Religion as a Vehicle
The Sanskrit word yana means vehicle. Buddhism is broadly divided into yanas. A yana may encompass a variety of denominations, orders or sects. Different yanas are characterised by some common broad orientation, so the term can sometimes be used for the attitude rather than for the grouping.
The two best known yanas are Hinayana and Mahayana. Sometimes a third, Vajrayana, is added. Ambedkar, leader of the untouchables, also spoke of a Navayana, or “new vehicle.
I will say something about the yanas in Buddhism and also extend the term to a more general consideration of inter-religious study.
Hinayana and Mahayana are are generally distinguished by the attitudes they represent and these are two of the fundamental options in the spiritual life, whether Buddhist or any other. These options are (1) salvation as purity and (2) salvation as altruism.
In Hinayana there is an emphasis upon the necessity to take personal responsibility and walk the path alone whereas in Mahayana there is an emphasis upon generosity of spirit and altruism. The latter has further developed into an emphasis upon being saved by the Buddhas rather than saving oneself. After all, if the aim is altruism and if the Buddhas are the supreme examples, then they must be busy helping us. In a way, this development represents a third attitude. One could, perhaps, consider the other power approach to be a distinct yana.
Vajrayana is basically Mahayana plus Tantra. Tantra is the idea that all human energies can be transformed into elements of the spiritual path. It is thus a yoga of sublimation. Navayana is the term given by Bimrao Ambedkar to the movement that started in the 1950s to convert untouchables in India to a new form of Buddhism that was as much concerned with social emancipation as with spiritual salvation.
This suggests at least five different basic orientations that a religion might have: purity, altruism, entrustment, sublimation and social emancipation. No doubt there are others, but not an unlimited number. There are, surely, only a certain number of options.
Classification of Schools
Buddhist schools are often classified as being either Hinayana or Mahayana. In this case, Theravada is the primary Hinayana school. It has as its ideal the arhat, a saint who has overcome all spiritual obstacles and thus gone beyond desire. In the orient, the Vinaya School and some other small schools are also classified as Hinayana. Thus there are Hinayana schools in all the Theravada countries: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, where they are the predominant, and also in China and Vietnam where they are less major. Hinayana in Japan and Korea is purely academic. Tibetan Buddhism is virtually all Mahayana (or Vajrayana, which can be seen as a sub-category of Mahayana) and most of the Buddhism of China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan is Mahayana. In India Buddhism of both types has been reintroduced in the twentieth century.
It can also be clarifying to classify schools as belonging to the Indian cultural world or to the Sino-Japanese. This would give us a broad classification as follows:
|MAHAYANA||Tibetan||Pureland, Zen, Hua Yen etc.|
Vehicle is a useful idea. Whatever system one follows, it is a vehicle. Some vehicles go faster than others, some are more comfortable than others, but most will get you there. This is quite a good way of regarding different spiritual systems, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Religions are artificial. Like cars, they are created by humans. They are human attempts to reach toward what is beyond our mundane, conditioned, materialistic existence. This is true even if one believes that at the centre of one’s religion there is an omnipotent power, still the religion itself is our attempt to reach, serve or worship that power.
The spirit attempts to go beyond. Certain individuals in history have become exemplars and each has spoken of their experience in terms more or less accessible to the culture that they lived in, Jesus among the Jews, Buddha among the Indians, Lao Tze among the Chinese and so on. Traditions then form around their words, different ones emphasising different dimensions, and these traditions become useful vehicles for later seekers and practitioners. Buddha no doubt taught purity, altruism, faith, sublimation and emancipation and for him they were all part of a single vision, but we followers tend to separate the strands of the plait out and see contradictions where he saw facets of a unity.
The words can never be more than an aid, a vehicle, but they are useful nonetheless. We may each be on our singular journey, but sharing travellers' tales is an essential element in the art of navigating the mountains.
In some Mahayana literature we encounter the idea of three vehicles called the shravaka vehicle, the bodhisattva vehicle and the Buddha vehicle. This approach is most developed in the Lotus Sutra, which is often seen as the pinnacle of Mahayana. Evidently, the shravaka and bodhisattva vehicles are Hinayana and Mahayana respectively. This then is an attempt to say that these two are only provisional steps toward a higher vehicle, that of the Buddha’s themselves. This idea then becomes the foundation for a theory of skilful means that suggests that everything that Buddhas do and teach is to be thought of as skilful means toward the liberation of beings.
