QUESTION: I have been at an event this weekend led by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The teacher taught about the four immeasurables, loving kindness, compassion and tonglen meditation. Today she is teaching about lojong mind training. I found some of the meditations very moving. Are these helpful auxiliary practises for Pureland Buddhists or should we solely concentrate on the Nembutal like Honen and Shinran?
SHORT ANSWER: Yes, they can be helpful.
LONG ANSWER: Each school of Buddhism centres its teaching on a particular perspective upon the Dharma, but these are like windows that all look into the one big Dharma room. If one's school is Pureland, then "the nembutsu is a window through which the whole universe of Buddha's teaching can be perceived in all its depth". If one were Zen, then zazen would be the window. If one were Nichiren then the Lotus Sutra would be one's window, and so on. First choose your window! Having chosen nembutsu, then other practices become auxilliary to that. Tonglen is about exchanging self and other and all the mind training of the Tibetan system is about enhancing one's capacity for compassion. In Pureland we do not see such enhanced capacity as itself being a road to enlightenment, we see it as the expression of faith in the world. If one has faith then one wants to be involved in Buddha's Great Work, so all manner of enhanced capacities can be useful.
This is the first of a weekly series of teachings about the chants that have guided my path over the last twenty years and which still sustain me as I work amongst organisations in London. Most of the chants are in the Amida “Nien Fo” collection of chants. Many contain teachings from a variety sources that contain useful reminders of the Buddha’s teachings. Some are the simple repetitive chants that provide a backdrop to my life as a Pureland Buddhist. I start with the one that touched my heart and grabbed me at the beginning of my journey with Amida – “ Namo Amida Bu”.
Twenty something years ago I was rethinking my life and facing my past so that I could move forward in my fifth decade into a more useful and healthy lifestyle. It was painful facing my past, but I was determined; because as I emerged from some years of depression after my parents died I started seeing the world in a new light. I saw the suffering around me and I saw how I needed to do a lot of work on myself to be able to help others. I had been a “drop out” at twenty and so needed to study for a psychology degree in order to do the work I felt called to. I also needed counselling to support me as I faced the past and the defensive habits I had learnt which were borne out of some horrible traumas.
I was fortunate. I was accepted on an Open University degree course, found a good job helping people with alcohol problems and I found a good therapist. But I still lacked faith, in people and religion. However, as my mind opened, I realised I might be wrong about rejecting religion and in looking at religions discovered Buddhism. In therapy, as well as facing my past, I also struggled with my antipathy towards religion. it is not easy for an angry atheist to change their mind. At work I came across Buddhist psychology from reading papers written by David Brazier and in 1993 I was fortunate to be funded to go on one of his courses. Even more fortunately, a couple of years later they funded me to go for more training - a groupwork certificate involving residential courses in Amida Newcastle.
Just in time! My old dangerous habits had started to re-emerge, drinking and pot smoking were helping to mask my pain, and cloud my thinking. In Amida Newcastle I found good friends, students and teachers who helped me face my past and find my way forward into a different life. But still, it was almost too difficult until “NAMO AMIDA BU” grabbed me.
I could not understand “Namo Amida Bu”. Chants were very alien to my experience. But I could feel something. When I heard it chanted something soothed and refreshed me. As I investigated Buddhism I also started to practice and to chant myself. I asked many questions of Dharmavidya when I was at the residential weekends and steadily I became sure that the Buddhist path was for me and stayed over for the Monday meetings. I was interested in all the chanted teachings however coming to know “Namo Amida Bu” was the most important thing of all for me at that time. I carried the chant back with me to Scotland and it helped me get through many difficulties.
How do we “know” Namo Amida Bu”? I think we would, perhaps, all explain it differently. All I can do is share a little of what it means to me. Over the years my appreciation of Namo amida Bu has grown. It is the heart of my practice. From the beginning I have experienced the Namo as this little me calling out to the measureless Buddha. I could deeply understand how living a life without measure is being free and how experiencing a person who does not measure is just wonderful, even when there is not a person standing in front of us, rather an imagination of the perfect Buddha. Since then I have called out in fear and joy, sadness and happiness and all the states of mind that make up this little, foolish person. Above all I call out in gratitude.
