nembutsu) and the gods will reward me. It is actually complete free fall.
In reality we are rarely in this state. Only when we feel helpless and hopeless, perhaps. I remember being in Japan in a nembutsu group and a man saying, “Amida must weep when he sees my life.”
So what we are looking at here is a process that is more emotional than cognitive. The nembutsu is an object of worship, love and adoration. One becomes saturated in that sentiment. One loses sense of whether this does any good or not. What happens, happens. It is an automatic process.
People who enter the spiritual life change, but they do so more as a by-product than as a result of a comprehensible cause-effect process. The practice distracts one from worldliness and a deep healing starts to take place.
Consciousness and unconsciousness alternate. Trying to cultivate all-the-time awareness is futile. It cannot be done. The unconscious has an honourable place. From it come all creativity, healing, and transformation. Consciousness merely primes the pump. It is when one has forgotten why one is saying nembutsu that it is doing most good.
Text: encompasses the three minds
In this teaching I would like to explain the meaning of the ‘three minds’ 三心 sanjin. The three minds are explained originally in the commentary upon the Contemplation Sutra written by Shan Tao in the seventh century. Shan Tao was the greatest teacher and populariser of Pureland Buddhism in China. He was an erudite, humble and artistic monk and is regarded as a great saint. He painted many icons of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha and these became objects of worship all over China. He also wrote deeply meaningful commentaries upon Buddhist texts. In particular he wrote a commentary upon the Contemplation Sutra. The Contemplation Sutra is one of the three texts most revered in Pureland Buddhism.
The sutra has three parts. The first part is a history that sets the scene, detailing the troubles of Queen Videhi. The second part reveals a vision of the Pure Land as revealed by Buddha to the queen to console her in her troubles and the third part details the nine grades of people who enter such a paradise.
Shan Tao’s commentary advanced what, at the time, seemed a radical interpretation of the third part of the sutra. Until then the nine grades had been taken as a ladder or ascending pathway that the practitioner had to climb in order to reach the highest grade. Shan Tao, however, said that the reason for inclusion of the nine grades in the sutra was to make clear that even those of the lowest grade were not abandoned. They too enter the Pure Land. they too shall ultimately enter nirvana.
Shan Tao lived in the seventh century in China. Honen lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Japan. Honen was deeply concerned to find a path of salvation for all, not merely the highly accomplished. When he read Shan Tao’s commentary he experiences a great revelation. This completely changed his life. In 1175 he ‘descended from the mountain’ and went forth into the world and it is from his teaching in the years that followed until his death in 1212 that Pureland as we know it derives.
Honen always held Shan Tao in great esteem and saw him as an incarnation of Amida Buddha. Honen is often himself seen as an incarnation of Tai Shih Chi who is, in a certain sense, Amida’s right hand assistant.
In his Commentary, Shan Tao explains the meaning of the teaching in various ways and one of the most important is by means of the doctrine of the three minds. The three minds are
Utterly Sincere Mind (至誠心) shijoshin
Profound Mind (深心) jinshin, and
Mind that vows to transfer merit (廻向発願心) ekohotsuganshin
Utterly Sincere Mind 至誠心 shijoshin
We can distinguish a broad meaning and a narrow meaning. In the broad sense, we all have some idea what sincerity is. It is to be innocent, straight-forward and wholehearted.
Recently we heard the fairy story of the three young men who each set out to take a magic apple with which hopefully to cure the princess of an otherwise incurable ailment and thus win her hand in marriage. On their journey, each meets an old woman who is, of course, a fairy. She asks them each, “Young man, where are you going and what do you have in your basket?” and after each answers, she says “So shall it be.” The first young man is frightened that he might lose the apple if he reveals that that is what he has, so he lies and says he has some frogs in his basket and he is taking them to the river to release them. The old lady lets him pass, saying, “So shall it be,” and when he gets to the princess’ castle he finds he has only frogs in his basket. Something similar happens with the second young man who pretends that he has food for the pig in his basket. However, when the third and youngest comes along and is challenged by the old woman he just blurts out that he has got the magic apple and is taking it to the princess who is then going to marry him. The old woman says, “So shall it be,” and her spell works and the young man marries the princess. This story celebrates innocent sincerity.
In the narrower sense, the sincere mind is the mind that has complete faith in the saving vows of Amida Buddha. For one who has such complete trust everything is completely assured. Amida will receive him or her. Such a person does not have to worry about salvation and so concern about body and mind fall away. Such a person will die in peace when the time comes.
The ideal in Pureland is the myokonin who is a person who manifests such sincere faith. In a way, a myokonin is a ‘holy fool’. He or she is not necessarily intelligent or educated and does not necessarily follow any kind of practice protocol, but he is completely sincere in his faith. Perhaps each day - or whenever he thinks of it - he goes to the altar and talks to Amida, telling Him everything that has happened including his own mistakes and failings. This is not done in any kind of puritanical way, but rather more like an innocent child talking to a kind aunty.
Such is the shijoshin, the mind (shin) that is completely sincere. The word shin could also be translated ‘heart’. The charater 心 was originally a picture of a human heart. Shijoshin is thus wholeheartedness.
This emphasis means that Pureland practice is rather flexible. Where some other schools place great emphasis upon strict form - posture, behaviour, etiquette, and so on - in Pureland it is sincerity that matters and the sincere person will naturally find a form to express his or her faith. So this is very much an inside to outside approach.
Complete sincerity is a kind of clarity, a light. It is, in fact, itself the light of Buddha. When we are completely sincere we experience the light of Buddha shining through us, or reflected in us and when somebody else is so sincere we receive the light of Buddha from them. This is very disarming and purifying. The person involved is not necessarily particularly conscious that it is happening any more than the young man in the story had any conscious thought about needing to be sincere. He just was.
Mind that vows to transfer merit (廻向発願心 ekohotsuganshin
Shin means mind. Gan means vow or prayer. Hotsu is merit. Eko is to transfer or turn over.
Here again we can distinguish a narrow and a broad meaning. In the broad sense, this means to give away the credit. Something good is achieved and one gives the credit to others. Something bad happens and one takes responsibility oneself so that others do not get blamed. We have probably all met people who do the opposite, who take credit whenever possible and when something goes wrong always manage to blame somebody else. Perhaps we ourselves are like that sometimes. In the abstract we can see that giving away the credit is a fine thing to do and makes the world a better place, but when faced with real situations we find the ego clamouring for praise and dreading censure.
In the narrower, or more religious sense, merit transfer is a practice found throughout Mahayna Buddhism, but it takes on a particular slant in Pureland. The core of Pureland is faith in the saving vows of Amida Buddha - and, indeed, of all the Buddhas. This is what we rely upon. We believe, therefore, that we are and always shall be in receipt of bounteous grace. We shall enter nirvana not by accumulating merit ourselves but by participating in the much more vast merit of the Buddha.
Since we are already receiving more merit than we know what to do with, we have no need of whatever tiny merit may be created by our own small good deeds. Therefore it is only natural to give it away.
At the end of sangha events we say:
The original and sacred vows
are the unique and essential grace
by which to enter the Pure Land;
therefore, with body, speech and mind,
we are devoted to the teachings
that all may attain the state of bliss.
The last line of this prayer is transference of merit. We are saying that whatever merit there may have been in our practice or celebration, we give it all away so that others may enter the Pure Land, and we can do this because we rely upon the unique and essential grace that has been granted to us by the original and sacred vows of the Buddhas.
This prayer thus defines the Pureland attitude to practice. We do not practice in order to accumulate merit for ourselves and our own salvation. We do so to celebrate the fact that the Buddhas are already transferring copious amounts of merit to us. As this is so, we do not feel a sense of spiritual lack or neediness. Consequently, giving the merit away itself becomes a further celebration.
Giving merit away is also rather like the actions of those in the Pure Land. In the Smaller Sutra it says that when we are in the Pure Land we shall be occupied collecting celestial blossoms and making offerings of them to other Buddhas and other Buddha lands. Thus, the spirit of all this is to give it all away. This is dana-paramita, the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism.
A refugee is somebody who gives up everything and flees to another country to start with a clean slate. As Buddhists we are refugees. The most sacred act in Buddhism is to take refuge. To take refuge, therefore, is to give away all of one’s credit and flee to the land of the Buddhas so as to start again with a clean slate. Ekohotsuganshin, therefore, is refuge and, therefore, is nembutsu. Thus, the three minds are also the nembutsu and its two auxiliary practices.
Text: and the mind of contrition as a fourth
Contrition is about climbing down from our inflated sense of ourselves and doing so by a process of studying our daily life and its effects. We could say, by studying the evidence. If we really study the evidence of the effect of how we generally carry on, we will arrive at a change of heart. When that happens we shall see what we need to do.
