Pastoral Letter of 23rd February 2007
Let us reflect upon the remarkable phenomenon that we all feel unfolding in our midst as the Amida community unfurls. Let us take the risk of imbibing the madness of faith. Is this communion not like a seed germinating? So far only the tiniest shoot has started to uncurl. Later we will all be amazed. We are amazed already, of course, but this is nothing. On the one hand it is important to retain modesty for we are only bombu. We cannot achieve anything of ourselves. On the other hand, we have hooked ourselves up to the immeasurable merit of Amida Nyorai who has the power to create such Pure Lands as have not even yet been dreamt.
We dare to be unlike other groups. Our Buddhism is not secularised in the way that is so common and popular these days nor are we pedlers of commercialised spirituality. We are not cynical, like the materialists and consumers. Yet nor are we like the fundamentalists who claim to know everything and only fall to quarrelling. We are an odd bunch. We have abandoned the fall back positions that modern people rely upon, so there is nothing for it but to plunge in and risk the deep waters.
We are not just importing Japanese spirituality. We deeply admire and feel grateful for our Japanese mentors. At the same time, however, our mission is greater than that. We are restoring religion, are we not? In the ancient time religion was everything. Community and religion were almost synonymous. They were inseparable, as they are once again for us. In the so-called modern age, however, many parts of life, economics, politics, science, art, and many others, have been hived off and emptied of soul. They have become deanimated elements, commercialised for utility. Crazy as we may sometimes seem, we are not like that. Although we must compromise in order to have dealings with the deanimated world around us, we are a movement for reanimation which means for real religion; for religion that reoccupies its whole domain.
The popular thing nowadays is to be pro-spirituality and anti-religion. Well, I have no objection to using the word spirituality, but it has the downside of speaking about something privatised and individual whereas religion is about something communal and shared. We do not have to buy into the individuated approach. Modern economics, for instance, is about comsumers and workers all treated as individual units. This is represented as freedom, but all too often it just means powerlessness. As a community we create a different kind of economy.
The word economics refers to the household. It is about husbandry. For us, economics is not separate from the creation of a religiously animate household. Every grain of rice has a certain sacredness that resides not in the rice itself but in the fact that preparation of a meal is a sacred offering, a religious act, as is gathering the ingredients. Whether one gathers from the garden or from the market, this same spirit pervades for one who has returned to the wholeness of a religious life. Religion just means "joined back together", re-ligare. Restoring religion means that the household is a holy household, whether it be the household of eight supping at The Buddhist House or the household of 14 Order members supping in different parts of the world. Even if we are on five continents do we not remain one holy household? Is not our economics just one facet of our reanimation of the notion of a sacred household?
Similarly, politics in the modern world means getting and counting votes. People become numbers. Politics, however, really means the care of the polis, the community. It is an art in which we, the people, are the art material and the artist - but collectively. The Amida community is continually evolving and to the outsider seems to be a shifting complexity that few can fully comprehend even though they can admire its evident successes. Yet this mutability is not a sign of confusion but of deep respect for an organic unfolding that is also holy. Although we all play parts in the politics of it, none of us knows its full glory. To find the right way in the organising of the community means tuning into that greater reanimation that the community serves. Our community is not ours. Our community, our polis, is a seed for the relinking, reintegration and reanimation of the world.
There are those who define religion in opposition to science, but reanimated religion could not be opposition to anything that is true. Insofar as science represents humankind's search for truth, it is a portal of religion and such science is simply one window upon that holy vision in which all is made sublime. Yet science as it is known in the West is only one approach to knowledge. For us, engaged as we are in revivifying a truly religious sense of life, there is no problem with science but there is great delusion in scientism, which is just a false creed - a blind faith that nothing that cannot be measured has any legitimate place in human life which is the kind of reductionism that has deanimated modern society and rendered the modern person rootless, hopeless, and immunized against the very springs of life that all so desperately need.
Why desperately? Because modernity has rendered everything trivial. How can a person now avoid living a trivial life? Is there anything that one could possibly find - any commodity in the great supermarket that modern life has become - that would rescue one from triviality? And with that ubiquitous triviality has come an equally widespread cynicism in which idealism suffocates and all that survives is agnosticism, relativism and distraction. Against this background, nobody undertakes great work, but it is only by great work and great love that we are redeemed from the quagmire of triviality.
Some of this descent into nihilism is surely a misunderstanding of the nature of science. Relativity has been mistaken for relativism. Einstein's relativity tells us that no observer can see the whole of reality and the perception that any observer gets of reality is conditioned by the circumstances of his act of observation. None of this means, however, that there is no reality there. Relativity does not imply that one opinion is as good as another nor that there is no ultimate truth, only that the ability of each observer to fathom it is limited. This has always been the Pureland Buddhist view. There is an ultimate truth, but we are bombu. When I look at the table that I am working on from a certain angle, I cannot see the legs. That does not mean that it has not got any nor that the opinion of somebody who thinks that it has none is as good as the opinion of one who knows that it does. Relativism, cynicism and nihilism are all dangerous positions that sap a person's ability to perceive and engage in the important things.