As some of you know, eighteen years ago, I gave up my earlier life to devote my life to doing the Buddha’s work and became an Amitarya in the Amida Order. Namo Amida Bu has been with me as I have travelled and worked for the Amida Trust – along the Bush roads of Zambia, facing the graves in Bosnia, the oppression in India and the confusions of life here in the UK. Namo Amida Bu has helped me to speak out again and again, despite my fears, and cry my tears for the foolishness of humanity. And, above all “Namo Amida Bu” has enabled me to voice the joy of being in this beautiful world with good companions and guided by a very special teacher, Dharmavidya.
Getting On with One Another
I have a vision of a world in which there is no war and yet neither are there the causes of war which normally seem to mount whenever there is peace. Peace is not just the absence of armed conflict. For this vision to have any chance of realisation, it behoves as many of us as possible to re-examine the way that we are and the way that, refusing to accept the way we are, we project onto others the blame for our suffering.
Humans, generally speaking, are social animals that do not much like being together. Or, we could say, they are crafty animals who like to exploit one another while pretending to only have the highest imaginable motives. You and I, we have these traits within ourselves. We are made that way. We need others, but they make us nervous. They make us nervous because we know that they might turn out to be greedy, aggressive, boring or manipulative, just like ourselves.
Of course, there are a few who remain innocents and drift through life happily in a kind of cloud. it is rather nice that such people exist. The diversity of kinds of people is as delightful as the diversity of flowers in a rich meadow. Nonetheless, simply being innocent and, as it were, blind, is not real spiritual maturity. There is something to be said for “becoming as little children” but it is not enough. Simply to breath and smile is a kind of picture of the innocent life, but making doing so into an injunction is liable to be counter-productive.
Indeed, no approach of the separating right from wrong type is likely to work with real human beings except in rather rare cases.
So my vision depends upon a kind of spiritual maturity. It depends upon knowing who and what we are and realising that, even if we don’t like it, still, in the perspective of the enlightened Buddhas, one is loveable, and, therefore, remarkable as it may seem, so is everybody else.
You Don't Have to Love Everybody
This does not mean that I am advocating that from now on you love everybody. That would be asking far too much. It is easy to offer unattainable ideals. No, what I am talking about is a vision that is actually capable of changing one’s life. The first step is realising that there are perspectives other than one’s own and that amongst those other perspective there is that of the Buddhas who accept everybody exactly as they are. One does not need to think that one must be Buddha oneself - that may or may not happen and it is better to leave it in the lap of hidden powers. The second step is realising that one is as one is with all one’s quirks, propensity to error, shortage of patience, fragments of pride and smugness, gutter-fulls of self-pity and dread, and all the other stuff that human nature is prone to. Neither of these steps is easy, but the third step is impossible to do by choice or will-power. It is to be touched in one’s heart by the chemistry between the first two. If i truly realise that I am as i am and yet am loved, and so is everybody else, then that realisation is likely to knock the bottom out of one's habitual way of approaching the world.
Alone Yet Not Alone
It is likely to leave one speechless, except, perhaps, for a more or less wordless prayer. If one does find some words they are likely to echo the age old wisdom of all those who have had an “opening” of this kind since the world began and feeling those words spontaneously falling from one's lips may well plunge one into a second layer of catharsis of realising that one is not alone in this.
Think of Shakyamuni Buddha. We say that he was the only Buddha on the planet. Isn’t that a pretty lonely place to be? Answer - no. why not? Because he did not feel alone. He felt he was in the “great lineage”, in communion with all the Buddhas of past, future and present, and assisted by all the great bodhisattvas.
