People often think that renouncing the world means to turn away from the world as it is and live in personal bliss. However, renouncing the world has a different meaning to me, particularly in relation to the nembutsu.
Though I accept the reality of the world, I renounce or reject the idea that it MUST be the way it is.
In brief, I reject the idea that we must live in a world dominated by greed, hate, and delusion. I affirm a better world, a pure land, where all are welcome and none live in fear. The image of the Pure Land of Amida guides me in doing what I can to make this world a little better. For me, the love, grace, generosity, and compassion inherent in every utterance of the nembutsu is a rebellion against the the very system that locks us all in conflict and turmoil.
In a recent conversation with some Dharma friends, a question about other-power and training arose. Sometimes it seems that training is an act of discipline that someone carries out through sheer will. However, how does that work in the context of other-power, where one relies on the Buddha? During the discussion, I gave the example of my mom and how I acted around her.
Being someone of a Christian upbringing, my mom disapproved of people saying the Lord’s name in vain. She especially did not like it when I did it.
When I was not around her, I was much more liberal with my words. It was second nature for me when I was with my peers. However, when I was home, I did my best to keep a check on my vocabulary of expressions. It was not that mom actually punished me for it, it was that she simply disapproved and, for me, that was enough. I imagine that, if I were to visualize my mom here with me in the room, I would likely refrain from certain language.
Training in the context of other-power is much like this. If I think of the Buddha, I tend to be more careful in my actions and speech. It’s not that I then go through a checklist of moral conduct to see if I’m acting appropriately, I just become more gentle in how I go about my business. As Dharmavidya writes “The Buddha-body is delineated by the precepts.” In other words, the Buddha is the model and, in their presence, I try to follow that model as best I can. Even if I can’t follow perfectly, I can at least see my own humanity in my efforts. I still learn.
Much of my training is simply acting within other-power. When I see the house shrine, I put my hands together and pay respects to the Buddha, even if just briefly. When I hear a bell, I bow. When I see my Dharma siblings sitting in meditation, I automatically do the same. When something significant happens, or even if nothing happens, I say the nembutsu. I don’t have to think about it.
It’s not as if I’m going through the motions. When I’m mindful of the Buddha, my actions are done out of the same love, respect, and gratitude that I have toward my mother, my wife, and my other family and friends. And with every gesture, I find some refuge and ease.
I’ve been enjoying Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. And like many folks, I’ve grown quite fond of Iroh, the old cool-headed firebender who does his best to guide his honorable yet stubborn nephew Zuko. Not only is the tea-loving ex-general a spin on the “old wise man” archetype, but he is later revealed in the Avatar series to be a prominent member of a group known as the Order of the White Lotus. The secretive order is made up of leaders from different nations who work to maintain balance between the powers of the various peoples of the world, much like the Avatar. In the The Last Airbender, they fight the expansion of Iroh’s own country, the Fire Nation.
The Order of the White Lotus shares similarities with, and is very likely inspired by, the lotus societies of China. The lotus societies were also rather secretive and, at times, rebellious. They also have their origins in the work of the first Pureland ancestor, Huiyuan.
Huiyuan founded the White Lotus Society, a group of monastic and lay Pureland Buddhists who gathered together to revere Amitabha. Not only did these Buddhists share a practice, they were also dedicated to each other, promising to meet one day in Sukhavati. After the successful establishment of the first lotus society, it is said that Huiyuan planted others.
After Huiyuan, the lotus societies would grow, and soon a spirit of community and political engagement evolved. Although largely keeping a Pure Land tradition, lotus societies would also form their own syncretic traditions, combining Taoism and Mancheism. The movement would also become millenarian in the idea that many adherents believed that Amitabha or Meitraya Buddha would descend upon the Earth and bring peace. They would also prove to be formidable and successful cells of opposition. The teachings of the White Lotus were the basis for the Red Turban Rebellion between 1351 and 1368 which lead to the downfall of the Yuan dynasty.
Centuries later, from 1796 to 1804, the White Lotus Rebellion would prove to terminally weaken the Qing dynasty, even after being crushed. Out of the movement rose the White Lotus military leader, Wang Cong’er. Her success in guerilla tactics against the Qing were noted by her admirers who compared Wang Cong’er to Hua Mulan.
In a time when this country is witnessing fascism, including the government’s use of federal police to beat, shoot, and kidnap protesters, I am finding inspiration in the lotus societies both historical and fictitious. They are a reminder that Buddhism has always been engaged in the world. Sometimes its followers bring down regimes.
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?