My idea in this article is essentially the same. Extending it to all religions, we can see that each religion or each major section of any great religion, constitutes a yana. One could make such an analysis of Christianity, with its protestant, catholic and orthodox yanas. The tragedy has been that too often in history people have fallen to fighting and cruelty through a failure to see that these are all just skilful means.
Who Loves Dies Well
Buddhism is often called a way of life. However, it can also be called a way of death. Many of the Buddhists I have met in Japan would regard it this way. The “great moment” is what really matters. All the rest is preparation, reassurance and gratitude for the assurance. Thus, where Western practitioners tend to see meditation and chanting as techniques to achieve something, such as stress reduction, that will make them better performers in the art of living, Japanese practitioners understand the Dharma as a welcome awaiting them at the point of death.
This does, in fact, salve their deepest stress, since it gives them the happy knowledge that they will be received into the arms of unconditional love, but the basic motivation behind the practice is different and this difference changes the style and manner of practice. Since it is the power of the Buddha that provides such assurance, practice is more a matter of gratitude than of self-development. How, then, does this play out in meditation?
Only Nembutsu is Real and True
In the previous sections, I wrote of how our habitual obsessions intrude and how prioritising the nembutsu sets them in their proper place. The nembutsu puts the Buddha-Dharma in the centre.
At the time of death it will be thus. Then there appears the bright white light. This takes centre stage in one’s mind. Everything else pales. Old obsessive thoughts, feelings and images may cluster around, but they cannot help one at that time. All that is necessary is to enter directly into the light. If one does so wholeheartedly one arrives in the pure abode of Buddhas directly, with no bardo state intervening.
The One Great Moment
Meditation upon nembutsu is, therefore, a simulation of this great moment. A Western practitioner might think of it as a kind of training for the event, but this way of thinking is not quite right because at that time one’s own power is useless. In fact, it is an obstacle. It is precisely the exercise of one’s own power that will cause one to wobble and enter the bardo leading to rebirth in a world of conditions. At that time all one needs is joy, gratitude and faith.
The spirit of nembutsu meditation should, therefore, be similar. Don’t make it hard work. Let it be a joy. If you approach it in this way, then you might be blessed with a vision, great or small, of Amitabha or of a sense of the white light, and if this happens, smile in your heart, but do not cling to it and do not cease to repeat the nembutsu with every breath. Let the vision come and go under its own power.
Seized by Amida
In this way you will be bathed in grace and the meditation becomes a contemplation of the holy. Within the few syllables of the nembutsu there dwells a wordless prayer to all the Holy Ones and a confidence that they will conspire to do everything necessary, even far beyond one’s small, human, personal understanding.
In this way one may have the experience of being “seized by Amida, never to be forsaken,” but it is not necessary to have any particular sensation or vision and one should not strive for such. All will happen as it should whether angels actually reveal themselves to you or not. Simply place the nembutsu in the centre with one recitation on each in-breath and one on each out-breath - such a simple practice - and entrust oneself to it.
If you continue to do this practice for some time you will reach a point when every time you become aware that you are breathing you will simultaneously be aware of nembutsu and with that awareness you will experience a “little death” and this will itself be a great reassurance. Not only that, but the realisation of such a connection will make one realise that even in the times when one does not have such a conscious awareness, the grace nonetheless continues. Nothing can stop it. There is nothing to worry about. When one has entered the stream of the Dharma it works within us and upon us, not dependent upon our conscious effort. Once the selection has been made, then everything becomes secret nembutsu.
Thus, for the practitioner, every moment is a death-moment, a letting-go-into-grace-time and this is independent of one’s conscious will. From time to time one is aware of it happening and the awareness that it is happening reinforces one’s faith and inner confidence.
One becomes one who already “knows that he has done what needed to be done” and when the moment comes he or she will happily enter the great light.
1 large red cabbage
1 large onion, halved and sliced
2 eating apples, cored and roughly chopped
100 ml red wine (or orange juice)
4 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 blade mace (or use nutmeg)
40 g unsalted or slightly salted butter
Optional - cinnamon
Salt and pepper
Oven 150C/300F/Gas 2
Quarter, core, finely slice red cabbage.
Mix in large casserole with remaining ingredients except butter.
Dot butter over the top.
If casserole is flameproof, bring to boil on hob.
Cover, put in over, leave to cook gently for 3 - 3 1/2 hours.
Stir after 1st hour, then every 40 mins or so.