In Western renderings of Buddhism, contrition is often ignored or minimised. Westerners do not like it. I have seen famous teachers avoid the subject even when questioned directly upon it. Yet in Asian Buddhism it plays a crucial role. Contrition, sange in Japanese, is the indispensable gateway to the Dharma. I remember a Japanese Buddhist teacher coming to our temple and seeing the contrition verses in our service book and being startled. “Oh, that is very Japanese!” he said, remarking that he had not found it elsewhere in his visits to other Western Buddhist centres. I hope that this is now changing.
One of the reasons that we steer clear of contrition is because we have become frightened of judgement. This suppression, however, is often counter-productive. It can lead to people secretly having a very judgemental mind about others and/or about themselves. Sober assessment fails as we swing from one extreme to another. What is required is not judgementalism, but genuine humility.
Here are Dogen’s words recorded in the text Shushogi,
“Contrition before the Buddhas brings purification and salvation, true conviction and earnest endeavour… Here is the way in which to make an act of perfect contrition. ‘May all the Buddhas and Patriarchs, who have become enlightened, have compassion upon us, free us from the obstacle of suffering which we have inherited from our past existence and lead us in such a way that we may share the merit that fills the universe… All the evil committed by me is caused by beginningless greed, hate and delusion. All the evil is committed by my body, speech and mind. I now confess everything wholeheartedly.’”
He goes on to say that through contrition we open the way for the Buddhas “to help us naturally.” Although Dogen is a Zen teacher, his words here are no different from what is taught in all the other branches of Japanese Buddhism.
Contrition thus functions to make us open to receiving help. Contrition itself does have a purificatory function, but the aim is not to transform us into a ‘justified’ state since, in Buddhism, there is no final judgement, no punishment or forgiveness, only karmic consequence which is inexorable.
How, then, does contrition work in Buddhism? Let us consider an example. Perhaps, in the course of the day, I lose my temper and say some things that later I regret saying. I see the unfortunate consequences of my loss of control. I feel contrite. We need to distinguish two levels to this experience of contrition. The first level is regret. This may involve a criticism of myself and a resolution to try to do better in future. Clearly it will be better for everybody if I keep my anger under control. I shall do better next time, I hope. This is the superficial aspect of contrition. There is, however, a deeper level. Studying the acts of my daily life, I see that I am made this way. Perhaps I shall indeed curb my temper, but there will be other things. No matter how hard I try, I will still be human. Furthermore, even my attempt to improve is ego driven. The reason that I decide to curb my anger is basically so as to have an easier life myself and appear in the world as a better person. Even my attempts to do good are shot through with self serving motivations. thus, the deeper level is to see that there is no escape.
Buddhism is not a matter of exhausting all of our near infinite stock of karma. That would be completely impossible. It is about a change of perception, or genjo, that happens when we truly realise that we are not the most radiant star in the universe and start to play our proper part in the scheme of things.
In Christianity, the main concern in relation to contrition is forgiveness. Catholics believe that forgiveness follows confession before a priest. Protestants, mostly, believed that the priest was not necessary - that God would forgive the faithful directly. This was one of the main distinctions between Protestant and Catholic. However, in Buddhism there is no forgiveness. In Buddhism, therefore, recognition of our nature invokes a kind of despair. Karma is inexorable and one is never going to be ‘forgiven’. There is no sutra on forgiveness: forgiveness is not really a Buddhist concept. Plenty of modern people want to insert it, but Buddhism solves these problems in a different way. Although we cannot avert karma, contrition does open the way for the Buddhas to help us because it extinguishes, at least for a little time, the blinding light of ego.
In Christianity, the person who is forgiven returns to an innocent, ‘justified’ state. In Buddhism, this does not happen. Karma is never destroyed. However, the Buddhas have vowed to help the karmically oppressed.
The word ‘contrition’ in European languages comes from a word meaning ‘crushed’. We say this in common speech sometimes. “When I realised what I had done I felt completely crushed.” In Buddhism, the ‘feeling crushed’ state is precious. Such are moments when the ego loses its grip for a moment. At such a moment, the gateway to liberation stands open wide.
It seems that, in practical terms, the Christian and Buddhist approaches are quite similar. What is different is the metaphysics. The framework of ideas that is used to explain the situation and provide for it a sustaining image is different, but the liberatory intent is much the same. Many Western Buddhists want to believe that Buddhism promotes an idea of ‘original goodness’ in contrast to the Christian idea of ‘original sin’ and this idea sustains them in their adherence to Buddhism, but if one looks deeper there is really less difference in practice.
Ideas such as ‘Buddha nature’ have been recruited into the cause of asserting ‘original goodness’, but there lies there a serious danger of grandiosity that is alien to the Buddhist approach which has more to do with the value of those times when the ego is crushed or abandoned.
We are slightly more than nothing. The Buddha body in relation to ourselves is as the clear blue sky in relation to a dewdrop. One has to accept and take on one’s proper part in the scheme of things, and this is a humble one. This, therefore, involves a complete self-abandonment. When the Christian writer Thomas a Kempis wrote “I would rather feel contrition than be able to define it” he was expressing a sentiment that would have been found completely acceptable by a medieval Buddhist also.
This passage occurs in the text in a context. The whole sentence says that the nembutsu automatically encompasses the three minds and contrition as a fourth. In entrusting oneself to the nembutsu - to refuge - one accepts one’s true nature and true place and manifests genuine humility. Beyond the despair of the inexorability of karma lies the Pure Land of Buddha. While we rely upon ourselves, our reward will be in proportion to our small efforts and as we have already received far more than we could possibly repay this means that we are getting deeper and deeper in karmic debt with every intentional action. However, contrition opens our eyes to the real situation and turns us around. Instead of being mesmerised by self, we stand open hearted before Buddha. In this situation infinite goodness naturally enfolds us as a free gift.
Contrition is also the foundation of compassion. Seeing one’s own bottomless karma and its dreadful consequences one naturally feels for others caught on the samsaric wheel. As long as one believes that one can oneself arrive at righteousness one will go on expecting it of others and judging and condemning them accordingly. Only when one genuinely realises the hopelessness of such an outlook does the judgemental tendency in oneself die down and real fellow-feeling arise. This is why one sometimes meets people who are, as we say, ‘salt of the earth’ who live far from perfect lives themselves but have a wonderfully open heart toward others. They have arrived at a measure of realism about human nature and this is the deeper effect of contrition.
TEXT: To pursue something more profound or more sophisticated, or to have a theory, or to think that understanding will yield greater enlightenment than this is to be mislead and to fall back into self-power whereby the whole practice is spoilt.
COMMENT: The modern disease is not so modern: There is a strong tendency for humans, who are equipped with wonderful powers of thought and imagination, to imagine that when they have thought something doing so is a kind of substitute for actually doing it. We try to do everything 'in our heads' as though real life no longer counted. This is particularly a disease of the modern educated person who has been taught to plan and to manipulate theory. However, in varying degrees, it has been a perennial problem of humankind. There is a certain appeal in really complicated, sophisticated theories. We can get enmeshed in them and they can occupy us for hours - years, even. Something really complicated can be material enough for a doctoral degree, and when we have got the degree we think we have really done something. However, credentials are not action in themselves.
The spiritual masters all try to turn us back to the reality of the actually lived life. We might fill up the time of our life gathering knowledge or credentials and it can be a fine and pleasant passtime, but we should not think that it is a substitute for living, nor that living does not begin until one is suitably qualified. Meritocracy has some merit, but it also has serious pitfalls. Some of the greatest geniuses in the history of Chinese culture were people who had repeatedly failed the national exams. If they had passed they would have become boring bureaucrats rather than the creative people that they turned into when as 'failures' they had to live on their wits.
In science there is a principle called Occam's Razor. This is the principle that if there are two theories that both adequately explain something, then the simpler one should be preferred. Thus the theory that the sun goes round the earth and the theory that the earth goes round the sun both can explain the movement of heavenly bodies, but one of these theories is much simpler than the other, yielding elegantly smooth orbits. Therefore, we prefer the theory that the earth goes around the sun. Similar things happen in the social life. We all tend to think that the social world revolves around ourselves. This makes for a very complex theory of social relations in which it is rather difficult much of the time to understand what is happening. When we realise the extent to which we are actually revolving around others, some things become somewhat more clear. In the spiritual realm, similar considerations apply. When we think that spiritual enlightenment is our own personal project that has as objective our own enhancement, happiness and glory, it turns out to be a long bumpy road with no end in view. however, when everything revolves around a source of wisdom and compassion far superior to our own, things become a lot more simple. All we have to do is play our part.