What is the great work of this age, the work that we grasp with all the recklessness that only people of faith dare risk? Is it not precisely this reanimation of religion? The re-ensoulment of the whole community where the diverse dimensions of life are not severed one from another like so many amputated limbs, but live again in their integration with one another. Should our very lives not become works of art rather than leaving art to the auction rooms where the only judgement that counts is the commodity value of an artefact from which all sense of soul has long since disappeared? We do not follow religion as a separate specialism - as one more severed limb. Let's not fall into the false cetainties of fundamentalism, but just as importantly, let's not fall into secular cynicism or New Age spiritual promiscuity either. We live in faith that there is true way, a true community and a true guide. That is our refuge. We make our commitment and through doing so we set out upon a great voyage. We have means of navigation that those who run up and down upon the shore know nothing of.
Our Amida community is already a remarkable grace in itself. Even though it is as yet in its earliest infancy, those of us who are carried along by it live in a state of wonder. We know that this is the place to be. This is surely a point where the moving finger of the unseen soul of all writes the destiny of humankind, yet how inadequate a crew our Nyorai has recruited for this voyage! When Columbus set sail to find a new world he could not have had a wilder selection of misfits than we upon his little barque. Here are we, all beset with the trivial passions, jealousies, squabbles, self-serving quirks, and small-mindedness that humankind is capable of, recruited into the greatest voyage to the unknown Other Shore of bliss. Why us? one might ask, as the disciple asked little San Francesco on a walk outside Assisi.
Nyorai's call is precisely for the likes of us is all we can conclude - and more than just us. All that is asked is that we keep faith with the great purpose. Our community life is an ever unfolding adventure. As it grows and develops it becomes more variegated. As an ecology becomes more variegated there come to be more niches within it and it can thus accommodate a wider and wider range of people. A fully functioning community should certainly be able to cater for old and young, fit and ill, able bodied and handicapped, intelligent and not so intelligent, children, parents, grandparents, - the whole range of normal human types. There is a question of balance of course. If we were all old or all young or all belonged to any one type then we would not really be a community. That would be more of a club. Our community will have room for all categories of people. It is already a variegated mosaic and in it we all find the points where we have obstacles - where the mean spirit rises - but we also learn to level those thresholds bit by bit.
Now that we have three buildings in Narborough as well as the centres in France and London, we are able to organise ourselves in a way that accommodates this diversity more effectively. We are also able to cater for those with different levels of commitment and availability. This means that people can each find their own level. Surely this is what is meant to happen. There must be many chambers in my Lord's house. At the same time, this should not lead us to think that this means that everybody necessarily chooses what is right for him or herself. Most people, in fact, choose very badly. The fact that Nyorai loves us as we are does not mean that everything we do is right or even OK. Mostly we are mired in deep error, but we are loved anyway.
Shinran explained his faith by saying that he did not know if it would lead him to hell. This says something very important about the nature of faith. Faith is not absence of doubt. Faith is, surely, rather, the courage to cope with the ineliminability of doubt. As religious I again insist that we are not relativists. We believe in truth, even though we do not know it directly. We believe that there is a right decision, even though we make wrong ones. And because we make wrong ones we know that others do too. When we reflect we see all the petty motives at work in us just as they are at work in everybody else. If we are working hard we think, Let's not take on anything else. But that is not what Nyorai leads us to. Following him we find more and more facets of the diamond shining. We think that we cannot cope when we think that it is up to us to make it all happen. But in reality, we are part of something bigger.
We are reanimating community, but it is not our work - not work and not ours. It might be more precise to say that we are caught up in something that is reanimating the world. This is Buddhism - the awakening. It is the redemption of history and the raising of the dead. "See, the wooden figure sings and the stone maiden dances". Perhaps so big a picture frightens us. We moderns are not supposed to aspire to anything noble, grand, or even really significant. We are supposed to limit our lives to what is achievable within the shrinking frame of individualism. Phrases such as "Infinite is the Buddha way, we vow to fulfil it completely" stand out like heresies in the creed of wilful agnostic, post-modernism, but have not those who drank the full draught of post-modernist relativism felt their blood turn thinner than water and lost the ability to rise? How strange it is that those who claim to be agnostic seem so certain.
So we are people of faith and faith has its grandeur. It connects us - yes, us little fragile limited beings - with something amazing and wonderful that is at work always striving to fill the world with love. And we who have been touched by it recognise when others recognise it. And not all of those are Buddhists by any means, nor are all Buddhist in that company. Those who have become infected by the crazy disease of faith are not all cooped up together in one club, group or category. They are scattered across the world, across the nations, across the religions and philosophies, across different ways of life. They are all our friends, whatever their pedigree or journey thus far.
Perhaps in this letter you find me somewhat intemperate. Faith asks us to be fools, just as one who has fallen in love becomes special kind of fool. Being spiritual is respectable, these days, but being religious is really rash. So let's all be hot heads for Amida's sake and celebrate the mad grace that is upon us and that seems to be upon the community that has sprung up around us and that never ceases to make the most extraordinary demand upon us. In this monastery without wall let us learn to sing like the birds.
Namo Amida Bu.