(I use this as a template and vary amounts/ingredients according to what I have available. Usually use more apple, more onion)
Here is piece I wrote for folks in our Sangha who were taking on the One Million Nembutsu practice. It contains suggestions for using a mala. I hope it helps. Ananda
Thank you for joining me on this one million Nembutsu pilgrimage. There are lot’s of different types of pilgrimages. Most are familiar with the exterior pilgrimages that involve travel to far flung destinations.
Our year long pilgrimage is an inner pilgrimage towards the Buddha. We ill be traveling along the path of the Nembutsu. Like a physical pilgrimage, our journey will involve both hardship and periods of overwhelming joy. There will be times when you want to stop saying the Nembutsu and give up. At other times you will wish that the Nembutsu never ends.
Like with any pilgrimage, it is good to start off prepared. Of course, there is no preparing for the true pilgrimage, but at least you can try to ensure that you have enough clothes to wear and dependable guide.
To start this pilgrimage, our supplies will be simple. You will want to have a mala (nenju) with 108 beads plus a “guru” bead where the threads come together in a knot on the mala. You might also want to have a smaller wrist mala of 27 beads. Four rounds of the smaller mala equals one full mala.
When using the mala it is good to train yourself to always move to the next bead on the same syllable. Personally, I move on the “Na” or first syllable of the Nembutsu. You, however, may decide that you prefer moving with the “Bu” or last syllable. The main thing is to be consistent. This consistency will prevent you from zoning out and losing you count on the mala.
When using the mala, you begin with one of the beads next to the “guru” bead. As you recite the Nembutsu, you move around the mala, one bead at a time, until you reach the bead on the other side of the “guru” bead from where you started. At this point you do not count the guru bead or cross the guru bead. Instead, you turn around and continue counting back down the mala. So you never actually make a full circuit of the mala. The need to stop and turn around will help jar you back into attention if I have drifted off into some reverie or train of thought.
Other useful items to have on your pilgrimage: A method for counting your accumulated recitations. You could jot them down in a journal or on the calendar or as little hash marks in a notebook. I have found a mechanical counter the most useful. Mine can count up to 9999. I use it to track each time I count a full mala. When it roles back over to 0000 I know that I have recited 1 million malas.
Sometimes, you will not have your counter with you so you will need another means for tracking the accumulation of recitations. As mentioned before, you can just make little notations in a notebook and add them to your totals later. Also, you can count them on your fingers. If you start with your finger tips you can count up to 16 on one hand. That is the four finger tips and the 3 sets of joints in the fingers. You count using the thumb on the same hand.
You can also buy bead counters to go on your mala. I have never gotten in the habit of using them, but I know practitioners — especially in the Vajrayana — that have used these reliably.
The main thing is to come up with a system that works for you and stick with it.
Finally, you will want to choose a good “route” for your pilgrimage. Where and when will say the Nembutsu each day? As we all know, habits can be our friend. So figure out your daily Nembutsu habit? This is very important. Getting to the end of your day, exhausted, and realizing that you have not recited a single Nembutsu can be dispiriting. After several days, it is downright defeating!
I suggest that you try to have a few minutes at the beginning of your day and right before you go to bed. If possible, try to get a mala of Nembutsu in during the middle of your day. If you plan to say the Nembutsu during your commute, don’t multi-task. Turn off the radio and just say the Nembutsu.
I am really looking forward to making this pilgrimage with you. Do reach out to me with any questions or issues that arise.
Namo Amida Bu!
Alternating Ages of Greed and Hate: A Little Bit of Buddhist Psychology
In Buddhist psychology we talk of delusion having a double valency. It either turns to greed or to hate. Greed is attractive and acquisitive. Hate is repulsive and rejecting.
The core of delusion is conceit or pride. This can be individual or group. A whole nation or even a whole planet can suffer delusion. According to Buddhism, delusion is the normal. Non-delusion is exceptional. Those who are not deluded are rare and carry a torch for enlightenment, but they do not necessarily know that they do so. It is simply a natural process.
The notion of natural process is important. We are not here talking about conscious ideas. People are not as much in control as they think. We tend to think that if we understand something we can be in control of it and change whatever we like. This is itself a delusion - a conceit.
A person or group may be more or less in the grip of delusion and their thought and actions will then reflect that state. Thoughts and ideas are, mostly, a manifestation of the underlying condition. A person’s actions and words may very well actually be contributing to a course that is different from or even the opposite of what they consciously believe they are engaged in.
