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.
“There is no secret about calling upon the sacred name except that we put our heart into the act, in the conviction that we shall be born into the Land of Perfect Bliss.” (Honen the Buddhist Saint, 2006)
In the Dharma, intention is important. It colors a particular action, giving it a certain quality. For example, if one gives a gift begrudgingly, the quality of the action is said to be inferior to one who gives with faith.
The same goes for saying the Name. If I say the nembutsu carelessly, then my heart isn’t in the act and so I more easily turn back to all those things that bother me. But if I say the nembutsu with heart and faith then I find ease, joy, or even just some significant respite from this samsaric world.
I would like to note that, whether one can put their heart into an act or can’t (for human reasons), it’s all still wholesome. In the end, a good action is still a good action. But if one can, even every once in a while, call the Name with all that they are, they’ll find quite a blessing.
Namo Amida Bu
Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom Inc.
Honen emphazised that, in regard to Pureland, oral teachings are just as important as the written teachings. He said that because, the Buddha was talking to an audience of “good” people in the sutras, one might “deprecate themselves” and have doubts about their own ability to realize the Pure Land. Honen found it important for ordinary people to know that though the Buddha was speaking to “good” or saintly people, the Pure Land teaching was still applicable to the ordinary person (Honen the Buddhist Saint, 2006).
I have never thought of this as an issue before, however what I do take from the above is that encounters with spiritual friends are just as important as reading. A more modern view might be that oral teaching is a person-to-person teaching, which may take many forms. This allows for someone with experience to make the text more relatable and inclusive to another. Having been given Dharma in both forms, one can then develop a deep understanding of their own. For example, I’m mostly paraphrasing a particular translation of the above teaching because I find that the translation itself uses language that might be off-putting to some. In this review I’m also elaborating on the term “oral teaching” for a more inclusive understanding. In a sense, this approach follows the spirit of Honen by keeping the audience in mind. This is what we call upaya or skillful means.
Namo Amida Bu
Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (2006) World Wisdom, Inc.
On the morning of Sunday the 11th of September 2016, I was waiting outside the Homewood Friends Meeting house where the Baltimore Dharma Group met for their weekly Zen practice. It was then that I got a call from my mother’s partner, Judy, that Mom had died in the night at the nursing home that she was supposed to be staying at temporarily. At that moment, my world was uprooted.
For me, my mother Tess was a constant. Though she was born on the 11th of June, 1957, as far as my little history was concerned, she hailed from the beginingless begining. It was not until the moment of learning of her death did I understand her as my first refuge.
And then she was gone.
Crying at the steps of the meeting house, I suddenly felt something I had never truly felt before. I felt the utter rawness of true uncertainty. I felt as if I was standing at the gate of something awesome and terrible. It was the gaping maw of impermanence.
It was then that, with sorrow and desperation, the words “Namo Amida Butsu” came pouring out of me. No amount of “coming back to the breath” was going to help. I needed to express my sadness, my fear, and my anger and the nembutsu helped me do that.
And so I grabbed tight to the Buddha’s robes and took refuge.
I had come to the meeting house by bus but decided that I couldn’t bare being around others, so I walked home reciting the nembutsu. As I walked, I noticed another new phenomenon.
I noticed that the nembutsu didn’t necessarily make me feel better but I certainly didn’t feel worse. It was the only thing at that time that was not painful to me. There was an active gentleness to the Buddha’s presence that countered the worst of my grief. The Buddha allowed me to be human and be with my sadness. I was allowed to be bombu, a being of wayward passion.
After I got home, hugged my wife Angie, pet my cats, and called the nursing home, we left to go to see Mom off. At the facility I found her still and blue. It was not my first corpse but it was still surreal, probably more so because, for human reasons, I wanted to believe that she couldn’t die.
After packing her belongings, I asked Angie to wait outside. My mom knew I was a Buddhist and was aware of my nembutsu practice. She would understand that I’d mourn in my own way. Putting my hands together, wrapped with a mala, I said the nembutsu over her body several times. Then, with a bow, I left her to the capable hands of the mortician.
Within months, my cat, Veda, and and my other mom, Judy, died. At the same time of Judy’s death, my good friend, Hoin, of another Zen group I went to, passed as well.
I would still grieve on and off for quite some time, often when I least expected it. Just as pain arises, it ceases. And so it goes with affinities. I lost my interest for Zen as a tradition and turned toward the Pure Land.