In Pureland, we have the practice of nembutsu with which to constantly remind ourselves of these basic truths that bring a kind of Occam's Razor to bear upon the spiritual life. Furthermore, the nembutsu is already a perfect, sacred act that needs no further improvement. In contemporary life we are endlessly encouraged to be improving ourselves. When we do so, there is surely no harm in it, but we should not over-estimate what we are doing. Spiritual enlightenment is not a function of any kind of accumulation. Worldly knowledge is useful for worldly things, but it never adds up to salvation. It is merely useful in a utilitarian way. Furthermore, you can go on adding to it ad infinitum. Somebody who is a highly accomplished cook is not necessarily any better a person than somebody who does not know how to fry and egg.
Self-power is the belief that one can create one's own enlightenment and achieve it by one's own effort. However, there is actually a sharp break between the realm of conditioned existence and the unconditioned and nothing established in the former can possibly be a cause of the latter since, were it so, the latter would become part of the former. If God existed within creation He would not be God. If nirvana were a result of conditioned action it would not be nirvana. If Buddhas were created by meditating or by accumulating merit, they would not be Buddhas. All things made in such a way are ephemeral, impermanent, dependently originated and, therefore, not true refuges. Buddhism offers a true refuge, not a self-improvement programme.
Although the door is open we do not enter. Although the water awaits, we do not let go of the side of the swimming pool. We cannot make ourselves do so. Nonetheless, we can remember what we have heard - that there is a life beyond clinging. Then, if it so happens that, at some point, due to unforeseen circumstances, we momentarily lose our grip, there is just a chance that, instead of panicking, we might find ourselves afloat, held up by something we do not understand.
It is all simpler than one imagines. In ten thousand ways the Buddhas point out this simplicity. Imitating their ten thousandfold pointing we weave a mesh of complications like a tangled bramble patch. However, one finger, one practice, one word truly heard, one moment of freedom is enough. Namo Amida Bu.
TEXT: However wise, learned or skilled you may be, set it aside
Learning to set aside one’s cleverness is something one can do and it is wonderfully productive. Honen Shonin was extremely learned, yet he advocated the nembutsu - the simplest practice in the whole of Buddhism. Dogen Zenji wrote:
“To pose as the trainer and enlightener of myriad Dharmas is called delusion. When the myriad Dharmas come forth and train and enlighten the self, that is enlightenment. All Buddhas are busy greatly enlightening delusion.” - Genjokoan.
The Buddhas are all the time busily trying to enlighten us, but we get in the way. We reject their enlightening influence by armouring ourselves with our own knowhow.
The Chinese have the idea of yin and yang. In the well lived life one is intermittantly in the yang position, but the default is yin. As soon as the job is done one returns to the receptive position. Our modern culture, however, encourages us to be in the yang position as much as possible and we come to feel guilty when we fail to do so. When we cannot solve all our own problems, we feel guilty. When we cannot solve all the problems of the people around us we feel guilty. Then we feel guilty for feeling guilty. Then we go to see a therapist and feel guilty about doing so. And so it goes on. Yet, when we do assertively try to solve the problems of those around us, we often make matters worse and just generate friction, resistance and conflict of wills.
The most therapeutic thing one can do is generally to adopt the yin position, listen, observe, take interest, but allow plenty of space. Then seemingly magical things happen.
People come across the bodhisattva vows and assume them in a yang mode. “Innumerable are sentient beings, I vow to save them all!” That is quite an ambition. However, it might be better if one said, “I vow to save them all… from me.” This is a more practical proposition and likely to be more effective.
Buddhism advocates emptiness and stillness. When I am empty and still the Buddhas can do their work naturally. Adopting the yang position one only has one’s own power
Adopting the yin position one participates in a greater power. The skills one has are limitled but the merit of Amida is boundless.
In the phenomenological philosophy this ‘setting aside’ is called ‘bracketing’ or ‘epoche’. It is a vitally important step in learning anything. In our practice, we are all the time learning from the Buddhas manifest in the myriad Dharmas. We do not have to make it happen, we merely have to stop stopping it, which is to say, we have to give up our conceit.
The reason that we have skills and knowledge is to be of service. However, we should use them sparingly, because there is always much more to be learnt.
When I used to train counsellors and psychotherapists, beginners were often paralysed by thinking that they did not have the wisdom to solve the client’s problem for them. This, however, is not really what is required. Rather than ‘How am I going to solve this person’s problem?’ it is better for the counsellor or therapist to have the attitude, ‘I wonder what this client is going to teach me today.’ Setting oneself up as the clever person is inviting disaster.
None of this means that one does not have any knowledge or skill. In dealing with worldly matters, one needs to take action. As a practitioner, however, this action is inspired by the greater power. Faith enables one to go forth. When one relies upon one’s own cleverness it is only sufficient when one is in familiar territory. To go beyond one’s ‘safety zone’ it will never suffice. Going into new situations one faces a ‘steep learning curve’. One has to be an empty vessel in order to receive.
In Buddhism we have 'practices'. A practice may be some form of meditation, prayer, chanting, making prostrations or whatever. It is a ritual. In performing such a ritual there is a yang way to do it and a yin way to do it. In the yang way one has a goal and a method. In the yin way one is receptive and grateful. On the Pureland path one cultivates the yin way. Actually, this is true in all of Buddhism, just it is not always apparent to the casual observer. This is no less true with nembutsu. One can do it in a self-power or an other-power manner, but only the second will bring Amida's grace. Those who rely upon self-power 'have their reward already', such as it is.
Furthermore, if one sets aside one’s existing world and enters a new one, one then has two worlds. The Buddha will be found in the space between them. Soon one will have three, four, five worlds. Eventually one will be ‘bodhisattva who has no ground’, but who spends time ‘visiting Buddhas in other regions’ and making offerings to them.
The offerings one makes will fall unbidden, ‘six times a day’ and one will delight in gathering them.
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’.
TEXT: Nothing else is required and anything else is too much.
This passage is a plea for moderation and is, therefore, also an expression of the ‘middle way’ which is what the Buddha called his message. Buddha had experienced the extremes that had developed in his society - those of self-indulgence and those of ascetic penitentialism. He rejected both as being useless, ignoble and vain. We can look at each of these dimensions in turn.
Evidently when people act they always do so for a reason so there is a sense in which nothing is ever useless. What Buddha means is useless to the spiritual life. For ‘those wishing to live a religious life’ there are many things that are completely useless and here we are told that many of these useless things fall into the category of ‘excess’. It could be excess in either direction - too much or too little. Once the Buddha was asked by a man whether it was better to try his utmost, exerting all his effort in his practice, or was it better to just take it easy and not take the matter too seriously? The Buddha observed that the man was a musician and said, “When you tune your instrument, is it better that the string be so tight that it is on the verge of snapping or is it better that it be completely loose and floppy? The man saw the point and said that, of course, it was best in neither of these conditions. The correctly tuned string was neither too tight nor too loose. “So it is with practice,” said the Buddha.
When we discussed this matter in our group we also observed that in a community it is as though we are each different strings in the instrument. For the community to function well it is not a matter of every string being tightened to the same pitch. Each has its role to play, its part in the various chords.
Buddha said that self-indulgence and asceticism are equally ignoble. Noble is not a word used so much these days, but it was clearly important to the Buddha. He referred to enlightened people as ‘noble ones’. A noble person is not given to excess. Often we have to make judgements in life about what to do or attempt. Where we live here in France there is a deal of land. Each year we have to decide how much to cultivate. If we do too little we do not grow much. If we try for too much it becomes impossibly burdensome and the plants are soon overrun with weeds. How much is ‘reasonable’? As a generalisation, modern people have become rather ‘soft’ and often tend to under-estimate how much they can do, so we are probably more often inclined to rr on the side of self-indulgence than that of self-punishment, but not always. One of the reasons for self-punishment is guilt. In our modern society there is a kind of low-level pandemic of guilt feelings. Perhaps this is, in part, because with modern communications we have ‘world championships’ of various kinds. There are a small number of ‘celebrities’ who are so far above us that we are all failures by comparison. When people lived in more local communities, the most talented people around were rarely so much better than the average as is the case today. Further, society as a whole, while giving lip service to democracy, has actually become more meritocratic. Everywhere there is competition. Where there is competition there is failure and the fear of failure. All of this makes for a good deal of common neurosis. Nobility is to rise above this. Neurosis is, essentially, unrealistic or excessive worry. To overcome this one needs ‘big mind’. One needs a larger perspective. The ’noble’ person is not drowning in ordinary life, but has a sense of a wider perspective. In the scheme of Honen, this wider perspective is achieved by allowing everything to be encompassed within the compassionate vow of Amitabha. Entrusting all to such faith facilitates humility and nobility at the same time.