There seems to have been a marked change in the tone of political debate in immediately recent years. In the US mid-term elections, for instance, the politics of hate has over-ruled the politics of greed.
What is interesting here is not so much the result, but the manner. Right now President Trump is enjoying a lot of good news about the US economy. This may be solid and valid or it may be ephemeral, but that does not matter in terms of my argument. The fact is that he could have based his election campaign upon greed. He could have made his main pitch the idea that the economy has never been so good. In elections more that ten years ago a president in his position would almost undoubtedly have done so. President Clinton had a poster saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” to constantly remind himself that the thing that wins elections is good economic news if you are in power or bad economic news if you are the opposition. It was always like this. Not any more.
Trump has campaigned substantially on threats to America and fear and hatred of immigrants, ISIS, whatever. He instinctively recognised that this is the new order of things. I do not think this is something that Trump has manufactured; rather, he and his rhetoric is a manifestation of it.
The same thing is happening elsewhere. In the Brexit debate - and, remember, the Brexit referendum happened before Trump came to office - the hate agenda over-ruled the greed one in the same way. When I see debates between people who are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain what is striking is that Remain supporters tend to bring forth rational arguments about how people are better off in the European Union than they will be outside it and these arguments get nowhere. The Brexit supporters, by and large, do not really care that Brexit will make everyone worse off. They are not motivated by having more, they are motivated by dislike and distrust of the people they are against - in this case other Europeans. Even though Brexit will cost the UK a lot they relish the fact that it will also be costly for the EU.
In Europe itself similar things are happening. populism, as it is called, and nationalism, are on the rise. These are essentially philosophies of hate over greed. The driving force is suspicion and dislike of the other, the outsider. They are not so much about profit, more about resentment. In that mode, cost does not matter much, what matters is to defeat the other.
A Large Scale Shift
This is new. We have had roughly half a century since World War II in which politics has been ruled by greed. It has all been about progress, rising living standards, profit, growth, and getting more. This has been closely related to globalism and capitalism. There has been a sense that the future will always yield more than the present and so people have been motivated to try to gain their share of the bounty. This period seems to be at an end.
Surveys show for the first time that increasing numbers of people believe that their children and grandchildren will not have as good circumstances as exist today. Faith in growth and progress is waning. In the USA, which is often the leading edge of human trends, longevity is actually falling. Longevity is one of the clearest indicators of the wellbeing of a population. Although economic data can be manipulated to look like good news, when it comes to the fundamentals, the evidence for things getting ever better is ceasing to flow.
This change is working through into the attitudes and ethos of social discourse and debate. We are entering a period of conflict and animosity. This general atmosphere has the capacity to poison the ground of social wellbeing. It produces cohesion, but only as cohesion-against. People unite against the outside enemy and they generate enemies in order to do so.
This also means that the individualism that characterises periods of greed is also in retreat. Intolerance of dissent is rising. Cohesion based on antagonism leads to polarisation and polarisation produces intolerance of anything deemed to be disloyalty.
In Buddhist theory, periods of greed tend to last longer than periods of hate, but periods of hate are sharper and more energetic. There can be massive breakdown over a short period of time. After the fire has burnt itself out, new growth begins from the ashes. It seems, however, that we are currently at the beginning of the fire and it is very difficult to tell where it will spread or with what specific effects.
Why Is This Happening?
Apart from the endlessly cycling alternations of samsara, my own hunch is that the main precipitating factor for the current change is the ecological crisis. Climate change is forcing a reluctant humanity to limit its ambition. We are still a long way from achieving a satisfactory way of living within the limitations that Nature imposes and we face a very difficult transition. This is putting the brakes on economic expansion which simply cannot go on and on in the old way. These limits work through the system.
To repeat, this is not primarily a matter of ideas. It is not just that people are more conscious of the ecological problem. Many of the prime movers in the present situation are not particularly aware of it, but they nonetheless do have to react somehow to real changes in the real world.
Putting “America First” rather than trying to position the US as the overseer of international affairs, as was done by previous presidents, is a reflection of this. If growth is not happening, people turn to fighting over shares of what there is and then to fighting simply for survival. They do not do this because they have a sophisticated appreciation and analysis of the forces at work in the world. They simply react to what impinges.