When a worldly person reads this they will think it is all superstitious nonsense. But the fact is that Shakyamuni Buddha walked this earth and preached the Dharma for fifty years without falling into the pit of self-defeat. That is quite something. My vision is no different. My vision is simply to put Buddha’s wish into practice as best I can.
To put Buddha's vision into practice is not really something that one can do all on one's own. We each have some personal adjustment to make, but it is an adjustment that should bring us together. That’s why I have put effort into cultivating and supporting a sangha. The Buddha’s vision was to have sangha assemblies in many places with inspired people to minister to them and to have a cadre of people who had “left home” who were available to go between and do the Dharma work wherever they were called upon. In our sangha we have these roles. We have practitioners; we have ministers; and we have amitaryas. The word amitarya is made up as amita-arya. Amita is Amitabha, the Buddha of all acceptance. Arya are people who follow the Buddha path. So amitaryas are those who, on the one hand, knit together the life of the sangha and, on the other hand, stir it up.
We should not think that a sangha is just a way of getting comfortable and complacent and we certainly should not think of it as running a successful Dharma business selling popular spirituality to as many people as possible. That would be a distraction. There is a virtually infinite amount to do in this world. Above all there is the task of helping all who have a yen for it to come to spiritual maturity. They will be a leaven. To have a world without war does not depend upon the perfection of every individual. It does not even depend upon the perfection of oneself. Trying to perfect oneself is a red herring. It depends on willingness to do the next thing, whatever it may be, and in doing it, to follow one’s heart rather than one’s fear.
As Much Courage as One Has
To practise, to minister, to go forth - these things all require faith and courage, but it is not actually more faith or more courage than people have already got. It is simply a matter of channeling it. It’s a serious matter. Life is not a soap opera.
So, to cultivate sangha, study oneself and get in touch with basic humanity. Realise the commonality of that. Come together and share. Play a part in the greater scheme. Who knows what we shall find along the way. At least we shall find one another and maybe, if we do that, there will be peace in the world.
Q: How is Amida-Shu different from typical Western Buddhism?
A: In many ways. The emphasis on other power, on the bombu paradigm, and on the Pure Land all come immediately to mind. Our perception of Buddhism as religion and willingness to deal with questions of faith, grace, salvation and prayer also marks a difference of style.
Q: How do you regard Buddhism in relation to other faiths?
A: Different religions are all catering for the fundamentally spiritual nature of humankind. None are perfect. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We like to find common ground but also to learn from one another. Religions, like people, are bombu. We all have room to go on learning. Conflict between people on religious grounds is a nonsense. What is one fighting over - that one form of love is better than another? Amida-Shu provides a generic form of spirituality that is quite inclusive.
Q: Does this mean that it is easier for Amida-Shu to make common cause with other faiths than with other Buddhists?
A: I would not go that far, but there is a grain of truth in it. I think we probably find it easier to operate in inter-faith settings than many Western Buddhists. People who come to Amida-Shu and like it are more likely to be people who have a broadly spiritual outlook than people who have been immersed in Western Buddhism. However, people who have been immersed in Western Buddhism for many years and are now wondering why they are not yet enlightened might well find coming to Amida-Shu a great relief and liberation.
Q: Is Amida-Shu more like Chinese or Japanese Pureland?
A: Somewhere between the two. As a broad generalisation, one could say that Japanese Pureland opposes itself to Zen. We do not oppose ourselves to Zen. Chinese Pureland, on the other hand, has, to an extent, become subsummed into Zen. We are not Pureland within Zen, though in some respects, we have some Zen subsummed within our Pureland.
Q: So is Amida-Shu more or less “other-power” than Japanese Pureland?
A: We are more fundamentally so. We regard the original message of Shakyamuni and of all Buddhas as being other power. That is the meaning of refuge. Zen, when properly understood, is other power.
Q: Amida-Shu has precepts. Some Japanese Schools do not have precepts. Why is this?
A: If people find it helpful to take precepts, then as Buddhist priests we should be willing to give them. Some schools say that they do not have the authority to give precepts, but giving precepts has nothing to do with authority, it is an act of compassion.
