In the Lotus Sutra there is the idea of the apparitional city. This is in chapter 7 of the sutra. The chapter provides a parable of going on a journey. People set out on the journey, but they’re soon complaining that they’re tired and frightened and cannot go on. They want to turn back. The goal is too distant. The struggles along the way are too difficult, and so they’re inclined to give up.

This makes me think of the section in the film about Xuan Zang, where he acquires a disciple, Vandak  along the way, but the disciple eventually gives up because the journey is too dangerous and difficult; and Xuan Zang lets him go with a blessing and, no doubt, the disciple has gained something - he had previously been a robber but now he has spent a period of time with a bodhisattva. So, he’s bound to have benefitted, but when it comes to the crunch, he loses his nerve.

Many people take refuge, it can be total, it can be partial. They’ll go so far and this is a benefit, but it’s perhaps not all they could have.

So, in the parable, when the people start to complain that the journey is too long, the leader conjures up an apparitional city on the route ahead - goal that they can see that gives them hope. The travellers then stop thinking about the ultimate goal, which is too far away, and just aim for the city; and this enables them to keep going.

When they reach the city, their leader will then have to find some new way to get them not just to stop there, but to go on further. Many, however, will continue to cling to their apparition.

Nembutsu is taking refuge. Taking refuge can be to plunge directly into the depth of the Dharma or it can be a gradual journey on which one, bit by bit, sheds worldly attachments and turns towards the Buddha by degrees. There can be several stops along this journey of taking refuge, several apparitional cities along the way.

First stop might be that one takes refuge just as a way to access a community of people that one likes, or to gain access to the lectures of a particular teacher; and one might do this even though Buddhism is as yet just an interest, but one has taken a first step. One might become involved in such a community. One might become an enthusiastic participant in some of its activities. One might achieve some status in the group. 

Now, one gets to a second stopping place. Such grades are apparitional cities. But one may become comfortable in this or that status: one becomes defensive, if it’s threatened or challenged. One has joined the religion of non-attachment, but has become attached to one’s position in it.

Or, another stopping point: one has got one’s life arranged in compartments. In the temple one is a Buddhist, following the Buddhist theory. On the street one follows another set of thoughts, perhaps political or social ideas. In one’s work one has a third set. In one’s leisure others again. Of course, life does have these parts, but if one is only taking refuge in one of them, the others may easily start to take precedence. There’s quite a distance between being a member of several communities, one of which happens to be Buddhist, and being a Buddhist who is a member of several communities.

And what will one do when the apparitional cities prove to be mirage? Will one’s supposed refuge disappear? Will one turn back like Vandak or will one go on like Xuan Zang himself?

Xuan Zang became a most honoured one because in himself he was what Master Linji calls “A person of no rank”, who was, nonetheless, totally dedicated. His refuge enabled him to cross the desert and go on, even when his disciple abandoned the journey.

Namo Amida Bu
Thank you very much


You need to be a member of David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis) to add comments!

Join David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis)

Email me when people reply –