When we look at the history of the world we see that periods of disruption tend to follow ecological crises. We might, for instance, see parallels between the present situation in which there are millions of refugees and efforts to keep them out and the advent of the “Sea People” that seems to have ended the high civilisation of the Bronze Age. Or we might reflect upon what we know about the end of Mayan civilisation which seems to have come about through wars occasioned by ecological degradation once the forests had been cleared and the water supplies started to be inadequate. This does not enable us to plot the detail of what may happen, but it does offer warning of how complete the catastrophe can become. Hopefully it will not go so far this time, but there is no way of telling.
Surviving the Dark Age
Periodically the world goes through dark ages. During such times terrible things can happen and chaos can spread far and wide. In such times there can, nonetheless, be islands of sanity. The flame of enlightenment is not necessarily entirely extinguished.
It is at such times that spirituality also undergoes a trial by fire and from such trial new strength and vigour can rise. We can think of the monasteries that preserved learning and compassionate values through the period of the decline of the Roman Empire when Europe was overrun by barbarian tribes migrating away for ecological pressure in central Asia. We can also think of how the Kamakura renaissance of Buddhism in Japan came out of a time of civil war, famine and plague.
Periods when the spirit of the times is ruled by greed are relatively more comfortable than eras of hate. They are, however corrosive of true spirit. We have, for instance, seen, in recent decades, spiritual movements corrupted into saleable commodities where there is little to choose between celebrity personalities and so-called gurus and one suspects that it is all ruled by money. Genuine spirituality does not come into prominence in such times.
It is possible that we are edging into a dark time. If so, the challenge to and premium upon genuine spirituality, liberation and enlightenment will become greater. In the time of fire the Buddha’s message of inner cool becomes ever more relevant. The need for a sangha that stands apart from and even against the current of the world becomes greater and greater. Those who maintain true values become islands and sanctuaries. The last words of Buddha were “Make the Dharma your island, make the Dharma your lamp”.
We call her Queen Vaidehi. Actually we do not know her name. At the time, twenty-five centuries ago, the word vaidehi probably meant a consort of the king, but she is now established as Queen Vaidehi. She was the mother of Ajatashattru. Ajatashattru means broken hand, on account of a deformity he had. Vaidehi was the wife of Bimbisara, the king of Maghada. Bimbisara was a friend and patron of the Buddha.
A member of the Buddha’s sangha, Devadatta, who was a cousin of the Buddha, was jealous of the master and came to believe that he himself should become the leader of the Buddhist sangha. There are stories that he even attempted to assassinate the Buddha. Eventually, Devadatta created a schism in the Buddhist sangha and he and five hundred monks left to form a separate sangha that was to continue in India until the middle ages. As part of his attempt to thwart Shakymuni, Devadatta sought to create conflict between Bimbisara and his son in the hope that when Ajatashattru succeeded to the throne he would patronise Devadatta rather than Shakyamuni. Devadatta told Ajatashattru that the reason that his hand was as it was was because when he was a baby and the Queen presented him to his father a soothsayer had said that this chld would kill his father and that Bimbisara had been so enraged that he threw the baby out the window, the hand being broken in the fall. Ajatashattru came to hate his father and, when the opportunity came, he seized power and had his father imprisoned without food, intending to starve him to death.
Queen Vaidehi was now deeply distressed by this conflict between her husband and son. She smuggled food in to the prison for Bimbisara. She did this by smearing her body with a nutritious paste and filling her jewellery with fruit juice, so that when she went to visit him she could feed him. After a while, Ajatashattru asked if his father was dead yet and came to discover what his mother was doing. He then became enraged with his mother and started to draw his sword to kill her but was restrained by his counsellors who told him that while there were many precedents for sons killing their fathers, to kill one’s mother was regarded as the ultimate in wickedness.
Ajatashattru put his mother under house arrest. In her extremity of distress she prayed to the Buddha who was at that time not far away. Buddha was at Vulture Peak preaching the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha heard her prayer and went to see her accompanied by his disciple Ananda. The dialogue between the Queen and the Buddha begins with her reflecting, “What must you and I have done in previous lives to deserve such relatives as these in this one!” Thus there is a basis for an immediate sympathy between the Queen, suffering from the acts of her son and the Buddha from those of his cousin.
The Queen expects not to live long and to be reborn somewhere in her next life, but does not want to be reborn in a world like this one where such dreadful things happen, and wants to know from the Buddha if there are other, better realms and how one can attain to them. The Buddha knows that there are pure abodes that can be attained either by having completely pure karma or by deep contemplation, but he says that Vaidehi cannot proceed by either of those routes as she is a worldly woman who has not mastered such contemplations nor does she have pure karma. We can easily imagine that, as a queen, she will have been involved in many less than perfect actions. However, because of her great faith, through the Buddha's power she is nonetheless immediately permitted to see the pure abodes of many Buddhas and, overwhelmed by this vision, she chooses Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha.
