Calling and Directing

Since we mentioned hell in the last post, it seemed fitting to talk about the Pure Land next for this Ohigan season.

One of the most famous expositions on the Pure Land is the explanation by Shan-tao (613-681, 善導, zendō in Japanese, seondo 선도 in Korean) an early Pure Land Buddhist master in China. He wrote a famous parable called the Two Rivers and the White Path (二河白道, nigabyakudō):

The White Path and the Two Rivers, a parable by Shan-Tao.
The White Path and the Two Rivers, a parable by Shan-Tao.

In it, he describes a scene where a man faces two rivers: a river of fire and a river of water. Between them is a narrow, white path that he is afraid to cross, but behind him are tigers and robbers who are coming after him. Then he hears two voices:

…he hears someone from the east bank call out and encourage him: “Friend, just follow this path resolutely and there will be no danger of death. To stay here is to die.” And on the west bank. there is someone calling out, “Come straight ahead, single-mindedly and with fixed purpose. I can protect you. Never fear falling into the fire or water!”

I often think about this parable. To me, the two rivers represent sensual-desire (the river of water, which you can drown in) and hatred/aversion (which can consume you). The narrow, white path of course is the middle way, while the robbers and tigers are things like old-age, disease, time, etc.

But what about the two voices? The voice directing the man to cross the white-path is of course the historical Buddha. He came to this world, became enlightened, and showed us the way forward: the Dharma. And the other voice? This is Amitabha Buddha calling from the other side (the Pure Land), outside of Samsara, to follow the path.

So, in a sense, there are two Buddhas in the Pure Land tradition: the historical Buddha in this world who directs us, and Amitabha Buddha who calls us.

There’s a lot of ways you can interpret this, and they’re all valid. You can see this is a parable in mindfulness, which helps us follow the Middle Path, and escape death, rebirth, etc. You can see this as a parable in aspiring to our higher selves, you can see this as a parable to seek the Pure Land as a refuge from this world, you can see this as a parable of Enlightenment itself (Amitabha representing Enlightenment and Liberation).

Anyhow, I often use this parable to remind myself not to be swayed by sensual desire, or by hatred/aversion as much as possible, and to keep moving forward. Regardless of how you interpret, this is a good lesson to learn.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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