Q: What about ordination vows?
A: Our vows define a way of life which provides coherence and purpose to our community. They are agreed by the community for the community. All communities need norms. In addition, the vows help individuals to get insight into their own faith and to see when it is strong or weak. Through trying to keep precepts one learns how bombu one is. Ultimately vows and precepts are descriptions of Buddha and so are objects of worship. It is a mistake to see them as a strait jacket. By working with them one becomes aware of the gap between the nature of oneself and the nature of Buddha.
Q: What is Amida-Shu’s attitude to teacher-disciple relations? I have heard that Shinran had no disciples.
A: We regard the teacher-disciple relationship as immensely valuable. In this respect we are in agreement with nearly every other school of Buddhism. The idea that Shinran had no disciples is incorrect. It is based upon a single remark of his recorded in a book called Tannisho, but this book was written by one of his disciples, Yuien. It was a rhetorical remark meaning that his disciples are really disciples of Amida. In the same book, Shinran says “I believe only what my venerable teacher taught.”
Q: Why are there two ordination “tracks” in Amida-Shu?
A: It evolved that way. Really there are three tracks at least - mitras, ministers and amitaryas. The multi-track system does cater for people with different needs. Shakyamuni seems to have established a system with groups of followers in particular locations, both the faithful and those who ministered to them, and also renunciants who went between. It was a good arrangement for a community that was scattered over a large area. Our system mimics this arrangement, but adapted to modern circumstance.
Q: What is the Amida-Shu attitude to the current fashion for mindfulness?
A: Contemporary utilitarin mindfulness is not the same thing as Buddhist mindfulness. The latter is about keeping the Dharma in mind as a basis both for faith and for investigation of one's life. It is good that through this fashion a large number of people have been touched by something distantly related to Buddhism, but there is a lot more to the original.
Q: Why is investigation of one's life important?
A: It is the basis of compassion. If we know our own weakness and folly we are much more appreciative of and understanding toward others. Amida-Shu is a bodhisattva sangha. By the grace of Amida we shall all be Buddhas one day and in the meantime we have faith that our lives reflect the Dharma Light for the benefit of all beings. We do not expect to arrive at perfection - we expect to arrive at greater familiarity with the human condition.
This morning, leading the service at Oasis, I explained our practice of chanting 41 nembutsu, which we sometimes call “Four Tone Nembutsu” though it is rather different from the original Chinese Four Tone Nembutsu, due to our difference of language and culture.
The core of our practice is the invocation of Amitabha Buddha. There is nothing exclusive about this - to invoke one is to invoke all, since there is no quarrel between Buddhas. We do it in many ways, but one is the chanting of the nembutsu - Namo Amida Bu. Amida is Amitabha. “Bu” here is short for Buddha.
Ten nembutsu is called JU-NEN. The way to do Ju-nen is as follows:
These can be recited slowly or fast, as plain speech or with a tune or intonation. When I was in Japan I heard people interrupt their work every so often, do Ju-nen rapidly all together, then carry on with whatever they had been doing.
Often, here, we do four lots of Ju-nen at the beginning of a period of contemplation, in which case we may use a particular intonation and accompanying visualisation. The intonation is a rising and falling note with “Na-mo-a” rising and “mi-da-bu” falling. Usually there is a single nembutsu at the end, making 41 altogether.
In the visualisation, with the first Ju-nen one imagines anticipating Amitabha coming as a vast cloud of power in the sky before you. In the second Ju-nen, the initial “Namo” is omitted from each line, which gives the sound of the chant a greater power. With this second Ju-nen one imagines Amitabha fully arrived, vast, towering above, regarding the world with compassion.
The third Ju-nen follows on. This time the full line is said, including “Namo” but the whole is done faster, maintaining the urgency and power of the second Ju-nen. Now one imagines myriads of rays of light from Amitabha cascading down upon the world, reaching into every place and home.
