In our home, Angie and I have two altars. One is where I perform Buddhist services and the other is where my wife practices traditional witchcraft.
Our practices address two realities or two truths. Generally, the Buddhist altar represents the transcendent nature of spirituality while the witchcraft altar represents the relative everyday nature of spirituality. I chant the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas while Angie makes offerings to the local spirits. Both of these activities are equally important.
Kukai, on of the greatest authorities on Shingon, planned the construction of the Mount Koya complex with these two realities in mind. Danjogaran, the large pagoda of the Koyasan Shingon tradition is nestled in the mountain with Sanno-do, an assembly hall dedicated to the Shinto Kami that protect the mountains. Though steeped in what is known as Esoteric Buddhism, Kukai, in his wisdom, saw the importance of acknowledging the realities of everyday life. Not only did he respect the Kami, but he would often leave the mountain to work on civil projects, such as the repair of a local reservoir and the creation of the first free School for Arts and Sciences for boys of poor families.
Buddhism has always had a practical side as well as a transcendent side. The Buddha gave advice on basic wise acts, such as the benefits of generosity. At the same time, he could lecture on increasingly abstract psychological concepts. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes Quan Yin’s ability to help protect people from worldly dangers as well as protect monastics from the dangers on the Path to awakening. In the Larger Pureland Sutra, the Buddha says that Amida’s Light can be a balm in this world just as the Pureland is a gateway to Buddhahood. Some needs are concrete while others are abstract and the wise prescribe medicine for both.
No matter how other-worldly one’s practice is, one’s situation is subject to the relative world. I must eat and sleep. I am affected by worldly systems, societies, and norms. Though all phenomena are empty, my conduct is still important. Though Sukhavati is bliss, I live in this world at the moment. Just as it’s a wholesome act to make offerings to the Tathagata, so too is it wise to make offerings to earthly spirits.
I am deeply grateful for my wife’s practice. In her way, she protects us with her offerings and plants seeds of generosity into the world. All in all, her offerings are a reminder for me to dedicate my practice to the unseen in my midst.
Over the past few weeks, protesters have removed several statues from their pedestals. One notable figure, Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star-Spangled Banner, was recently torn down in San Fransisco.
Francis Scott Key was a local in Fredrick, Maryland, about 25 miles from my home of Hagerstown. Many landmarks and institutions around Frederick are named after him.
Though he’s been known for what is seen as a patriotic poem, his racist crusade against the abolition movement is not often talked about in the media. His racism is also present in an often omitted stanza of his famous poem which demonstrates his hatred for the Black soldiers that fought for the British during the War of 1812. He reveled at the thought of their demise.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a country should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave; And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!
For the San Fransisco protesters and many others, that statue is a particular rupa, or form. In much of the Buddhist tradition, rupas are very important phenomena. Throughout the day one encounters many rupas that bring about different states of mind. For instance, the form of a tree might bring comfort while the form of a weapon might bring about a feeling of danger. This, of course depends on context and the experience of the person beholding the rupa.
For many, the rupa of Francis Scott Key represents an idol of hatred and oppression. In San Fransisco, protesters decided that they could do something about that oppressive figure and removed it. I’m sure someone in Frederick took notice.
In much of Buddhist practice, one may adjust their environment to suit there practice of the Dharma, such as removing things that are unwholesome. One may even replace the unwholesome with something wholesome, such as a Buddha rupa. These are the little changes that can lead to the realization of a pure land.
It’s the same in social justice. Taking down the idols of oppression, and possibly replacing them with wholesome forms, can be a relatively small yet positive step. It’s one of the many ways that people can start building a more just society.
I was born into my father’s white conservative evangelical worldview. I was expected to “be a man” like so many other boys. When he was alive, he attempted to police my thoughts through word and force so that I acted like a boy. There was one time when I mentioned that I liked the color red. He said “You shouldn’t like red, it’s a girl’s color. You should like blue.” Embarrassed, I said “Okay, I like blue.”
As a role model, he demonstrated that, apparently, a man must be angry and violent and that one’s wife and child are to be at the receiving end of that anger and violence. Even after he died, his version of manhood haunted Mom and I.
Mom later found a partner in Judy, the person I would call my “Other Mother,” or, more often, a “cousin of the family” to outsiders. Up until the very last years of their lives, my parents didn’t want to openly live as a couple. Judy was so scared of the consequences of being out that she didn’t want to be listed as a partner in Mom’s obituary. She told me that she was afraid that someone might attack her.
