Yesterday I wrote a post about how I had a better grasp of Honen’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism, with emphasis on how it viewed other practices. In particular, I was talking about this article:
This article, very well written, provides a kind of path that one goes through along the Pure Land Buddhist path, and on first (and second) read, I thought this resolved my confusion over Pure Land and more “traditional” Buddhist approaches, but after re-reading the article overnight, and reading more about Honen’s approach to Pure Land Buddhism, I have changed my mind. I have also removed the previous post as I think it was inaccurate.
Pure Land Buddhism in general assumes a kind of pessimism that we are so far removed from the time of the Buddha that we can no longer put his teachings into practice. It is true that in general Buddhist thought the notion of impermanence applies to Buddhism as a religion as anything else in the world, and the Pure Land approach doesn’t malign these teachings that make up the religion, they simply see people as no longer capable of following them.
I couldn’t articulate my sense of Pure Land Buddhism lately, but now I think I know how to describe it: Pessimistic.
There are wonderful teachings, especially in Jodo Shinshu how people are supported by others through compassion and kindness throughout their lives. Then of course, the imagery of the Pure Land itself, especially when taken in light as a refuge for practicing the Dharma, is also lovely. I also love the persona of Honen and Shinran reaching out to forgotten and lost peoples and teaching them in ways other people didn’t. The story of Honen talking with the prostitute and offering her hope out of her situation is really touching to me, as is the story of Honen and the ex-thief Kyō Amidabutsu.
But there’s a nagging sense of pessimism to Pure Land that still bothers me. It makes a blanket negative statement that people can’t put the Buddha’s teachings into practice, but experience has taught me that this is not always true. I’ve met people, people I know well personally, who do live a pretty wholesome lifestyle. If they aren’t following all five precepts, they’re pretty close. These people may not be enlightened in this lifetime, but I am sure they’re well on their way. In the same light, I’ve met many people who even if Buddhist, certainly don’t act like it (this applies to me as well).
The point is is that I think assuming that people are pretty much incapable of attaining enlightenment is a distortion of the truth; it’s overly pessimistic. In the same light, Buddhists who strongly advocate the “innate enlightenment” teaching found in Zen and other groups, are being naively optomistic.
No pun intended, but I do believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Buddha taught that there were three kinds of arrogance:
- Assuming you were better than others.
- Assuming you were worse than others.
- Assuming you were the same as others.
The Buddha was teaching that one should hold no thoughts about how one compares to others, as this is just another form of ego. In the same way, assuming that people are innately enlightened, or hopeless is just another distortion. One or the other may be true, or neither, but in any case, it’s pointless to speculate; better to just focus on one’s situation and practice as the Buddha taught.
Make no mistake, the road to Enlightenment is hard, but if one even tries, they’ve nowhere to go but up. If one adopts even one moral precept, they’ve advanced that much further down the path. If a person resolves to stop swearing, to help out more at home, or whatever, than those too are advances on the path.
The Buddhist path is not an all-or-nothing path (am I Enlightened? am I not?). It’s a series of progressions, such that if one progresses long enough, they’ll look back and say “wow, I’ve come far”.
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa
P.S. Oddly enough, I find myself mentally coming back to the Heart Sutra after writing this:
Sariputra, the emptiness character
of all dharmas [all conditioned phenoma],
neither arises nor ceases,
is neither pure nor impure, and
neither increases nor decreases.