This talk of humility brings us to the Buddha’s third point, ‘vanity’. Buddhism is an antidote to vanity. When the Buddha looked around him in his day he saw a society plagued by devotion to vanity - vain kings, vain warriors, vain aristocrats, vain priests, even vain ascetic hermits. Where we seem to have a society devoted to greed, he lived in one devoted to vanity. That said, there is plenty of vanity today too, and, in a certain way, all our problems can be traced back to a fundamental conceit about ‘self’. Pureland Buddhism is founded upon the bedrock of recognition of bombu nature. When we see our humanity and that of the people around us in a kindly way, we have the basis from which it is possible to recognise our need for help and the importance of worshipping forces more great than ourselves.
In this text we can also find a concern about ‘puritanism’ in religion. This is something of a danger in Western Buddhism at the present time. Many Western people have adopted ‘Buddhism’ without adopting its metaphysics and, as a result, tend to see it as a ‘way of life’ or a ‘moral system’ in which the onus is on right conduct. Right conduct is certainly an important part of Buddhism, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Rather, in principle, it is a by-product. The wise person who is full of faith should, in principle, be much easier to live with. Buddha often talks about ‘ease’. The ideal Buddhist is not somebody who is living in a high pitch moral way, striving to be perfect. Rather it is somebody who is deeply at ease and so puts others at ease. The practice of nembutsu conduces to this in two ways - proximately and ultimately. Proximately, the practice of associating the nembutsu with all eventualities gives perspective, as we said above, and brings reassurance. Ultimately, the person of nembutsu faith knows that ‘all is completely assured’ and looks forward to dying in peace. Thus other worries are not experienced as so total or overwhelming. The sense of annihilation that the common person feels when humiliated does not loom as so great a threat if one views death with equanimity.
So, formally, this passage is about the sufficiency of the nembutsu and the simple mind that has faith in it. Honen taught the one simple point that is the core of all Buddhism which we call refuge. He expressed it in a particular language and other Buddhists in other cultures have expressed it in other language, but this is the alpha and omega of all Buddhism. It is sufficient. It is the ‘window through which the whole universe of Buddha’s teachings can be seen in all its depth’. Nothing more is required. There is, therefore, in this approach, something that can give deep relief to the person anxiously searching.
TEXT: Faith & practice cannot be differentiated
"Cannot be differentiated" means that one cannot tell one from the other. You can see a person's real faith in their practice. Practice is the outward sign of faith.For didactic purposes we can differentiate them, but this is a purely conceptual exercise. There have been those in the history of Buddhism who have had the view that 'if you have faith you don't need to practice', but this is a misconception. The word 'need' in the sentence betrays it. Need for what? Actually, to use the same word differently, whatever faith you have, whether good or bad, will generate a 'need' that one will have to put into practice.
However, people are deceptive, even of themselves. The persona or 'mask' that one wears for public appearance does not necessarily display one's real faith. The real faith is more likely to become apparent at times of extremity or when something unexpected catches the person off guard. Sometimes this is a surprise to the person him or her self. A professed atheist may start to pray when his life is seriously threatened. A supposed believer may realise that she does not really believe. The public philanthropist may suddenly exhibit a mean streak. The gangster might be compassionate. And so on. We do not necessarily know ourselves that well and who can see into the heart of another?
In the Jewel Mirror Samadhi we find the images of snow upon a silver plate and of a white egret againt the shining moon. Here the point is that although these are all 'white', still the 'whites' are not the same. We can see that although we might present ourselves as being 'white as white', we are not really. A certain humility is required if one is to learn anything. So the first step may be to recognise that one's faith is not complete. It is what it is. One might prefer it to be more or otherwise, but it is such and such. One might pray to be given more faith or shown things that will inspire faith, but it is in the nature of faith that one cannot force it. Faith that one manufactures is not the real thing - not the real white.
Walking the Walk
The term 'practice' is 行 gyo in Japanese. The Japanese terms basically means 'walk'. The faith we have is in the way we walk. We can say 'walk the path'. How do we walk this path. What is it like to walk in a person's steps. We are walking in the tracks of Buddha. What does that feel like? What happens when one imitates Buddha or walks in his steps? What does it mean to really do so? Is it a matter of 'form' or is it something that transcends form? After all if Buddha appeared in 21st century London he might be a bit different in form, of would he? These have been important questions in Buddhist history. In any case, in some sense, Buddhist practice is to 'walk the walk' even more than to 'talk the talk'.
Theory & Custom
In English, the term practice has a number of meanings. The two primary ones are to do with theory and custom.
Putting Theory into Practice: Try and See
Firstly, practice means to put a theory into action. Thus a doctor practises. This means that he puts the knowledge of medicine into action. So practice is a matter of converting what is know into behaviour. Generally when one does this one learns as a result and so comes to know more, so this is a dialectical process in which growth occurs. In Buddhism, what one 'knows' is what one is mindful of and this derives firstly from what one has 'heard' and 'heeded'. If one has truly internalised what one has heard, then we say that one has taken heed of it. Putting into practice what one has heeded, one is, in effect, investigating it's truth. This is the Buddha's experimental method. Try it and see.
Now, when we talk of putting theory into practice, we should not forget that the word 'theory' comes from 'theos', the divine. The original meaning of theory is close to 'other power'. When we really put the spirit into practice, self-will and other-power converge. In fact, self-will is absorbed into other-power. This is what is expressed in the Christian prayer, "Thy will not mine".
So, in Mahayana Buddhism, the idea is to put the spirit of the Dharma into practice.
Custom: The Ritual or Dance of Existence
The second sense of 'practice' in English is custom. One can say, it is our practice here to say grace before meals. This means that it is customary. Here it is considered proper. This is the ritual of this time and place. Every circumstance has its ritual and the way to let go of self is to merge with the ritual. However, the true rituals are not artificial, they are prescribed by the gods. They are sacrifice. The purpose of sacrifice is to sacrify - to make sacred. To sacrifice is to conform to that which makes sacred. This is the fundamental meaning. Superficially, sacrifice means to give something up, originally in order to feed the ancestral spirits. It still means to give something up, but what is required in Buddhism is not to give up a goat but to give up one's selfishness. It is the ego that is sacrificed. Then one is able to enter the ritual of life.
Ritual is like dance. When you are on the dance floor you dance with others and to a music. When the record changes, the dance changes. Life is like that. Every so often the music changes. You are walking along chatting and joking with a friend and enter a room where everybody is in mourning for a relative who recently died. The music changes. One is required to comport oneself in a different way. One has partners in this dance and one helps them with their steps just as one tries to find one's own. This is the proper performance of ritual. When ritual is properly performed, the sacred appears and the egos disappear.
Generally, in Buddhism, a sangha has a primary practice. In Pureland it is nembutsu; in Zen it is zazen; in Tibetan Buddhism each group is likely to have a favoured sadhana focussed upon a particular yidam; and so on. This is the primary medium through which the sangha operates and it will be applied intensively and extensively.
Intensive practice means the practice that is done formally, mostly in the ceremony hall. There will be ceremonies, liturgy and contemplation. These practices include some performance of the primary practice and also of practices that are auxilliary (or supportive) to it.
Extensive practice is to carry the spirit of the primary practice and the intensive practice into everyday life situations. This might be saying the nembutsu when you meet another practitioner on the street, or preserving the attitude of zazen while doing the washing up, or having a sense of the yidam in one's heart while pruning the roses.
Having Faith in Faith
The ideal is that the spirit of the Dharma Vinaya is so integrated that one has it in one's bones. While the auxilliary practices are all helpful and life in a sangha community is a huge benefit, even if one were transported to a completely different situation one would have the faith so deeply 'in one's bones' that the same spirit would naturally re-emerge in new forms suitable to the new circumstance. This is the ideal of complete faith. Of course, mostly this kind of total faith occurs in most people lives only as little islands here and there that are not joined up. This is what it means to be 'bombu'.
One therefore needs to have faith in faith. One needs to know that it is precisely for bombu beings such as ourselves that the Buddhas come. We trust that we shall be shown what we need and that if we carry out the faith that we do have we shall surely be given more when the time is right. Actually, mostly we do not know how much faith we really have. Faith is mostly unconscious. It has little to do with the affirmation of particular beliefs; they are secondary. Faith is a quality, quite similar to courage, but also incorporating curiosity, generosity, gratitude and other features. It comes in several modes.
Modes of Faith
There are at least four different Indian words for faith, each of which highlights a different aspect.
Shraddha refers to 'wholeheartedness'. People 'put their heart into' the things that they have faith in.
Prasada refers to clarity. When one is clear about something one will go for it. This is a kind of faith.
Adhimoksha refers to spaciousness. Faith is to be big minded and big hearted. Here faith breaks the prison walls and gives one freedom.
Bodhichitta refers to willingness and inspiration. It is the mind of the bodhisattva who has the 'way-seeking mind'. This is to be inspired by all the Buddhas and willing to live out that inspiration.