Ananda, who is witness to all this, is struck by the transformation that has come over Vaidehi and asks the Buddha what she has experienced. The Buddha then gives Ananda a teaching consisting of a series of visualisations by which he can mentally construct a sense of Sukhavati. The Buddha and Ananda then return to Vulture Peak to continue delivering the Lotus Sutra teachings.
Later, Ajatashattru comes to visit his mother, bringing his own baby son along. Mother and son converse. Ajatashattru has his baby on his lap. The baby has a nasty boil on his leg. Ajatashattru tries to suck the poison out of the boil with his mouth, a rather unpleasant task, but one that demonstrates the love he had for the child. Queen Vaidehi starts to cry. “What is it, mother?” “I can’t help it… you look so much like your father when he did that for you when you were a child… he loved you so much.” Ajatashattru is touched. He feels remorse. He calls a guard and tells the guard to bring his father. The guard goes away. There is a lot of emotion in the room. The guard returns and says, “Unfortunately, your father passed away just this hour.” Ajatashattru and Vaidehi are deeply affected and full of grief.
Ajatashattru became king and he and his mother continued to patronise the Buddha.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VAIDEHI
Most of this information comes from the Contemplation Sutra. The sutra does include the contemplations that the Buddha taught to Ananda. However, the real importance of the sutra lies in the fact that it was Vaidehi, not Ananda, who had the vision of Sukhavati. She attained access to the pure land of Amitabha as a direct result of her faith which came to the fore in the midst of her distress at the cruelty of this world.
How many of us have pure karma? How many of us have mastered the dhyana contemplations to the point where we can enter the bliss of the Buddhas at will? Few if any. Like Queen Vaihehi, we need another route, but what will motivate us to call out in faith in the way that she did? The way of Vaidehi is possible for ordinary people because she was an ordinary person. She had not done years of meditation training, nor kept the moral precepts. She was like us in that respect, so she is a best model for the ordinary person.
She worshipped and called out to the Buddha. Pureland Buddhist practice, therefore, centres upon calling out to the Buddha. We may call to Amitabha - Namo Amida Bu! - or to Shakyamuni - Namo Buddhaya! - or any other Buddha, but Vaidehi chose Amitabha because he is the Buddha of all acceptance, and the essence of this story is that it is about being accepted even though one has not scaled the spiritual heights of pure mind and complete renunciation. Amitabha is the Buddha for people like us.
Queen Vaidehi, therefore, is, in a sense, the patron saint of ordinary people. She was a woman, which was an inferior status in India, and, furthermore, she was unavoidably caught up in the dark deeds of rich and powerful people, yet, still, even she could reach out to the Buddha and receive solace, grace and assurance both for here and hereafter. This is a demonstration that the door is open to everybody, not just to a spiritual elite.
THE NECESSARY AND SUFFICIENT CONDITIONS
Although the Vaidehi story illustrates that the “gateless gate” is open to all, we can, nonetheless, see that the conditions of entry are rather distinctive. Although the door is open, few enter. Why is this? As one of my spiritual friends says, “Why aren’t people queuing up?”
From my observation, it appears that certain conditions are particularly conducive, but these are not ones that one can contrive by deliberation. Vaidehi’s awakening of faith stands at the point where desperation and inspiration coincide and the activity that epitomises this point is prayer, the expression of longing. These three elements, therefore, are the key - recognition of our own faulty condition, inspiration by a higher truth and the will to call out across that divide.
There is a seemingly paradoxical sense in which Vaidehi does actually attain to the highest samadhi and the purest renunciation. Her renunciation is in her disenchantment with herself and this world borne of a recognition of her own karma and of the actions of her son and Devadatta. Then her samadhi flows naturally from her faith that the Buddha has the key. The relation between them is exceedingly touching in that it is intimate and human at the same time as being one of the deepest respect. Her reverence is centred upon him as her inspiration. His respect is simply one distinct instance of his universal unconditional compassion. Thus there is a samadhi - an intense concentration of love and recollection of what is most fundamental in life - created like nuclear fusion in the crucible of dire circumstance.
