There is a famous carving in wood of Amida Tathagata glancing back. This glancing back statue is very famous. The expression on the face of the Buddha as he looks back is both tender and dignified, poised yet concerned.
In the year 1082, in February, before dawn, a monk called Eikan was practising nembutsu, circumambulating the altar. Suddenly he realised that the statue of Amida from the altar had come down and was walking in front of him. Eikan was astonished and frozen to the spot. The Amida figure turned its head and said, "Eikan, you are slow." This story represented by the statue illustrates the compassion of the Buddha who urges us forward, yet waits and cares for us when we fall behind. It is a symbol of the Buddha's love and gentleness and of him doing his best for us.
We, like children, learn by a mixture of receiving parental care and guidance and yet making our own mistakes nonetheless. The parent says to the child to be careful when he climbs up and walks along the top of a wall. The child may do so, but will push the situation to its limit so as to discover for himself what that limit is, sometimes by falling off and hurting himself. The parent may pick him up or might not be present when this happens, but, in any case, the child is emboldened - even emboldened to make mistakes - by knowledge of the parent’s solicitous care.
Buddhist refuge is like this. We learn paravritti in many cases by making mistakes, but our courage along such a rough path is reinforced by our trust in the care of the Buddhas. Following in the footsteps of the Buddhas does not mean slavish imitation, it means finding out for oneself. Refuge gives courage. Courage facilitates action. Action brings experience and experience brings learning. If we do our learning in the context of refuge, the learning completes and our heart then knows what we are really doing. Then the path unfolds naturally before us. Even so, the Buddha will still glance back from time to time to see how we are doing.
A KINDLY WORD
When we are on such a path, we ourselves also naturally “turn back” in this same way. We have sympathy for the afflicted. Having learnt from our own mistakes and those of others, we appreciate what it is to live in this world of impermanence. Thus we reach out to others when they are in distress. Often there is nothing we can do in a practical way, but a kindly word can make a lot of difference. Inspired by the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, even though our efforts are tiny, such small acts of kindness can make an important contribution to the wellbeing of many. Each such act sets up a positive ripple and one cannot know how far it will go.
Every turning is both a turning away and a turning toward. The Amida turns back so as to turn toward Eikan in order to assist. The Dharma teachings instruct us in both turning back and turning toward. When done fully they constitute the two great ideals. Turning away makes one into an arhat. Turning toward makes one a bodhisattva.
[To be continued]