In a simple sense, faith and practice can never be differentiated. It simply is the case that the way a person lives their life betrays what their faith is. It may be a good faith or a bad one. In a more religious sense, we talk of 'true faith' meaning faith in the Dharma. When there is such faith the Dharma will be lived out. In that case, other-power will flow through the person. They themselves may not be aware that it is happening - most of the time will not be. Nonetheless, it is happening. They become a channel for the Buddhas' compassionate purpose in the world.
The fact that this is a largely unconscious process means that one just has to have faith in it. What is necessary will happen.
People will then ask how one can acquire more faith, and the answer might be 'live more dangerously!' When we live well within our 'comfort zone' our faith is never tested or extended. However, if we live closer to our edge then things happen. We shall change - perhaps for the better, perhaps not. In this business there are no guarantees. One can pray. One can pray that more faith be given. However, this may or may not be a sincere prayer. To have more faith can be alarming. One might have to do something with one's life. It might mean no longer moving along well-worn ruts. The music of life might change tempo. Does one really want that? Perhaps not just yet.
When the time is right one will receive promptings. The hidden powers will nudge one along. One might resist or one might flow. In the end, true faith is simply to be perfectly willing. If one is perfectly willing then one will be able to die well. That is love.
TEXT: "Delineated by the Precepts" from the sentence "The Buddha Body is delineated by the precepts"
To delineate is to loosely define. It is to create a sketch or outline that indicates the shape or nature of something. The precepts thus define the Buddha. Buddhas are those who keep the precepts as a matter of course. For a buddha, preceptual conduct is 'second nature', though in this case we might say 'first nature'.It simply does not occur to the Buddha to be otherwise and if it were to do so then the Buddha would immediately see the disadvantage. 'Seeing the disadvantage' is one way of thinking about what enlightenment is.
Now, bearing in mind the ideas that we discussed in the last section about transcendence, it should be apparent that the Buddha as one who perfectly keeps the precepts is a Sambhogakaya. It is an ideal, a vision, a dream of Buddhaness. From the actual living Buddha we extract this ideal. The Sambhogakaya Buddhas come as embodiments of this perfect state. Quan Shi Yin is perfect kindness and compassion. Samantabhadra comes as perfect action and generosity. Manjushri as perfect wisdom and so on. these are the figures that inspire us.
However, if we consider the next step that brings us back to earth, we must consider how Buddha acts in invidious situations. What does Buddha do when telling a lie will save a life or when stealing medicine is the only available means of helping a person who is seriously ill. One can readily imagine many such conflicts of morality. Actual Buddha does not live by rules. So whereas the precepts delineate the Sambhogakaya Buddha, the Dharmakaya Buddha transcends even the precepts. However this second level of transcendence does not take us into a higher realm even more remote from real life, it takes us into the hurly burly of reality where, ultimately there are no rules, only faith and good heart.
This alerts us to the fact that the precepts are themselves creatons of fallible mortal beings. They are our attempt to indicate – to delineate – the Buddha as Buddha appears to us.
We say that there are three pure precepts: (1) Cease from harm; (2) Do only good; (3) Do good for others. These three encompass all other precepts. No others are necessary, even though others may be useful.
Then we have the five precepts against: (1) killing; (2) stealing; (3) sexual misconduct; (4) wrong speech; (5) intoxication. Clearly one cn go into more detail. In the sections on the moralities in the scriptures one will find longer descriptions of each. In the Mahayana texts these same injunctions are often divided into ten items, mostly be separating out different elements of wrong speech.
All of the above are the type of precept that define general virtue or morality. One might wish for a world in which everybody managed to keep such precepts all the time. There are also other sets of precepts that are specific to people undertaking articular forms of spiritual training. Thus there are the pratimoksha rules for monks, which vary slightly from order to order. Many of these rules are not to do with general morality, but are concerned with particular lifestyles – when to eat, how to take care of one's robe and bowl and so on. Such rules only apply to those who undertake them.
When we look at such systems of rules we can also distinguish between the kind of rule that is nonspecific good advice, eg. Be generous; and the kind of rule that is specific and behavioural, eg. do not carry weapons. With the latter type it is clear when one has broken the precept whereas in the former case it will be a matter of degree and of opinion.
In some orders there are systems of sanctions. The traditional pratimoksha rules are divided up into groups according to the severity of the sanction to be applied in the case of an infringement. Sanctions can range from making an apology through to expulsion from the order and even complete excommunication. In the self-power approach to Buddhism, keeping the precepts is considered to be a means toward enlightenment, or, at least, toward the accumulation of merit.
In Amida Shu the precepts are seen primarily as an aid to reflection upon one's faith. The precepts delineate the Buddha. Therefore the precepts themselves are an object of worship. Reflecting upon them and revering them are wholesome things to do. When one notices that one has broken a precept it is also a cause for reflection. This reflection will bring one back to a consideration of one's faith. If one had complete faith one would be a Buddha and keeping the precepts would come naturally. If one has broken a precept, therefore, it indicates that one's faith is less. There may not be anything one can do about this – faith is a grace – but it is valuable to reflect upon it. One might pray for more faith, but one cannot make it happen. Thus one comes to a deeper understanding of one's bombu nature. The precepts thus show us our nature. Thus the precepts are Buddhas. Buddhas are those beings who show us our nature. Reflection of this kind can bring us to a deeper acceptance and willingness and this may well indirectly lead to us being given more faith, or, at least, to us having a greater appreciation of the spiritual path.
TEXT: “… how deficient we are by comparison”
The sense of 'deficiency' is an important basis for rigour in spiritual practice as well as being a foundation for faith in the saving grace. These two aspects of the spiritual life work together and provide the dynamic. They are like the blades of a scissor. With this scissor we cut out the clothes of a bodhisattva and a shravaka. Sometimes we wear one, sometimes the other.
One notices deficiency, both in oneself and in the human race. Einstein made a priceless discoverery about the nature of the universe. Within a generation, it had been used to construct the most dreadful weapon ever seen and had obliterated two Japanese cities and all their inhabitants. The people who laboured to build those bombs are not so different from ourselves. Humans are deficient. Thre is a difference between human nature and Buddha nature.
There is a popular idea that all people have Buddha nature, but here I am using the term in the more restricted sense of the nature of those who are actually enlightened. To be Buddhist is to believe that there have been, are and will be Buddhas and that Buddhas are not ordinary beings. They have a different nature. As Buddha's are not ordinary beings, ordinary beings are deficient by comparison. Buddhas dedicate themselves to saving all sentient beings by creating pure lands, domains of benign conditions where all shall become enlightened. Therefore, Buddhas are always trying to help us. However, we only receive that help when we turn toward it and we only do so when we feel in need. A Buddha might build a pure land and nobody go there because they would rather spend their time shopping or watching soap opera. Or, even if they are more 'spiritual' than that, they may still not go because they believe that all necessary power is to be found already within themselves and all they have to do is manifest their own inner nature.
Yet if we look soberly at our inner nature we see that we are animals descended from animals that were even more dominated by voracious instincts than we are. We have savagery within us. Greed, hate and delusion is what Freud called the id. It does not go away. The best that can be done with it is to sublimate it. This means using the same energy for more sublime purposes. However, doing so always involves struggle. I am not so much talking about the kind of struggle of the old Christian ascetics trying by will power to suppress their sexuality. I am talking about the struggle that is involved in any creative activity. To produce his famous statues Rodin had to apply himself with great dedication. Likewise all the great creative people in history. Art provides many great examples, but they are also to be found in many spheres of life.
We should not think that because we shall receive help from Buddha we do not need to do anything with out life. Rather the reverse. Because we receive help we can do more and we can take the brakes off. If we have faith in Buddha we want to make the most of this life. Our efforts may be meagre, but they should be the best we can do. Doing as well as we can we shall gradually do better. This, in itself, will not make us enlightened, but the more enlightened we are the more we shall apply ourselves because we shall want to.
It has been commonly thought that 'positive thinking' will get things done, but often such artificial positivity only leads to smugness and complacency. Our modern society is well endowed in material ways and this tends to mke us complacent in any case. We do not need spiritual complacency heaped upon material indulgence. This is merely to go to one of the extremes that Buddha condemned. A deeper awareness of our bombu nature is a solace in adversity, but it is also a spur in opportunity.
The deficiency specifically referred to here is that we notice how far short we fall in preceptual performance. The Buddhist precepts point out a virtuous life. We take a precept such as 'not to take what is not freely given', for instance, and examine our day's activity. This is a precept to deeply respect others. How well did one do? Or, to 'practise right speech', which means not to disparage, exaggerate, gossip, say things that are untrue and so on, in fact, only to speak Dharma. How well has one done? Practising nei quan and reviewing one's day, one may become rather fed up with oneself for poor performance, but then one reflects that even this sense of being 'fed up' has a core of pride in it. We are 'deluded within delusion' and even our best efforts are subverted by subtle corruptions. We simply do not have the pure, clear mind that we call Buddha and although we can use this knowledge to make some improvements in our life, we also need to acknowledge that we are not going to arrive at perfection by such efforts.