For me, it created some special issues. I had to act as straight as possible. Mom and Judy told me that I could not attract attention to them so as to give no one an excuse to out them. In a way, it was also to prove that two women could raise a son and that would turn out “normal”. When I found that I had discovered that I came to have feelings a boy in school, I was worried that I might be gay. It was ok for Mom, Judy, to be attracted to the same sex but not me. I truly felt that I had to “be straight” and “be a man” to protect them and myself.
And so, I was always preoccupied with masculinity, which sets an unachievable standard in this society. This only helped arise within me a toxic masculinity that stoked the flames of self-hatred and, by extension, a hatred of others.
Fortunately, in my mid twenties, I got into a relationship with Angie, my high school friend who would later become my partner and wife. She didn’t hold me to an unachievable standard. She just loved me (and still does). It was the first time that I felt truly accepted by someone.
Late into my twenties, I started exploring Buddhism, having decided that, if, in my view, Christianity didn’t accept my parents, I wasn’t going to accept it.* I then read an article that the Buddhist Church of San Fransisco had been performing same-sex marriages since the 1970s. Though I was interested in Zen at the time, I remembered that and decided that Buddhism, as I saw it, was much more welcoming. **
Eventually, as I’ve said in previous stories, I found Pureland. Then Mom and Judy died and I became more interested in the tradition.
The significance of Pureland to me lies in the idea that everyone is accepted by the Buddha. Most importantly, however, is that I am accepted and I am loved by the Buddha. And I don’t need to reform in some way or be endowed with inherent goodness to receive that love. I am just loved.
Over time, that love worked on me and helped soften my heart. By moving to Baltimore, I was taken out of the conservative culture back home. I also felt that I no longer had to protect anything as Mom and Judy were gone. I came to accept my attraction to more than one gender and found that the word bisexual was a good approximation of how I viewed myself.
Then came the gender issue. For most of my life, I’ve walked on eggshells around it, carefully monitoring how I acted so that I fulfill my so-callled duty to “be a man”. However, I found that, no matter what, that descriptor never suited me. It blocked out a femininity that rarely got to arise. Furthermore, the word “man” became empty in the Light of Amida. And so, with great relief, I discarded it. The closest terms that could describe me at this point is are masculine-presenting, genderqueer, and non-binary. Between these realities of sexuality and gender, I tend to just call myself queer for brevity.
How does this help me? I’ve come to accept myself more easily. I can be me. Now I wear red nearly every day for both religious and personal reasons as a reminder of that fact.
Other than Angela and Amida, there are other beings who have helped me accept myself. There are the friends I’ve made in Unitarian Universalism, Amida Shu, the bi community, and the non-binary community. I’m so very grateful for knowing them.
Accepting myself as I am, my foolishness included, I’ve also been able to reflect on my relationships with homophobia, transphobia, and racism as all of these are upheld by the Mara of white supremacy and patriarchy. Just to be clear, it doesn’t mean that life is suddenly easier as I still have a ways to go and hatred is still thick in the air of society. But, by having a better understanding of my queer nature, I’ve come a little closer to the ideal of wei wu wei, acting without acting.
Namo Amida Bu
*I would later realize that there are some wonderful lgbt+ Christians that have developed ministries that truly are inclusive.
** Again, I would later find that not all Buddhists welcomed lgbt+ people. Often they bypass the realities of bigotry through the teachings of non-duality and transcendence.
Often it’s said that the Amida is the Buddha of All Acceptance. The land of Sukhavati, where the Buddha abides, is open to every being. However, though the Buddha accepts and loves all, their ministry focuses on those who need them the most.
Amidism is an recognition that not everyone is born into the perfect spiritual circumstances that bring one to the entrance of a wealthy monastery or the feet of a rock star teacher. Many are pushed off to the margins of society. This marginalization can often result in a spiritual inequality as well as a societal inequality. Amida responded to this through the grace.
That’s why one need only to think of the Buddha, the act otherwise known as nembutsu. If one thinks of the Buddha one realizes the Light. There is no need for extensive wisdom or difficult practices. Amida makes themselves accessible in the most simple way, so that marginalized can enter the Path. By focusing on them, everyone can enter the Pure Land. This is Amida’s grace.
To realize the pure land here, we need to do the same. We need to turn our attention to black, indigenous, and trans lives and help dismantle the system that oppresses them. We need to listen to them as Amida does. With body, speech, and mind we must say that they matter.