Such spiritual awakening is, I suggest, the essence of all real spiritual awakening, not just in Buddhism yet it is, perhaps, especially difficult for modern people. On the one hand, we are too cushioned and comfortable. On the other, we are educated to think that we should be able to do everything by our own wit and desire. All of this is fatal to the spiritual life. We have to recover the faith that we had before we were educated out of it.
I said above that the necessary conditions cannot be contrived. They are adventitious. Vaidehi did not plan the plight she found herself in. So is there anything we can do? We can certainly remove some obstacles, but this requires courage and motivation. Really it is mostly a matter of living life as honestly as we can and taking the risks that that entails rather than settling for half-truths and comforting illusions that we know deep down are not really authentic. Life in earlier times was more raw than it is in our materialist consumer society. Reality is the ultimate teacher and we are enlightened by our collisions with it.
We can also, as Buddha advises, keep good company. Even when we cannot do this physically, we can, like Vaidehi, centre the prayer of our life upon a saintly presence, and, when it is possible, we can put ourselves in the presence of teachers and exemplars. Even here, however, there are difficulties, because many spiritual groups can easily themselves become comfort blankets.
So, have faith, keep good company, turn the mind toward the Buddha, be willing to learn the lessons life sends, call out to the awakened. If one has this kind of life, then when adversity strikes there is a possibility that one will actually call out not just as performance of a recommended practice - like Ananda - but actually from the bottom of one’s heart, like Vaidehi. Only that.
Buddhist psychology can be seen as a cure for addiction or obsession. Addiction is officially defined as a compulsive behaviour pattern in which one develops unpleasant symptoms if one does not get one’s fix. There are, however, any number of lesser compulsive habits of thought and action, that we might call obsessions, that do not generate strong side effects, but which, nonetheless, tend to dominate one’s mentality in varying degrees. In this sense, virtually everybody has some obsessional tendency, though the objects of obsession may change from time to time.
Such obsessions may have good reason inasmuch as, living in the material world of conditioned existence, we maintain certain conditions to support life and society. We each have a package of favoured conditions with corresponding thoughts, images and feelings that tend to monopolise our mind. This package centres upon a mental complex we call the ego that is partly idiosyncratic but mostly socially conditioned.
The mind is a bit like a computer screen. On the edge of one’s screen there are a continual stream of pop-ups that distract one from one’s main task by offering attractive advertisements. They seems to say “Would you like one of these?” or “I have something special to offer!” and if you click on them, in no time you are redirected to a different programme. In the mind, these seductive programmes are our obsessions. In the computer the ads are targetted using algorithms based upon our previous activity. In the mind it is similar. As soon as one exercises one’s volition, the mind registers it and sets up a repetition loop that continues until it runs out of energy. Each time one buys into the repetition one strengthens the obsession.
Meditation can be defined as a spiritual exercise in which one holds a wholesome object in mind for an extended period. In this article I am writing about meditation in which the wholesome object is the nembutsu. From the perspective of Buddhism, the most wholesome objects are Buddha and Dharma. Buddha and Dharma are simply personal and impersonal aspects of the same thing. Nembutsu encompasses both aspects.
When we set ourselves to keep an object in mind, other things pretty soon start to intrude on our mind space. Although one may be following the nembutsu in rhythm with the breath, pop-ups are continually appearing on the edge of the mind, The vividness with which they do so is in proportion to the degree to which we are obsessed with them.
However, the most sane condition is that of keeping Buddha-Dharma in mind. Buddha-Dharma dissolves ego. In principle, therefore, nembutsu should have highest priority and when it does so the meditation will be stable. Such stability and poise is a sign of mental health.
In practice we are likely to find that, during our meditation, sometimes the nembutsu prevails and sometimes other objects get the upper hand. This may mean that sometimes meditation becomes a struggle. However, even this sense of struggle itself is riddled with ego. The Buddha describes meditation as “a peaceful abiding” or as “a state of joy and ease” or even as “equanimity”. This tells us that really stable meditation is not a struggle. It is not a matter of imposing one’s self-will upon the mental flow in a forceful manner.
Yet this does not mean that one goes to the opposite extreme of just letting whatever arises in the mind happen. To do so is just to sink back into one’s favourite obsessionality. There is a middle way, a balanced state, in which the effort expended in demoting each intrusion is no more than the minimum necessary. This small quantum of energy does not occupy the whole of one’s mind, but lets the intrusion fall into the background, so that the repeating nembutsu remains in foreground position.
