Commentary on the Summary of Faith and Practice, Part One
Text: For those having a karmic affinity with Amitabha Buddha
This is the first phrase of the Summary. It tells us for whom this text is written and to whom it applies. An implication is that this is not for everybody. Not everybody has an affinity with Buddhism and even among Buddhists different people may have affinities for different Buddhas. This is, therefore a message of tolerance and openness. There is no attempt here to say that everyone must be the same.
Affinity means a connection or association or friendship that feels natural. Many of us have had the sense, on discovering the Dharma, that we recognise something, almost as if coming home. Karma refers to the effects and consequences of intentional action. So the idea here is that through many lifetimes one has performed intentional acts that have strengthened the connection. So encountering the Buddha is not something entirely new.
Amitabha is a Buddha Tathagata. Tathagata is roughly a synonym of ‘Buddha’ but with somewhat different implication. The word ‘Buddha’ literally means ‘awake’. ‘Tathagata’ - in Japanese, Nyorai - however, implies a saviour - literally, one who comes from suchness. ‘Suchness' or ‘thusness’ - tathata - is a technical term in Buddhism. It refers to the source domain from which Buddhas come. - the Dharmakaya. Loosely we can think of it as the transcendental realm or the absolute. This is really indefinable and indescribable, so the term tathata is a makeshift designation, just saying ‘that’.
There are many Buddha Tathagatas. These are the great archetypes of Buddhahood. Amitabha - Japanese, Amida - is the most popular because he is associated with ‘all acceptance’. Amitabha loves and accepts people just as they are, just so long as they turn toward him and hear his name. In practice, this means that devotees of Amitabha stand in a particular relation of humility and gratitude in relation to Nyorai. Those who have an affinity to Amida are those who recognise their own limitations, vulnerability and foolishness and so feel immense gratitude for the all accepting grace of the Buddha.
The word Amitabha means ‘measureless light’ (Amita, measureless; abha, light). This Buddha is also called Amitayus which means measureless lifespan. These two together imply filling the whole of space and time. The principle that Amitabha represents is infinite. The Dharma is not just one idea, it is truth that permeates the universe. The Way of Amitabha actually underpins all true religion, even if completely different terminologies are used. This, therefore, is a generic spirituality that can appeal to people of many cultures. By putting down arrogance and receiving grace all shall be saved.
This means that in this style of Buddhism a person is not striving to become Buddha. One might become a Buddha, but if one does it will not be as a result of trying. It does not work that way. This is rather similar to the Biblical principle that the last shall be first and ‘Blessed and the meek’. Thus, in associating with Amitabha there is also a sense of spiritual protection and safety. By admitting one’s weakness one puts oneself in a position of vulnerability where one will be spiritually protected by the Tathagata.
Those who associate themselves with Amitabha by turning toward him and hearing his name are shravakas. This word is often translated ‘disciple’, but the word actually means ‘listener’. Shravakas listen to the name of Amitabha and this gives them joy. This joy is a sign of their natural connection, as when you hear the name of an old friend mentioned. Finding this Dharma we feel a great relief. Up to this point we have been struggling to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and becoming exhausted in the process. We have tried to overcome suffering and suffered more in the attempt. We have sought for liberation and become more lost and imprisoned in our own delusions. Now we can put all that burden down. What a relief!