The Buddha came from the oligarchic republic of the Sakyan people. This state was actually the vassal of the larger and more powerful Kingdom of Kosala. Though subjugated under Kosala, the Sakyans proudly enjoyed the honor and privileges of being of a higher caste than the Kosala King Pasenadi.
In order to increase his prestige, the king sent emissaries to the Sakyans, requesting a woman to wed so that his heir would be of nobler blood. The Sakyans, proud of their position and caste, were not willing to let him marry into the Sakyan fold. However, they knew he was quick tempered, his kingdom was powerful, and they were a mere province under his rule.
It was then that one of the Sakyans, Mahanama, offered the he could pass off a slave girl by the name of Vasabha as his Sakyan daughter and have her marry Pasenadi. Having accepted Vasabha, King Pasenadi had a son with her, known as Vidudabha.
After some time, Vidubabha visited the capital of the Sakyan republic, Kapilavatthu. Though he was warmly met, the Sakyans sent away their younger princes so that the younger generation would not salute the prince Vidudabha. Upon the conclusion of the visit, a servant was told to clean with milk the seat where the prince had sat because he was the son of a slave. While the servant was cleaning the seat, a member of the prince’s envoy heard her remark that the son of a slave had sat there. It was not long before the member of the envoy took the news to Vidudabha. Feeling humiliated and enraged, the prince vowed to destroy the Sakyan people.
Vidudabha’s anger festered over time and, after usurping the throne from his father, he decided to set his sights on the Sakyans. Not even the counsel of the Buddha would stop him. He and his army slaughtered almost all of the Sakyan people. When he left with Mahanama and his family, the rains came and the river Acirawati flooded, taking the prince and his army with it. Apparently Mahanama’s family escaped. Mahanama himself disappeared.
When hearing the news of this tragedy, the Buddha recounted that in past lives, the Sakyan princes poisoned that river long go, killing it’s fish, and that was the karmic reason for their demise. Regarding the prince and his army, the Buddha said that their unawakened states prevented them from seeing that their actions would also have consequences.
Though it would seem a little odd that the Buddha would attribute something other than the more recent act of racism to the downfall of the Sakyans, it may point to something quite relevant today. Maybe the story of the poisoning of the river points to a collective karma that has been perpetuated over centuries. Perhaps Vidudaha’s actions were the result of a long tradition of exceptionalism upheld by the Sakyan nobility. In the end, that racism and sense of exceptionalism swallowed the nation.
Considering the cyclic functions of samsara, is history repeating itself?
Karma (intentional action) is not always easy to write about. I, as an ordinary person, don’t know the full extent of the result of karma. However, there are very concrete examples being demonstrated in the consequences of state violence.
On Monday, George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer for the city. Chauvin knelt onto Floyd’s neck until he stopped pleaing that he was in pain and couldn’t breath. Floyd died.
Since his death there has been a protests across the country. In Minneapolis, the station for the 3rd precinct was set on fire and looting had been reported at a local Target and other stores.
I’m not going into the morality of looting and setting property on fire. I will discuss that there is a consequence to to the immoral decisions of state actors.
State actors have a lot of power to act in a moral fashion. Time and again we find that they choose not to. In this particular situation, the response was protests which have included property damage. That’s the consequence. That’s karma.
It’s not that those in power don’t realize this. They know. But they have the weapons and a need to exert their power. Unfortunately, the result of unrest tends to be further state action. Such action, however, will further show the illusion of the state and it’s need to prop itself up with violence.
Some people have condemned the protesters who have looted and damaged property. Instead of condemning them, it’s more useful to work toward dismantling white supremacy. It’s more useful to work toward dismantling the capitalist system that encourages disparity and the looting that is it’s result.
We can do this by building a pure land. How do you do that? We start by making sure everyone has access to healthcare, food, and shelter. We end the conflict for resources. We distribute power equitably. We stop encouraging racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. We can stop destroying the environment. Seems simple right?
We know these things but just as the Pure Land is not far, it is also an unfathomable distance from us. Just as creating a just society seems simple, there is a vast political machine with self-interested Maras bent on keeping it from happening.
I don’t know how to actually go about dismantling this system. I can do what I can personally in everyday life and that may be all I can do. A pure land seems to be something of an impossibility. However, it’s better to turn toward it and progress toward it than settle for what we have now.
Buddhism is about getting to the heart of the matter rather than just focusing on symptoms. As we do that socially we can see that the power of the state and the power of capitalism is as illusory as the power of samsara. And maybe, just maybe, we take the long road toward improving our conditions.
