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 in a certain light by 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… any 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 even 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.