In a recent podcast, Dharmavidya talked about how some people, after loss, look to the other world and take relatively little interest in this one. Often the reason they do this is because they wish to reunite with those they love. I find myself among those people. Since mom’s death, I’ve kept my heart in the Pure Land. Though I’ve found this world more precious, beautiful, and important to care for because of it’s fleeting nature, I don’t see it as my home.
Does that make me too other-worldly? Perhaps. However, my faith in Amida, the Dharma, and the Pure Land, has kept me afloat. It helps me meet this world as it is.
Loss is hard for everyone and we all deal with it differently. Fortunately for me, I found the Buddha. May we all find refuge in the darker moments of our lives.
Throughout countless streams of Buddhism, spiritual practice and secular society in general, there persists an inclination that all are one, all is the same. At times, this leads to the desire for folks to repress whatever they may feel sets them apart as themselves, instead opting for a stone-faced demeanor out of the desire for some form of spiritual or social advancement or progression. While some may think this sounds all fine and well, I can’t help but take away an unpleasent perspective from it. While I certainly personally affirm that we all have a commonality about us – perhaps one may wish to call this our Buddha Nature – I could never fully wrap my mind around this practice in life, no matter what terminology or form it was presented.
Oneness is a major teaching in most if not all forms of Buddhism. In his celebrated book Everyday Suchness, the late Rev. Gyomay Kubose dismissed the aforementioned interpretation of this teaching. Instead, Rev. Kubose advocated for an understanding of Oneness that affirms the unique yet interconnectedness of all things.
During a recent conversation with a Facebook friend of a similar yet different religious group, I had offered the remark that “our divisions are our diversity”. At the end of the day, does it truly matter what pew, chair or cushion we sit on? As long as one is feeling nourished and progressing in their own personal journey, I think not.
Let us always strive to be the best “us” that we can be. Let us affirm each other simply for being oneself rather than striving to embody some other idea or image. Let us embrace the Oneness of all by cherishing the uniqueness of all.
Prayer has many aspects. It also has many meanings for many people. Growing up, I understood it as some special way of speaking to God. Nowadays, I have a different understanding.
Sometimes, prayer is used as a means to gain protection. For instance, there are many instances when Buddhist may pray to protect themselves, their communities, and their nation. In Japan and other countries, it has been a tradition to pray and recite sutras to protect the sovereign.
Sometimes, prayer is a show of solidarity. I personally consider phrases such as “I’ll keep you in my prayers” as a gesture of support and goodwill.
Still, for some, prayer is seen as a form of development for the mind. The activity of prayer certainly does help create good conditions for practice because it can direct the mind to a wholesome object.
Then there is the cry for help, the petitionary prayer for when there is nothing one can do.
In my case, I cry out to the Buddha.
There is a common teaching in Japanese Pureland that the “Namo” of Namo Amida Bu is the foolish being calling out to that which is compassionate and wise, the “Amida Bu”. In this way, Amida Buddha provides a refuge to feel fear, pain, loss, sorrow and the whole range of human emotions. To cry out to Quan Yin is similar. She too embraces the humanity of the person who calls out to her, taking many forms to do so. In this way, calling out to the compassionate, is a form of prayer.
Such a prayer can be a source of relief, like opening a valve. To me, it’s preferable to holding in pain until it festers and erupts.
To pray is to be human. Humans pray for different reasons and all reasons to pray are valid ways to turn to the Dharma.
Since practicing social distancing, I’ve been thinking more about my solitary retreat at Amida Mandala. My first post was about part of that experience, where, during a 48 hour period, I stayed in one room (with occasional outings to the back garden) and chanted the nembutsu.
I had very little contact with anyone except Rev. Satyavani and Rev. Kaspalita during the retreat. It was lonely and quite frustrating at times but it was also punctuated by moments of joy. Most of those moments came in the form of food.
Satya and Kaspa delivered meals to me three times a day. When they knocked on my door, I felt a great relief. In the brief time that they whispered a greeting and passed along my tray of food, I was elated.
As hard as I try, I can’t remember most of those meals. However, I do remember the cherry tomatoes.
I’m not really a fan tomatoes. I can live without them. However, those cherry tomatoes were an exception. As far as I was concerned, they were a blessing.
As I ate them, I found myself savoring them. Generally, I eat pretty mindlessly, but this was different. For those moments, as I sat alone, nothing could compare to the taste of those cherry tomatoes. As I ate them slowly, one by one, I felt a a rare sense of genuine gratitude.
Slowing down can be a challenge. For me, it can be quite frustrating. However, in the midst of it all, the Light trickles through the clouds illuminating little miracles here and there. For that, I give thanks.