Taitetsu Unno (1998) once wrote about the symbolic nature of gold and lotuses in relation to Pureland Buddhism. He discussed Dharmakara’s vow that all beings in his pure land would be of the color of gold, signifying their enlightenment and their equality. Unno also notes that the lotus is a metaphor for the uniqueness of every person of the Pure Land. In brief, all beings of Sukhavati share a common awakened nature while still recognized as individuals in their own right.
In my particular religious community, Amida Shu, we recognize a common bond through Amida but we are respected as very different people. Some of us are psychotherapists and some of us are nurses, while others are college students and parents. I’ve found that same quality in the Oneness Buddhism community, which also stems from the Pureland school of Shin. It’s ministers share a common love for Dharma but come from many different walks of life and share their experiences in unique ways.
Even going back to the first Sangha, the Buddha recognized the different talents and affinities of his disciples. He never dismissed their identities for some “higher” truth of sameness. A healthy tradition respects unity and difference at the same time.
This is a very important aspect of practice for me. We don’t have to be something we’re not to be held by Amida. The Buddha loves every being just as they are and we can honor the Blessed One by doing the same as best we can.
Namo Amida Bu
Unno, T. (1998) River of Fire River of Water: An introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism. Doubleday
The Buddhadharma if full of amazing characters who, in there own way, contributed much to the tradition. Other than Shakyamuni himself, few figures have had as much influence over the evolution of Buddhism as Ananda. He might also be one of early Buddhism’s more relatable figures.
Ananda was a cousin of the Buddha who is most well known for being Shakyamuni’s devoted attendant, traveling throughout India, acting as the Buddha’s spokesman and secretary. He is also known for lagging behind in his development of the practice compared to his comrades, possibly due to his responsibilities. Ananda was, however, gifted with a good memory, able to recount the Buddha’s plethora of teachings. Due to his years of being in the near constant presence of the Buddha, he became a living book of Dharmic knowledge even if he wasn’t always able to understand it.
Ananda was also a well-loved friend to the nuns of the early Sangha because he successfully advocated for their inclusion. Finally, on a more Amidist note, because the Buddha transmitted the teaching of what would come to be called nembutsu to Ananda, he is responsible for furthering those teachings to the present day.
Ananda, however, did have his critics. Kasyapa was probably his most vehement opponent in the Sangha.
Kasyapa could be quite critical toward Ananda and his criticism seemed to come to a boiling point after the Buddha’s parinnirvana. It is possible that Ananda’s relatively liberal views toward a democratic Sangha with no head, his relaxed teaching style, and his advocacy for women to be part of the order were not welcomed by Kasyapa, who may have likely had a more authoritarian and conservative perspective due to his brahmin background.
This tension between the two disciples reflects not only a possible power struggle but also two different approaches to spirituality. Kasyapa emphasized a self-power path of discipline and meditation. Ananda, on the other hand, represents an Other-Power path of faith, dedication, and friendship. Though Kasyapa’s discipline helped hold the monastic order together after the Buddha’s passing, the spirit of Ananda’s celebratory faith helped the Dharma thrive among the the more devotional order members as well as the laity. Today, this legacy can be found in sculptures, paintings, prayers, and poetry.
Ananda was a relatively ordinary person living in the presence of wisdom and compassion. And though he was an ordinary person, the Buddha spoke through him. In this way, he represents those of us who have not mastered all of the wisdom of the Dharma but celebrate it with great faith nonetheless.
In Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish Beings, Rev. Satyavani Robyn writes that when exploring something new, like Pureland Buddhism, we can take from it the things that we like and set the rest aside. We can then later explore the tradition more deeply in our own time (Thompson & Robyn, 2015).
I find that my journey to Pureland has been much like this. At first, I started practicing just because I liked the Vietnamese phrase “Namu A Di Da Phat.” I had my doubts about the Pureland in general, but the phrase was nice. Little by little, however, I further explored the teachings and found a rich spirituality and many wonderful friends in the Dharma. It took some time but I’ve definitely found a home in Pureland Buddhism.
If you too are wading into this tradition, take it slow. If you are saying the nembutsu and find something good in it, that’ great. If you decide to explore the practice a little more, then all the better.
Namo Amida Bu
Thompson, K., Robyn, S. (2015) Just As You Are: Buddhism for Foolish Beings.Woodsmoke Press.