Efficacy of the Pure Land Buddhist path

People often wonder, when they first explore Buddhism, how Pure Land Buddhism relates to Buddhist concepts such as the Eightfold Path, The Four Noble Truths and so on. The line of reasoning here is if you aren’t making a conscious effort to follow the Eightfold Path, how can you call yourself a Buddhist?

Pure Land Buddhism does not negate the Four Noble Truths in any way. Afterall, it’s because we suffer and are mired in our own delusions and craving that Amida Buddha created the Pure Land and the vows to provide refuge to all. However, the Eightfold Path is less obvious at first sight.

People do not consciously practice the Eightfold Path in their following of Pure Land Buddhism, but through self-reflection, hearing the Dharma, and taking sincere refuge in Amida Buddha, the Eightfold Path is gradually fulfilled. The first of the Eightfold Path is Right View, and one cannot appreciate Amida’s Vow without first comprehending the state of one’s own mind, and the fact that there is no lasting happiness in the world. Dispassion and detachment, which the Buddha speaks of, likewise grow as one practices the path. This does not mean that people become cold robots, but rather that they are not so caught up and flustered by life. If life does not go their way, they are not upset by this because they know they are embraced by Amida Buddha’s light. Likewise, when times are good, they enjoy it, but still keep their eye on the prize (the Pure Land).

Rennyo Shonin once wrote a poem stating:

Those who hear
That ‘I’ does not exist
Should all lose no time
In trusting Namo Amida Butsu.

This illustrates that true faith in Amida and effort in being reborn in the Pure Land cannot occur until one has developed Right View.

As for factors such as Right Livelihood and Right Effort, these still hold true in Pure Land Buddhism. Remember that if you are doing devotional practices, you are not spending your time doing naughty stuff. πŸ˜‰ At minimum, it’s wholesome karma, but in the long-run, it’s a fulfilling practice.

In one story, Honen met a woman who was a prostitute, and she begged him for help. He told her that if at all possible, she should quit what she’s doing, but if this is not possible, then she should sincerely recite Amida’s Name (the nembutsu) diligently. It was said later that she kept up the practice until she died, and Honen, upon hearing this, declared that should would surely be born in the Pure Land.*

As for factors such as Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, this does not necessarily elude to meditation as we know it. The Buddha, as explained by Walpola Rahula, encouraged followers to cultivate skillful behavior (bhavana in Sanskrit), and meditation is one such means of doing this. However, self-reflection is likewise a skillful behavior because we become more aware of our actions than before. I can personally attest to this as a Pure Land Buddhist over the last 3 years. I do not meditate often, but in my reflections, I have learned a lot about myself that I did not realize before. This is, in Pure Land terms, Amida’s Light shining upon one’s own foolish and ignorant behavior.

Honen, also taught that through following the Pure Land path, one developed something called the “Three Minds”, which are:

  1. The Sincere Mind.
  2. The Profound (or Deep) Mind.
  3. The Dedicated Mind (toward the Pure Land).

Also through Pure Land Path, Honen taught that one would give rise to the Four Modes of Practice:

  1. Reverence to Amida Buddha and the Bodhisattvas of the Pure Land.
  2. Whole-hearted and exclusive practice of reciting Amida’s Name.
  3. Uninterrupted practice.
  4. Long-term practice.

So, here we see a person cultivating skillful behavior such as dedication, reverence (and by extension humility) and focus. These traits are also taught in Buddhism in general.

Lastly, D.T. Suzuki said that if you wanted to know the efficacy of reciting the nembutsu, you should just do it. Only if you follow the path can you see its fruits, which is true of any Buddhist path.

Anyways, that’s all for now. Going to bed. πŸ™‚

Namuamidabu

* – This is notable for another reason in that earlier medieval Buddhist thought generally put women at a disadvantage in terms of rebirth and practice. The idea of a woman, let alone a woman-of-the-night, being a dedicated Buddhist and being reborn in the Pure Land was quite progressive. To this day, Pure Land Buddhism is more popular among woman than men. It’s true at my own temple, and in the broader scheme of things. Men prefer to barrel through difficult practices while woman appreciate the equal salvation of Amida’s compassion I suppose. Whose the smarter of the genders here? πŸ™‚

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Thought for the day

This comes from God Emperor of Dune:

Think of it as plastic memory, this force within you which trends you and your fellows toward tribal forms. This plastic memory seeks to return to its ancient shape, the tribal society. It is all around you — the feudatory, the diocese, the corporation, the platoon, the sports club, the dance troupes, the rebel cell, the planning council, the prayer group . . . each with its master and servants, its host and parasites. And the swarms of alienating devices (including these very words!) tend eventually to be enlisted in the argument for a return to “those better times.” I despair of teaching you other ways. You have square thoughts which resist circles.