- Karmic Obstacles
TEXT: By our daily difficulty in the preceptual life, we awaken to the presence of the myriad karmic obstacles
The preceptual life refers to the attempt to live according to the moral precepts and karmic obstacles refers to the complications and mess of life whereby even the best and fullest attempt to live a perfectly moral life is inevitably frustrated.
The precepts ask us not to kill, not to take what is not freely offered, not to tell lies, not to add energy to quarrels, not to gossip or slander, not to get involved in sexual misconduct, not to lose control of ourselves through intoxication, addiction or compulsive habits and so on. These are all inherently good things. We cannot praise them enough. How wonderful to live such a life. Any yet, when we come to the real business of living, we are soon implicated in all manner of conflicting urges and situations in which it is impossible to keep all precepts at the same time. What is good? Even if one were to do one's best one would still be caught in such dilemmas and a heightened moral sensitivity might even increase the number of problems as one tries to avoid situations of harm, weaving around them and embarrassing others in the process.
The import of the whole verse is that it is through the preceptual life - through the actual sincere attempt to live as moral a life as possible - that one comes to an enhanced or even full awareness of the tangled nature of the existential situation in which a human person has their being and performs life. The suggestion is that this coming to knowledge is a vital part of spiritual maturity - it is necessary. It is something that one has reason to be grateful for.
We can perhaps appreciate that in some degree this is part of the natural process of growing up. Young people come to adulthood, generally speaking, carrying ideas about how best to live. In particular, they may be seeking to live in a more ideal manner than their parents managed or better than seems to be current fashion in the society around them. As they get older and accumulate experiences they come to realise that ‘it is not as simple as all that’. They, hopefully, come to appreciate the fact that there are reasons, reasons why people act in ways that bring unfortunate consequences, reasons why people become enmeshed in situations that then oppress them, and so on. This is often portrayed as a loss of innocence, which it is, and this loss is lamented. However, while there is a charm particular to the innocent child, a charm that is delightful in its way, life asks more of one.
Some people may, indeed, pass much of their life acting the part of the charming innocent, but generally, though this may enable them 'to get away with murder', they leave behind a trail of less than ideal outcomes. Sometimes the superficially 'virtuous' person is less mature than the seemingly more worldly one. Hard knocks teach worldly wisdom and faith teaches transcendental wisdom and the bodhisattva needs both.
This is very similar to the theme of my book Love and Its Disappointment. One always loves, taking love in the broadest possible sense of meaning, but those loves lead one into complications and setbacks, disappointment and doubt. The question of life then becomes not, can one love, but can one love again? Can one go beyond the obstacle and live in the reality? ‘With the ideal comes the actual’ and it is the actual that enlightens, not the ideal. The ideal is a kind of fine delusion, and it is fine, but it is delusion, and the spiritual path must take one beyond it. That does not mean not having ideals, nor not attempting them, but it does mean learning from the experience of attempting to do so.
It is for this reason that in Amida Shu we attempt to keep the precepts while accepting the bombu paradigm. One extreme is to say that because one is bombu it is pointless even attempting to keep the precepts. The other extreme is to make accomplishment of preceptual perfection the criterion of a spiritual life. The latter makes it impossible and the former means that one does not learn and grow. Both equally are sabotage.
Life is full of irony and invidiousness. When two of one’s friends fall out, what should one do? There are a number of options all of which involve mess and some harm or cruelty. One might side with one against the other. One might hold back in a position of neutrality and be fairly useless to either. One might try to mediate and frustrate both parties. There is no simple solution. Or, the cat brings in a half dead creature that is evidently not going to recover. Does one take it from the cat or not? Does one care for it or ‘put it out of its misery’? One might have opinions (ideals) about what is the ‘right’ thing to do in such situation, but one has to face the karmic obstacle - the fact that whatever one does there is a downside.
There is a famous Buddhist story of two monks arriving at a stream and a geisha is standing wondering how to get across. One of the monks sweeps her up into his arms and carries her across. The two monks go on their way. Some time later, the second monk says, “How could you do that, given that, as monks, we are not allowed to touch women?” The first monk replies, “Oh, are ou still carrying her - I put her down at the stream.” This is a good story with a useful moral. However, if one penetrates a little more deeply, one can consider, for instance, the position of the second monk and his dilemma. Suppose he had arrived at the stream on his own. Should he break his precept and carry the woman across? What if he got half way across, fell, and she was drowned? How will he live with himself afterwards? Or the first monk, has he really put her down? Actions leave traces. The principle seems simple, but the human reality may be more messy. One may live a more or less renuncient life, but, while hat will reduce the number of occasions for such encounters, it will not eliminate them. The gaisha will still be standing at the stream waiting for one.
Becoming more fully aware of karmic obstacle changes the tone of one’s spiritual life. It brings the ‘great grief’ and the sense of bitter-sweetness, yet it is liberation. It is not tragic that life is tragic. True maturity is, like the lotus, rooted in the mud. The spiritual life is not just about being nice all the time and keeping oneself out of trouble. However, when we look at our own lives, we may well see that a great deal of our style of living and relating is essentially based upon such a motive.
Awareness of karma is a foundation of compassion in several ways. It yields a sense of compassion for the ‘villain’ as well as the victim. It gives one understanding of the sometimes seemingly bizarre behaviour of others and a meta-level appreciation that even when one cannot understand it, nonetheless, there will be reasons that one is blind to. When one sees in this way one falls into blame and condemnation much less readily. Similarly, one is not taken in by over simplistic solutions either in personal life or to the problems of the world. The sense of fellow-feeling is enhanced. We are all in this mess that is samsara and it is here that we have to live the noble life. When we go to the Pure Land we may have less obstacles and might get the hang of it more quickly, but even such know-how will need then to be tested by a return to the material world.
The meaning, therefore, is an invitation to us to feel some gratitude for the problems, complexities and difficulties that we encounter that are as those of all sentient beings. In this way we grow. We try to keep the precepts and, in the process we acquire wisdom. These are phases in the development of faith. Karmic obstacle is like thick cloud, but even the thickest cloud does not obscure the sun completely.
PART 29: Perceive the Land
TEXT: without which we would already perceive the land of love and bliss
Perception of the land is a foundational religious experience. Religious form is substantially grounded in it and much of it can be considered to be a kind of theatrical re-enactment of it as I will now try to explain.
Here, the land of love and bliss is the Pure Land, Sukhavati, of Amitabha. However, in Buddhism all Buddhas have their pure lands, so we can speak of the pure land of Akshobya or the pure lands of the innumerable Buddhas referred to in the Smaller Pure Land Sutra who occupy the ten directions and whose eloquence declares the truth of the teaching of Shakyamuni. However, such vision is found in all the great religions in one form or another.
To actually be in the Pure Land means to be in the presence of the Buddha, in this case of Amitabha Buddha, which is as much as to say of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit enters one’s life one is transformed, motivated, electrified. One then has sacred energy, one is inspired, one can endure, one’s life is meaningful. This is all through the power of presence.
As Pure Land Buddhists we pray to be reborn in such a pure land in a future life so that we can be in the presence all the time. However, who among us can or could really stand being in such presence all the time? We are creatures of karma. Karmic obstacle bars our way. Here in this life, generally speaking, the best we can hope for are glimpses and these are rare because they depend upon a release from our own karmic stream, from our own being, from our deadness. A tiny drop of eternal life, like phosphorus dropped on metal can cut us to the quick.
So, on the one hand, we are exiles, roaming far from our true pure land home, like the prodigal son in the Lotus Sutra, and the Buddha is like the father who, by a variety of skilful means tries to lure us back. We are exiles and refugees. We live with some distant memory or intuition of home, a longing toward it, an impulse to recreate some replica of it or memento. Hence yugen - the experience of bitter-sweetness that is the essential tone or flavour of the spiritual life. Karmic obstacle is a kind of shipwreck. We are like Robinson Crusoe on his island. We try to make something of it, but far from home.
On the other hand, it is our own nature that keeps us so far away. It is avidya - our unconscious wilful blindness, our attachment to greed, hate and delusion that we persist so strongly in not wanting even to see. We thus build false identities based upon some ego ideal or other, casting much of our nature into darkness in the interests of making ourselves shine is a certain light or our own contrivance. Much of this is motivated by fear - fear of ourselves and fear of others.
So perception of the Pure Land only occurs when there is a stop, an epoche, a brief setting aside of our own karmic continuum. Then we perceive the land of love and bliss. This is transfiguration. It is just as the description in Matthew’s gospel 17: 1-9: “and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light”.
