Three evenings from now, I will be entering a new phase of my Shin Buddhist experience: I’ll take part in a ceremony committing myself more deeply to the practice of Amida-shu Pureland Buddhism.
The ceremony will, I suspect, be simple; Amidist ceremonies usually are. However, if my previous experience of the spiritual life is anything to go by, the ramifications of this transition may be anything but.
Ever since I officially took refuge in Amida Buddha a year ago, I’ve been trying to fit the concepts of this school of Mahayana Buddhism into my personal frame of spiritual reference. On the whole, I’ve not been conspicuously successful.
Why that might be, I’ve had no idea. After all, the teachings of this “brand” of Buddhism are certainly not complex. In fact, they pretty much consist of just three fundamental concepts:
1) The threefold nature of Buddha: The Buddha is the object of refuge and source of grace in three ways: as absolute truth, as spiritual presence and as physical manifestation;
2) The twofold nature of the practitioner: The practitioner is “bombu” (we are fallible and vulnerable, lacking the power to become enlightened on our own); and
3) The singular nature of the practice: The practice is singular in that the “nembutsu” encompasses all.
[Note: “Nembutsu” is the practice of calling, via chanting or in meditation or mindfulness, upon Amida Buddha for that power. The phrase “Namo Amida Butsu,” one of several variations of the call, is the expression of taking refuge in Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.]
Not only are these concepts fairly easy to get the hang of, but in addition, considerable latitude is allowed for personal interpretation of those core teachings. Here is Dharmavidya, the head of the Order of Amida Buddha, on that subject:
These three constitute the core teachings of Amida-shu. Different members of Amida-shu may interpret these teaching in different ways. Amida-shu is in favour of personal spirituality and regards these three teachings as a framework within which individuals pursue their spiritual quest.
The nature of faith, the real meaning of a “spiritual Buddha,” the value of particular practices and so on, are things for the practitioner to find out through experiential immersion, experiment, and reflection. Amida-shu is thus a school of Buddhism with much scope for enquiry and is not a “hand-me-down” set of dogmas, even though it does provide a simple frame within which enquiry can proceed.
“So what’s the big deal?” you may ask. “Seems like a slam dunk to me.”
Well, I’ve been asking myself the same question. To hear my endless ruminations about it all, you’d think I was being dragged kicking and screaming to some fate worse than death – while in fact, in spite of my mental shenanigans, I’m happily participating in the life of our Pureland Buddhist sangha.
If our guiding teacher has been wondering what on earth ails me as I’ve whined endlessly on her shoulder in my struggle to get “real” with the simple practices of this mode of spiritual expression, I’m fairly certain that she hasn’t wondered nearly as much as I myself have!
I’ve had no idea why I couldn’t be comfortable with the thought of being a Pureland Buddhist – as opposed to, say, a Zen Buddhist, or a Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, both of which I’ve immersed myself in and learned much from.
After all, having been open to learning about many different styles of spiritual life, from shamanism to contemplative Catholicism to New Age spirituality, my difficulty in accepting the the simple concept of nembutsu isn’t only out of character for me, it’s downright donkey-like in its stiff-necked stubbornness.
And to complicate the issue even more, there’s been this continuing, pervasive feeling of the “rightness” of my choice of my Pureland Buddhist sangha as the place for me at this stage of my spiritual travels. It feels like home to me.
So to still be dancing around the issue as I prepare to take on a deeper commitment seems bizarre in the extreme. What on earth am I about, here?
Perhaps the difficulty lies in the fact that in other schools of Buddhism, “self-power” is the underlying concept. If you want to attain enlightenment, there are many practices (such as meditation, for instance) to help you in your journey. True, guidance comes from a teacher or guru, but the effort comes from the practitioner.
After spending a good portion of my adult life learning to be strong, to take responsibility, to trust myself, and in fact to rely on myself, this has seemed like a rational and eminently practical approach.
Pureland Buddhism, on the other hand, relies on “other-power.”
“Amida-Buddha-power,” to be exact.
Everything else I might, or might not, do (such as meditating, chanting, doing good works and so on) is a result, not a cause, of the attention I pay to the spiritual life I’m living at this moment.
Here’s Dharmavidya again:
Broadly, Amida-shu differs from many other schools of Buddhism in seeing many of the elements of Buddhist teaching as outcomes rather than as means.
In other words, it is common for Buddhism to be presented as a means to attain enlightenment; and the “eightfold path,” for instance, will then be presented as the method by which one can practice so as to arrive at the spiritual goal — whereas in Amida-shu, the eightfold path will tend rather to be seen as the outcome of a spiritual life.
This gives a particular flavour to this kind of spirituality, making it celebratory in nature rather than goal oriented.
The emphasis on “bombu nature” similarly eliminates any kudos in being spiritually advanced and facilitates a spiritual relaxation into a sense of assured grace.
Am I where I’m supposed to be? Apparently, yes.
Am I intellectually comfortable with this idea? Nope. It’s just too easy. Shouldn’t enlightenment be something you struggle to attain? Given my Protestant work ethic, a certain amount of struggle for such a reward is completely understandable, even desirable.
And yet. And yet. Is that really the problem?
Way down there where the rubber meets the road, faith-based practice is how I actually attempt to live my life, although apparently my rational mind hasn’t yet cottoned on to that reality! In fact, it’s beginning to look as though my intellect (Einstein’s “faithful servant,” remember?), on which I’ve relied all my life to make sense of my world, maybe isn’t the main player here that I’ve always thought it was.
You mean that all the while I’ve been busy trying to live this faith-based life, my so-called rational mind has been messing me around by insisting I have to choose from a cast of characters in order to make sure I’m surrendering to the correct NAME? God. Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. God. Amida Buddha. You mean this is what all my yammering has been about? Well, unfortunately, embarrassingly….yes.
Good grief. Some servant you are, rational mind!
Okay, here’s my bottom line, writ large: I cannot, will not, compartmentalize or “exclusivize” something that is greater than any single one of our world’s religions. I believe in this “something” down to my toenails, even if my so-called rational mind insists on playing games with me.
The name isn’t the important part; what’s important is the recognition that there is something greater, something beyond our paltry human understanding of life, the world, and spirit.
If I choose to call it Amida Buddha (or even George, to push the idea a bit further) and you choose to call it Yahweh or Divine Mother or The Great Unfolding, this naming changes absolutely nothing of the reality of that Great Compassion, that Light of the World, that Infinite Creative Consciousness. And what you do with it beyond that is your own business. I happen to believe that there are truths to be learned from all the major religions in the world. I’m exploring the truths of Amida Buddism at the moment. I’ll likely stay awhile too.
To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, ““The soul of spirituality is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms.” And these forms have a multitude of names.
or…any of the other 1001 names of God!
So there you have it. Imagine, all that fuss over one wee baby step.
If anyone is curious about Shin Buddhism, I’ve started reading an excellent book on the subject entitled River of Fire, River of Water, by Dr. Taitetsu Unno, one of the foremost authorities on Shin/Pure Land Buddhism (which, incidentally, dates back to the sixty century, when Buddhism was first introduced into Japan). So far, this book is not just interesting, but is actually a compelling read.
Another of the best Buddhist books I’ve read is a different take on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, entitled The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion, and written by Dharmavidya David Brazier, the head of our Amida Order.
Namo Amida Bu,