–Emperor Leto II, Stolen Journals

It’s amazing when you think about it, how much “group instinct” tends to drive our lives, and how much we long for leaders drive us, even though we want individuality and freedom of choice.

P.S. More on “tribal” thinking in a later post.

“Unbeaten by Rain” – A poem

While at the temple one last Sunday morning, I was carrying Baby around during the service trying to calm her down. It seems she was spooked by the audience clapping at one point (awards were being handed out). So, while quietly roaming the halls, I stumbled upon an old Japanese Buddhist poem that someone had framed and hung on the wall. It was a really beautiful poem, so I looked up the author on Google, and to my surprise he’s a famous Japanese Buddhist poet named Kenji Miyazawa. Apparently he suffered from a disease called pleurisy his whole life, and was very devoted to the Lotus Sutra.

Anyways, the name of the poem is β€œUnbeaten by Rainβ€œ. The original poem was posted at the Manitoba Buddhist Church and goes like so:

Amenimo Makezu (Unbeaten by Rain)
by Kenji Miyazawa

Unbeaten by rain
Unbeaten by wind
Neither by the snow nor the summer heat
Having a healthy body
Freed from greed
Never getting angry
Always smiling quietly
Having four cups of brown rice a day
With miso and a small amount of vegetables
Doing all things
Without calculating selfish ego
Seeing, asking, and understanding these things well
And not forgetting
In the shadow of the pine forest in the field
Living in a small thatched house
If there is a sick child in the east
Go and take care of him
If there is an exhausted mother in the west
Go and carry a bunch of rice stalks for her
If there is a man near death in the south
Go and tell him not to be afraid
If there is a fight and a court case in the north
Go and persuade them to stop it
because it is not worth it
Shedding tears on a scorching day
Walking with worry on a cool summer day
Being called a fool by everyone
Neither to be praised,
Nor to be worried
Such a person I want to be

Translated by Fujuwara Sensei, Vancouver Buddhist Temple
Source: Rev. Fujikawa, Vancouver
April 15, 2000

I think this poem is really, really cool. Beyond all the doctrinal stuff, I think this is what speaks to the heart of Buddhism.

Namo Amida Butsu

Fortune-mod manpage

I found this very amusing and had to pass it along. This comes from the manpage of the Linux version of the fortune-mod program:

The supplied fortune databases have been attacked, in order to correct orthographical and grammatical errors, and particularly to reduce redundancy and repetition and redundancy. But especially to avoid repititiousness. This has not been a complete success.

It’s fun to see what developers hide in their own manpages. πŸ™‚

Cool Buddhist comic

Tatsuya Ishida, author of “Sinfest” webcomic, published another great one this Sunday:

Sinfest, sunday March 30th

I really liked Sunday’s comic because it conveyed a few things in my opinion:

  1. Beyond all the Buddhist rhetoric, the basic teaching surrounding a Bodhisattva or Buddha is simply one who works to make the world a better place for everyone. Notice that even the Devil benefits from the tree too. This reminds me of a wonderful quote from the Flower Garland Sutra:

    On seeing a bodhisattva
    Perform various practices,
    Some give rise to a good mind and others a mind of evil,
    But the bodhisattva embraces them all.

  2. When the Buddha is done with the tree, he rightly departs without taking credit or gloating over it. This is a hard thing for people to avoid doing, but if one can simply walk away and move on, what a great person that is. This reminds me of the Tao Te Ching, where Lao Zi that the way of the sage is to complete one’s work and withdraw, rather than clinging on for more praise.
  3. Everyone enjoys the tree in their own way. The Buddha does not offer the tree for one purpose, he cultivates the tree so that everyone can enjoy it in their own way, each according to their own level. This reminds me very much of the fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha’s teachings are like refreshing rain, and each plant drinks to its own capacity and grows from it.

Anyways, very cool comic this Sunday. Tatsuya, if you ever stumble on this blog, keep up the great work! πŸ˜€

Namuamidabu

Uposatha: Take 3

I really am a glutton for punishment. I decided to try and observe the Eight Precepts on Uposatha, the Buddhist sabbath, again. I’ve tried this two other times, and it went like so:

  • First attempt: I made it through, but had a lot of nagging (read: paranoid) self-doubt as to whether I made an inadvertent oversight.
  • Second attempt: I gave up in the afternoon. I hadn’t eaten very well in the morning and had some more self-doubt.

However, recently, a conversation came up on e-sangha about observing Uposatha, and people (including myself) asked the monks if “A” broke the Eight Precepts, or if “B” did and so on. The monks provided helpful answered, and made me realize some critical points:

  1. Sitting in a car seat does not violate the Eighth Precept for abstaining from luxurious seats. Neither do office chairs, if it’s the standard issue.
  2. Listening to baby music in order to entertain Baby does not violate the Seventh Precepts on entertainment. For that matter, neither does playing with the Baby at all.
  3. Reading books does violate the Seventh Precepts if they’re for entertainment, not studying the Dharma.