In the scriptures, such visions come to Ananda in some renderings of the Larger Pure Land Sutra and, in the Contemplation Sutra, to Queen Vaidehi who sees the pure lands of many Buddhas and chooses that of Amitabha. However, it is clear that one cannot effect such an epoche by one’s own effort, will or desire since one’s own effort is itself karmic. Karma cannot set aside karma. Ananda and Vaidehi were brought to such a stop by their encounter with Shakyamuni, Peter, James and John by the intervention of Jesus.
This transfiguration is satori, kensho, shinjin, ‘the falling away of body and mind’. It is ’stream entry’. It is something that cannot be contrived but cannot be forgotten. This non-forgetting is the true meaning of mindfulness. The mind is thereafter full of it. This does not, however, mean that one has the vision continuously. It fades. What one is mind-full of is the recollection. Sati/smriti means recollection.
We can understand, therefore, that the transfiguration occurs when a person is stopped in their tracks and has perforce to look and see. These two aspects - stopping and looking - are samatha and vipassana, or nei quan and chih quan. When we perform the ritual of ‘meditation’ we are reenacting the transfiguration, the mystery, the foundational experience.
Of course, in practice, the majority of people performing such rituals have not had the foundational experience themselves. They may be inspired by having met somebody who has done or by somebody who met somebody who met somebody… and number of removes, and that meeting was sufficient to inspire faith. We have faith when we believe in a possibility, but we believe in it because of the evidence derived from some encounter.
Nowadays many people perform such rituals considering them to be a kind of ‘self-development’ or a kind of mental fitness programme. This is not wicked, but it misses the mystery and is wholly enmeshed in karma.
It is, therefore, immensely valuable to become aware of the presence of karmic obstacles even when, in a sense, we can do little about them directly. It is evn more valuable to be aware of the sun or moon behind the clouds, whether one has glimpsed them oneself or only heard of them at whatever remove. These things bring the Holy Spirit into one’s life and make one’s exile meaningful. Then one is able to truly take refuge.
Part 30 : The Vow Body of Buddha
TEXT: we would be as the vow-body of Buddha
The term ‘vow’ here is a translation of the Japanese term ‘gan’. It could also be rendered as ‘prayer’ or ‘deep intention’. ‘Vow’ is perhaps too strong and ‘prayer’ too weak; too strong because of the implication of self-will and too weak because of that of complete impotence. In fact, one cannot bring about a result alone, unaided, but that does not mean there is nothing to do at all. Buddhism is a middle way.
We can reflect upon the fact that people in general have many implicit ‘vows’ or ‘scripts’. These are not enlightened vows, they are simply implicit resolve ’never to let such and such happen to me again’ or ‘to always do better than my sister’, or ‘to get revenge’, or 'to make my parents sorry', or whatever. Such ‘vows’ shape lives. They are not particularly rational - a person may go on, in a sense, trying 'to make his parents sorry' long after they are dead and buried. According to the implicit vows that a person is living, so do they become and such things are self-perpetuating unless and until disrupted. Such disruption may be by a shock or an inspiration or some combination of the two. Sometimes therapy can help a person to change their vows. Religion too. Buddhism invites us to take refuge in the most perfect resolve to ‘save all sentient beings’. This text makes us aware that we can live or adopt such a script or vow even without fully knowing what it means or implies.
In the Tan Butsu Ge we find the line ‘Gan ga sa butsu’, meaning ‘my vow/prayer [is to] become Buddha’. In Buddhism, intention is considered to be hugely important. Wrong intention generates karma. Right intention frees one from karma. A Buddha is somebody who has awakened spiritually in a way that fills them with right intention, or, we might say, releases their right intention.
Actually, we are told in the sutras that the way to attain Buddhahood is to make offerings to innumerable Buddhas. If we were freed from our karmic obstacle this is what we would be doing. Every act would be an offering to one Buddha or another. Relying upon other power does not make one passive - it gives one the freedom to act and the confidence to do so.
The action of a Buddha is not stereotyped. A person of pure intention does not advertise the fact, and is not necessarily found occupying a particular role, nor wearing a ‘Buddha label’. It is possible that he might lead a Dharma centre, but she might be a shopkeeper or a gardener. Right intention takes different forms according to need and circumstance. To live by vow is not pretentious.
Vow intention matures, even far into the future. Vow is not wasted. We can consider a pure vow as like a seed - like tathagatagarbha. It will grow, mature, ripen. It will bear fruit. Mostly this process will occur unconsciously. Since right intention does not feed karma it can go completely unnoticed, yet is immensely powerful.
Pure intention is transmitted by inspiration. When one is grasped by the tathagata one is changed in a deep way. In the performance of religion we enact the forms. We make vows. We keep precepts. We make offerings. These actions are all good and bring good results. However, they may still be be ordinary acts or they may be ‘paramitas’. An act is paramita when it is performed in a way that is spontaneous and deeply felt as a result of a pure inspiration.
Thus it is right intention that is transmitted. This is as the way that a piece of iron becomes a magnet by being in the presence of another magnet. In effect Buddhas teach largely by example. Shakyamuni aimed to create a cadre of arhats who would be ‘worthy’ and so have a leavening effect upon society, but he did not expect anything of his followers that he did not do himself.
Thus, there is a sense in which we can and do become part of the body of Buddha when we are suitably inspired and have faith, since, without any particular consciousness of it being so, we do become part of the Buddha's intention. However, at the same time, we are still creatures of karma. Thus, the good that we do is not really our own.Becoming conscious of karmic obstruction thus becomes an antidote to pride which is itself the most potent obstacle to spiritual awakening.
TEXT: Thus we know in experience that we are foolish beings of wayward passion.
The expression “foolish beings of wayward passion” refers to our bombu nature. As human beings dwelling in samsara we are prone to many errors, both practical and ethical. We are emotionally vulnerable. Our mood can change drastically and abruptly in response to eventualities over which we have no control. We commonly try to protect ourselves from the likelihood of such occurrences but no such protective manoeuvres can ever be totally successful. We can waste a lot of energy trying to achieve an impossible degree of immunity.
When something breaks through our self-protection, we respond from a position of confusion. We feel something is “wrong” - things are not as they “should be”. Furthermore, we often take what happens as reflecting upon our ego ideal. We find ourselves surrounded by evidence that we ourselves are not as we think we should be. We might even say, “I was not myself.”
Typically, we respond to the evidence of our own folly by ignoring, projecting or justifying. In the West we live in cultures that have for two thousand years been dominated by the idea that a “judgement day” awaits, and we feel a compulsion to try to justify ourselves. This often involves projecting blame onto others or simply ignoring the evidence.
The invitation in this passage of text is to change our attitude. If we embrace the evidence, we learn about ourselves and, by extension, all our fellow beings. This is the foundation of true compassion. It is also the necessary step for faith to become possible. Self-justification is the attitude that goes with a belief that one can, by oneself, achieve some kind of perfection. It is a rejection of help. In Pureland, we say that it is precisely for foolish beings of wayward passion that Amitabha opens the doors of his heart. Help is at hand.
Of course, this is a middle path. while the common attitude of self-justification and attempting to gather as much credit for oneself as possible is one extreme, the other is to wallow in self-pity and melodramatically sing of one’s own poverty of talent. This is really just the other side of the same coin. It is also a kind of conceit, a drama played for audience effect. All that is required is that one be more natural.
So why do we say “wayward”? The sense is that passions carry one away. This is the Buddhist sense of samjna. Samjna refers to ordinary day-to-day consciousness. It means trance. Ordinary life flows along from one trance to another. Each thing that catches and arrests one’s attention triggers some kind of internal routine. While our attention is held we become fixated and oblivious to other things that may be going on. This is not a problem in the ordinary little things of life. It is good to concentrate and fix attention on what one is doing. However, the same mechanism can run away with us and lead us into extensive waste of energy or even into activities that undermine our spiritual life. It becomes a kind of blindness or avidya. At the extreme, we speak of addiction and obsession.
We should not let this observation lead us to think that what is required is something dry or distant. When I was lecturing on this topic I was asked is there such a thing as passion that is not wayward. This question helps us to realise that there is passion that is Wayward. That passion is called bodhichitta - the Way-seeking mind. Buddhism, especially in its Pureland forms, is a passionate affair. Loving the Buddha and the Buddha Way we plunge in, entrusting ourselves completely. As it says in another scripture, the Dharma farer is one who is “impassioned for peace, a speaker of words that make for peace.”
There is a warfare raging in the world that, like a grass fire, springs up now here, now there, in this breast and that. People are all at war with themselves, unwilling to be the creatures that they are, projecting their unwillingness onto others and then condemning those others for being as human as themselves. There is another way.