When we practice in this way, it is rather like the images we read about in the sutras in which the Buddha is giving a discourse and all kinds of beings gather round to receive the Dharma. In the mind that is in a stable meditation, the repeating nembutsu invokes the Buddha in central place in the mind and all the other things that arrive in one’s mind space become like the multitude who come to listen to the Dharma. In the great assembly of the mind, it is not so much that we dismiss our obsessions as that we give each of them a place somewhere in the audience while the nembutsu holds up the flower of the Dharma in the centre.
I have talked about this practice here as a meditation exercise, yet as we get experienced we find that this is not merely the way to do an exercise, but becomes a main feature of how the mind of the practitioner operates, not just in the meditation period, but also in life generally. The mind centred upon Buddha-Dharma, with other activities going on all around, is a state of balanced sanity and the habit of continually returning to the nembutsu cultivates such stability and yields limitless joy.
When this becomes the case it is rather as though one were always doing every activity within the meditation hall. Although one might be sweeping the carpet, the Buddha-rupa remains there in pride of place. Thus everything is done in the presence of the Buddha-Dharma, which is to say, in the ambiance of the nembutsu. In this way, nembutsu becomes constant and stable, ever associated with even the most mundane activities. One's life revolves around the holy Name and so everything becomes a sacred activity and one's whole life becomes a Buddha hall. Even though one remains aware of one's own limited bombu nature, still everything is touched by other-power. What begins as our prayer to Buddha, becomes a case of our life being part of Buddha's great prayer for all beings. Then practice is no longer personal or even particularly conscious.
This reversal is a pivotal turn in the life of the spiritual practitioner. It might well, however, be something that occurs unremarked and this is generally the best way. It is not that I do a practice and thereby overcome my ego for the ego cannot conquer the ego. Nonetheless, the power of Buddha may slip in through the back door, as it were. The Buddha's radiant sanity envelopes and protects and all is completely assured.
Meditation is a natural expression of spiritual liberation. When we are swimming in grace, the heart lifts and sings. In following the Dharma one is filled with joy and gratitude that Buddha’s appear in the world. The traditional way to express this is through one or other of the formulas of Refuge, and especially nembutsu.
Meditation in Buddhism reaches its full form in keeping Buddha ever in mind and the nembutsu is a simple way to express this. The actual form of words varies a little from culture to culture - “Namo Amida Bu”, “Amitabhaya”, “Namo Omito Fo”, and so forth.
A most natural form of meditation, therefore, is to, as they say, mount the words upon the breath. Thus one can sit for a time and be aware of the breathing and with each in-breath and each out-breath, say the words… Namo Amida Bu; Namo Amida Bu.
To sustain this for a period one needs to maintain a certain balance. The mind is such that other thoughts, images and feelings will arise. Thus it is possible for the mind to wander or even for sleep to supervene. If you are happy to fall asleep, no problem. In fact, this can be a fine way to end the day, entering slumber with the sacred words in mind.
However, if you want to maintain your practice, it is important to learn to let the intruding mental impulses enter but not dominate. To do this one should not let them get a grip upon the mind, but allow them to fragment even as they are forming. Then the nembutsu remains centre stage and other thoughts become like a background of white noise, gently pulsing in and out of awareness, but never so strong as to carry one away.
Of course, for this to be successful, one must not deem anything more important than the nembutsu itself. This can mean that a very slight effort is required as each thought or image enters, to let it drop down in importance. This is because one has already established many habits of prioritising certain ideas. If something that seems particularly important comes into one’s mind, one might need to inwardly smile and say, “Later,” and set it aside just for now. Meditation is substantially a matter of giving the object of meditation absolute priority for the time of the exercise.
I was recently a subject in a piece of research in which measurements were made of the wave patterns in my brain while meditating, and I was using this method. I am told that the results showed an unusual degree of stability in my concentration and in the presence of a steady rhythm of alpha waves. I was very interested in this. It seems that the repetitions of nembutsu do not show up in the way that thought does, but serve rather to stabilise the contemplative exercise.
I find this much more satisfactory than such methods as counting the breaths. Counting has no devotional element and is merely mechanical, whereas the nembutsu is essentially a love song and its repetition is like the beating of the heart.
Many people like to meditate and find it beneficial. We should not, however, regard it purely as a psychological self-help technique. If you meditate, do it in a way that deepens your spirit and connects you with the universal grace. I, therefore, recommend this practice. A period of sitting quietly centring all upon the nembutsu is a beautiful way to deepen one’s life.