So with that in mind, I will take the Eight Precepts tomorrow and observe Uposatha. Wish me luck!

Buddha-nature and Shin Buddhism

Warning: Long post, but hopefully interesting. πŸ™‚

Jodo Shinshu, or “Shin”, Buddhism is unusual among Mahayana Buddhist sects in that it denies the notion of Buddha-nature in the conventional sense. Buddha-nature is a term that gets used a lot in Buddhism, and is used in positive terms to show that within a person is the potential to be a Buddha. In Soto Zen for example, you often hear that while you are meditating, you are a Buddha, you are expressing your Buddha-nature. A nice Shingon Buddhist priest in my neighborhood, upon hearing about Baby being born, wrote me a friendly email saying “Congratulations on the birth of a new Buddha”. πŸ™‚

However, in discussing Buddha-nature, Shinran once wrote the following:

Karmic evil originally has no form;
It comes from delusions and inverted thinking;
The nature of Mind is originally pure,
but no one has a mind true and sincere.

The notion of “original mind” is another euphemism for Buddha-nature. The idea among Mahayana Buddhists (including Zen among others) is that when we purify our minds of ignorance, then Buddha-nature emerges from deep within our mind and we are enlightened. A typical analogy is a pond whose waters are disturbed. When the water settles, we can see our reflection.

But here, Shinran is saying that no one has Buddha-nature, by default that is.* People are, in Shin Buddhist terms, bonnō (η…©ζ‚©) meaning ignorant and passionate by their nature. Oftentimes, people don’t even know they’re ignorant (or the extent of their ignorance). Shinran denies the notion of people possessing an original mind that only needs to emerge.

People reading this may find the notion offensive. Buddha-nature has a positive connotation to it, but Shinran is taking a decidedly negative view point instead. However, there is more.

Shinran writes about Buddha-nature in his text Notes on Essentials of Faith Alone:

The Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood. Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of Dharmakaya-as-compassion (Amida Buddha), this entrusting is none other than Buddha-nature (Notes, p. 42).

This is a pretty cryptic statement, and although I’ve read it many times, I just never got it. Recently I was re-reading Taitetsu Unno’s book River of Fire, River of Water, which helped shed light on this at last.

What he says here is that though we have no Buddha-nature by default, through entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha, Buddha-nature now becomes a reality within us. Shin Buddhists who have followed for a long time, often describe how they thought they were “practicing” Buddhism, only to realize much later in hind-sight that it was Amida leading them. That awakened aspiration towards Enlightenment does not come from within ourselves, but rather from Amida Buddha.

This is confirmed by excerpts for example in the Nirvana Sutra:

Great joy and great even-mindedness are none other than Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is Tathagata [Buddha].

And in the Flower Garland Sutra:

The Tathagata [Buddha] dispels forever
The doubts of all sentient beings,
And all the aspirations of their hearts
He brings to complete fulfillment.

I thought about this further, and came to a realization that the self (or rather the illusion of self) cannot be used to awaken from the illusion of self. In other words, there’s something fundamentally limited about the notion of an entirely self-oriented approach to Buddhism. As the saying goes “the eye cannot see itself”. It takes something external to reveal what the eye really is.

So, this is where the notion of entrusting one’s self to Amida Buddha becomes something very important.

Also, for all you scholars out there, the notion of Amida Buddha being not a physical Buddha, but the truth itself manifested as compassion (Dharmakaya-as-compassion above) is not unique to Jodo Shinshu. I had an interesting conversation with another Shingon priest recently who reminded me that in Shingon Buddhism, which is an older sect of Buddhism than Jodo Shinshu, also treats Amida Buddha as Dharmakaya-as-compassion. In Shingon Buddhism, the central Buddha is Mahavairocana, who is the embodiment of reality and truth itself, but Mahavairocana manifests in other forms as shown in the famous Matrix Mandala below:

Womb Realm Mandala

In this Mandala, Mahavairocana the primal Buddha, sits in the middle with various emanations around him. Amida Buddha sits at the bottom, in red robes (typical symbolism in esoteric Buddhism). The point here is that instead of reading the Buddhist sutras about Amida Buddha literally, the deeper meaning is that Amida Buddha embodies truth, but in the form of sincere and boundless compassion.

Entrusting one’s self to Amida is more than just entrusting to some savior figure, it’s something far deeper and more moving, but this does not reveal itself right away. You can’t force it either, it just happens on its own pace, in its own time.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jodo Shinshu starts out such a counter-intuitive teaching, but the more you explore it, the more profound and sensible it becomes. :p

Namuamidabu

* – In nerd/programmer terms, the person object has a $buddha_nature variable set to 0 by default. Or is that a 1? I always forget. πŸ˜‰