Recognising our bombu nature is liberating. We do not have to wait until we are perfect or until we have decided what is the perfectly best option. We do what we can. We are willing. We trust that it is part of a bigger picture that is beyond our ken. Here right action is a function of faith. Having taken refuge in Buddha we feel ultimately secure, no matter how things turn out in the short run.
This text thus invites us to be open to the evidence of our life that shows us our common humanity. It also shows us the impossibility of really judging others. Of course, being foolish beings, we do judge them, but from studying how unreliable our judgements of ourselves can be we start to realise that our judgements of others are at best extremely provisional. There is so much one cannot know.
Buddhism is often presented as a DIY spirituality, but the belief in our own ability to control our own spiritual destiny is itself an arrogance that blocks the Way. What is required is, rather, an attitude that says, Here i am, just as I am, I’m willing. I am willing to be part of the Buddha’s great vision of love, compassion, joy and peace. My part may be a tiny one, but my bit-part role in the creating of Buddha’s Pure Land is what I have got and is my great treasure.
With this attitude we can work together. We can cooperate without bitterness or condemnation springing up. We are all in the same boat, all all-too-human, and, somehow, mysteriously, that is so wonderful.
In Sandokai it says, “If from the experience of your senses basic truth you do not know, how can you ever find the path?” It also says, “Here born we clutch at things and then compound delusion later on by following ideals.” We already know in experience all that we need in order to participate in the great sangha - we know our own humanity.
TEXT: This knowledge of our condition is part of the essential basis when it gives rise to contrition
We have already spoken about contrition in relation to an earlier section of the text. Here the meaning is that we feel contrite simply in relation to our humanity. It is not that we fall below some achievable standard, it is that simply by existing we put a load upon others and upon the planet. In some systems of thought, contrition is essentially a goad toward reform, the idea being that when you feel sorry enough you will change. That, if you like, is the first level of contrition, but there is a deeper, more existential core.
Buddhism has the concept of “the great grief”. There is much inherent in our situation that is lamentable yet unavoidable. We have to eat something and in the process we destroy. Almost everything we eat was a living thing. In order to grow plants to eat we not only kill the plants, we change the landscape with knock on effects for many other species of life. We build roads and dwellings, cutting into the earth.
The young Siddhartha Gotama’s first spiritual stirrings came when he, as a boy, witnessed the spring ploughing festival. His father, as the leader of the tribe, cut the first furrow to mark the start of this phase of the agricultural cycle. As Gotama watched he saw the earth cut and turned, and as worms and insects were brought to the surface, birds flew down and ate them. The plight of the small creatures touched the heart of the young Buddha-to-be. He crept away and sat under a rose apple tree. In due course he was missed and a search took place. When they found him he was in a rapture of reflection, considering the nature of this life. He already knew that his own very birth had occasioned the death of his mother. Life is both wonderful and terrible. To feel grief for it is sometimes natural.
In the modern world we have become a bit more aware of all this as a result of climate change and concern with eco problems. However, the emphasis upon how to fix the problem, worthy as it is, still overlooks the more existential aspect that must also be a part of spiritual life. We should use the power we have in order to make things better, but we must also face our ultimate impotence. This should not make us apathetic, it should make us a little more humble.
The idea that this planet was made especially as the home for humans and that all the other species and things on this little world are there basically for our pleasure and consumption remains an implicit widespread belief. This attitude is not enshrined in Buddhism. We are fortunate beings, but we are not the masters of the universe and we are not here simply to exploit. In this short life we have the chance to receive the Dharma and be secretly, inwardly, transformed in an act of faith and humility. This transformation is the essential basis of true religion. This is what the Buddhas transmit to us and it is the seed from which flowers that great compassion that feels sympathy for all life everywhere.
Thus all obstacles become impediments to faith unless we experience contrition and letting go.
Path with a Goal
When we undertake a spiritual project, we are trying to achieve something. Buddhism is commonly presented as the attempt to achieve enlightenment. One then experiences many things as getting in the way. Many of these things are habitual characteristics of oneself. This can lead to a good deal of personal development as one tries to reform one’s life and to make oneself fit more closely to the ideal.
At the same time, this struggle inevitably gives rise to many doubts. One swings like a pendulum from enthusiasm to dejection and back again. It can also lead to a great deal of deception, both of others and of oneself. This kind of deception is generally not ill-intended, it is simply that one wants so much to fit into the expectation that any sign that one is doing so tends to be taken as confirmation and one then adopts that sign (lakshana) and turns it into a habit so that one artificially creates the appearance of a positive feedback loop. However, spiritual progress is not really about artificially conforming to a prescribed pattern, nor about being preoccupied with appearances. It is about liberation.
Old Habits Come Back to Haunt & Help Us
Also, when the old habit that one thought that one had overcome shows up again, one experiences a disappointment which crystalises into a doubt about one’s practice. One thinks, “I thought I had dealt with that issue and got rid of it - yet, here I go again.” This is a blow to one’s ego - one’s pride. The ego wants to present a tidied up picture of oneself to the world and even to itself.
So when such an “obstacle” recurs there are two options. One is, as just stated, to feel knocked back and lose faith. The other is to accept that this evidence demonstrates one’s bombu nature. We can see that the difference between these two options is the difference between pride and humility. Pride is a kind of “hanging on”. When we hang on to an idea of ourselves, it manifests as pride. This is true even when the idea that we have of ourselves is negative. The negative pride involved in hanging onto the idea of oneself as a victim or a damaged person or no good can be every bit as rigid as that of thinking of oneself as superior. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for both positive and negative forms of pride to go together.
This whole matter is also related to different conceptions of the spiritual path. On the path of the arhat, the goal is purity. On this path, spiritual pride is the last fetter that one abandons. This is because it is a path of earnestly trying to achieve an ideal. This inevitably involves repression and later that has to be undone - pride is the driving force of repression. On the path of the myokonin the whole thing works the other way around. The spiritual task of renouncing pride through contrition is the foundation rather than the final step. One keeps coming back to it over and over again, which is why we place stress on the bombu paradigm. The bodhisattva path, which is the central theme of the Mahayana, can be entered upon from either perspective.
Also, here, I need to unpack a little further what is meant by “obstacle”. A spiritual obstacle is, broadly speaking, whatever brings one’s spiritual life to a halt or hiatus. Thus, something that induces complacency is just as much of an obstacle as something like a moral defeat. In fact, more so. The moral defeat might seem like an obstacle, but, in fact, might inject a new dynamic into one’s spiritual life as one wrestles with motives, consequences and conceptions of oneself and the world, whereas complacency may maroon one for a long time without anything useful happening at all.
We should be able to see, at least in principle, therefore, that many of the things that we think of as obstacles are not really so and that the real obstacles often go unnoticed. This, of course, is what the Buddha meant by avidya and this is why we talk about “awakening”. When we open our eyes to our actual spiritual condition, our complacency is shaken.
Saving grace, as was made clear by Shan Tao's dream and advice to Tao Cho, only comes through the sange-mon.
Sange means confession or contrition. The sange mon is, literally, the “gate of contrition”.
According to the story, toward the end of his life, Tao Cho was worried about his own karma. The thing that worried him was that during his time as a great teacher he had caused quite a number of monasteries and Buddhist centres to be built and in the course of building it is almost invariably and unavoidably the case that many small creatures get killed and their habitat destroyed. Tao Cho was worried that all this destruction would have created bad karma for him. After he had talked about this, sharing his concern, his disciple Shan Tao had a dream. In the dream Shan Tao saw that Tao Cho had to make a confession to the community. Shan Tao told Tao Cho about the dream. Tao Cho did as the dream instructed and soon afterwards Tao Cho died peacefully.
Tao Cho was able to receive the saving grace of Amida because he had opened his heart.
It is good to reflect upon the degree of sensitivity here. Where I live I am continually engaged in gardening and in building work. Inevitably worms and insects and occasionally larger creatures get damaged or die as a result of my actions. What about in the building of motorways or cities? The “modern” utilitarian way of thinking is insensitive to all this destruction of life.
We see here the functioning of the master-disciple relationship in an interesting light. In this instance it is the master who receives advice via the dream of the disciple. Here again there is a great sensitivity at work. Because of the deep love between them, this is possible. Here there is no competition in cleverness or achievement, only two humble souls in deep communion.
When such fine sensitivity exists, then there is saving grace. By sensitivity, here, I do not mean pursuing principles to an extreme. What I am trying to find words for is a kind of tenderness in which the glory and tragedy of human existence - the fact that you cannot build even a temple without crushing beetles - yields a poignancy to all our being, both in ourselves and in relation to one another. This is why we take refuge.
Such tenderness existed between Tao Cho and his disciple and it is that spirit that is still being transmitted to us more than a millennia later.