Then, in the last Ju-nen, the “Namo” is again dropped, but the recitation remains rapid. One imagines Amitabha’s blessing has fallen into every place and one feels gratitude.
Finally, there is one single slow soft “Na-mo-a mi-da-bu” as peace settles upon the world. In this great peace one settles into one’s period of contemplation, all the while feeling oneself to be in receipt of the grace, merit and saving-power of Amitabha.
Text: but none of this is either necessary or even helpful to success in the practice. Rather such study cultivates secondary faculties to be held separate from the mind of practice itself.
The One Essential
The point here is that the practice of nembutsu - or taking refuge - contains the whole essence of Buddhism and it is simply a matter of having a sincere intention. No particular intellectual knowledge is required. Of course, one can study Buddhism endlessly and such study can be intrinsically valuable, but it only adds explanation of the basic point which remains the same whether one has such explanation or not.
Honen Shonin (1133-1212) who spread the Pureland teaching in Japan was himself an extremely erudite scholar. he knew the doctrines of all the schools of Buddhism of his time, but the teaching that he spread was simply "Say the nembutsu." By saying, "Namo Amida Bu" or an equivalent phrase with the intention of invoking the aid and grace of Amitabla Buddha one is doing all that is necessary. This is the primary practice. Whatever else one does is either some form of this same practice or it is secondary or auxilliary to it.
Basic Buddhist Attitude
Thus, we can consider a teaching like the Four immeasurables. These define a basic Buddhist attitude. They are maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha.
So this is an ideal. Although we talk about four qualities, you can probably see that they are simply four aspects of one quality really. But how does such a quality arise? One might think that this is a prescription and that one must, by will power, bring about these qualities in oneself. Well, to a degree that might be possible, but there is something about doing it that way that tends to end up hollow or unreliable because it is contrived. Such feelings cannot be turned on like a tap and still be genuine.
In the morning service at Amida Shu temples and gatherings there is a passage that begins “Your radiant face, like a mountain peak catching the first burst of morning light, has awesome and unequalled majesty.” It is the first verse of a short text called Tan Butsu Ge, which is a section of the Larger Pureland Sutra.
Tan Butsu Ge literally means Song in Praise of the Buddha. In this case it is the Buddha Lokeshvararaja who lived an immense time ago in an altogether different world, perhaps a different universe. The song is sung in the sutra by Dharmakara Bodhisattva who subsequently, much much later, becomes Amitabha Buddha. It expresses his delight and astonishment on meeting the Buddha and tells how he is inspired by this meeting to enter the Buddha Way.
This story of Dharmakara meeting Lokeshvararaja is told by the Buddha Shakyamuni to Ananda. The incident reflects the opening of the encounter between Ananda and Shakyamuni themselves. Ananda similarly has been struck by the radiant appearance of Shakyamuni. He says, “Oh Blessed One, I do not ever recall seeing the Tathagata so serene, purified, cleansed and radiant as I do today. This thought occurs to me ’Today the Tathagata dwells in the sphere of the most rare Dharma! the sphere of the Buddhas! … The Buddhas of the three times contemplate one another. Could it be that you are now bringing to mind all the other Buddhas? Are you gazing upon the tathagatas, arhats, Samyak Sambuddhas of the past, the future, and the present? Is that why your august presence shines with such radiance today?” and the Buddha replies, “You are right, Ananda, you are right.”
You can tell a lot from a face. My companions here tell me that they can tell when my illness of worse and when it is less bad because they can see it in my face. When I am bad, my energy withdraws inside and the face darkens. When I am well the opposite happens. Sometimes we see somebody that we are familiar with and we think, “Either he is in love, or he just won the lottery.” A radiance is evident to everybody.
Such radiance tells us the inner state of a person. It is also infectious. In the famous Fred Astair song, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, one of the things he treasures is “The way your face just beams.” When somebody has that radiance we all benefit, feel lifted and liberated. This is the effect that a Buddha has.
Huge thanks to Satya for these:
Nien Fo Book: The service book of the Amida Order