John de Weerdt talks to David Brazier about compassion and tenderness.
Mount Lu is in the centre of China, just south of the Yangtse River, nowadays close to the city of Jiujiang. The area is a national park with spectacular scenery. Throughout history there have been many hundreds of temples - Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian - in the area. It is nowadays a popular tourist destination.
Hui Yuan was well versed in Taoism and Confucianism, which he studied in his youth and was from an early age noted as a remarkable scholar. He was always enthusiastic for learning and when he was 21 he set off to study with the Confucian Fan Xuan. However, he was prevented from getting there by warfare that was going on in the area and stopped at Mount Heng where he found the thriving Buddhist monastery of Dao An (道安, 314–385). Hui Yuan’s brother Hui Chi joined him there and the two brothers became enthusiastic disciples of Dao An, accompanying him on many journeys through the war ravaged land. During this period, Hui Yuan studied and wrote about the relationship between the Buddhist principle of Prajna Paramita and indigenous Chinese philosophy and religion.
Arriving at Lu Shan
By the year 386, Hui Yuan was already an important monk. However, the progression of the war forced him eventually to part company with Dao An and the two brothers travelled south to safer country. They stopped to visit a friend at West Forest on Mount Lu and were greatly impressed with the area which was “pure, serene and suitable for calming the mind”. They decided to stay and Hui Yuan resided there for the rest of his life.
A Gift from Buddha
He resolved to establish a temple, but was not sure if it was proper to build one in the middle of a forest. He prayed to the Buddha for guidance. That night there was a great storm. Many trees were torn down, thus creating a clearing for the temple and also providing the wood for its construction. He took this for a sign and engaged the local magistrate who organised the building. The main hall of the temple is, in consequence, called the Shen Yun Hall, which means that it was donated by the Buddha. As the temple was to the east of where his friend lived it was called Dong Lin Temple (East Forest Temple).
This morning as we had a delicious drawn out breakfast here in Petach Tikwa near Tal Aviv, a massive thunder storm developed lashing the building with wind and rain. Vimala shared with us a story from the Talmud that has provoked many different interpretations among Jewish commentators and asked for our view.
He read to us from the book. The book is laid out in an interesting way. On each page the original Aramaic text is in the middle and the Jewish translation is to one side. The various commentaries then unfold in a spiral around the page going down the right hand side, across the bottom right to left and then up the left side. The text is small and dense, so there is a huge amount of traditional wisdom condensed into this volume.
The story is as follows. Four people enter the orchard. They are told that in the orchard they will find the true marble. They are warned that, when they see the marble, not to think of it as water. The four each has a different experience. The first, second and fourth are known historical figures, the first and second being lay seekers from distant history and the fourth being a famous rabbinic teacher. The third is simply called “the other one”. The experiences of the four who enter the orchard are as follows.
The first peers into the marble and immediately dies.
The second glances at the marble and is wounded and goes mad.
The third sees the marble and cuts down all the trees.
The fourth sees the marble, is unharmed and goes forth into the world.
Vimala told us some of the traditional interpretations. There is general agreement that entering the orchard refers to entering upon the spiritual path and that the marble represents the holy of holies, the shekinah, God. But what of the rest of the story? Here opinions are diverse. Some think that it tells us how meeting God can be dangerous. Many are confused especially by the experience of the third person and by his lack of any specific designation. Also, why is only one of the four a rabbi? And so on. A common assumption is that they represent good and bad ways of understanding, usually it being taken that the fourth is the best.
What did I think?
It came to me that all four represent valid ways of being on the spiritual path. They are all good, but they are different styles.
There are those whose attention is transfixed by the Holy. They are seized by Amida completely. The ego dies. They are completely intoxicated with this sacred vision; so much so that they are as if dead to the worldly world. They are completely unified with the Love.
There are those who see the Holy and it “wounds” them. This is like falling in love. The lover longs for the Beloved. To the observer, such a person is mad. They do not care about worldly conventions. They only long to find the Beloved, to enter the sacred spirit.
There are those who encounter the Holy and are inspired toward purity. Everything that is not the true marble is cut down. This is the path of the Arhat, the purist. They cannot bear that anything other than the Holy exist. They seek passionately to renounce and eliminate all trace of impurity from their life.
There are those who encounter the holy and then go forth into the world to spread the Dharma. This is the path of the bodhisattva.
Regarding the names, the first three are all lay followers and the last is one who takes on the religious life in a more formal way. The first two and third are specifically named because those figures from history illustrate these ways of being. The third is not specifically named because this is the common way of doing things - ordinary people associate spirituality with moral strictness.
Regarding not seeing water, perhaps this is not to see one’s own reflection (as one does in water), or anything that flows away, but to see the “true marble” which, like diamond in Buddhism, represents the enduring substance - that which is not impermanent.
We then had a rich discussion of the different ways that one can play with these ideas as a means of understanding the spiritual path and the holy life.
Good food, good company, good discussion and remarkable weather - a fine breakfast.
Here are the links to the audio and video recordings of talks from our recent Bodhi gathering in Malvern. The theme for the retreat was In Less Than a Day
For some people, I notice, Amidism is close to being a monotheism. We come from a culture where monotheism has dominated for a couple of thousand years and wars have been fought over which is the correct monotheistic deity and even over fine points of how he is to be worshipped, so it is not unnatural that some people carry over some monotheistic attitudes. Furthermore, there are statements in Honen that can be taken as a basis for exclusivism. Among the Four Modes of practice that he includes in Ichimai Kishomon, for instance, is exclusive devotion to Amida Buddha, with the seeming implication that this excludes other Buddhas.
However, in the Smaller Pureland Sutra - Amida Kyo - which Honen revered as one of the Three Pureland Sutras, it is apparent that there are Buddhas in all directions and in the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra, which is not on Honen’s list of three, but which was the first Pureland sutra translated into Chinese and was long the foundation of Pureland practice in China, the samadhi consists in perceiving Buddhas everywhere. Furthermore, the Amida Kyo makes clear that what beings in the Pure Land actually spend their time doing is visiting the Pure Lands of other Buddhas and making offerings and worshipping them in ways appropriate to those Buddhas. This, therefore is a manifesto for respect between all Buddhist denominations and, by implication, between all true religions. In this latter sense, a religion would be true if its primary deity had the characteristics of a Buddha.
It is apparent, therefore, that in the Pure Land of Suklhavati, one of the main modes of revering Amitabha is actually the worship of other Buddhas in accordance with the styles appropriate to those Buddhas. Denizens gather the flowers that fall from the sky and take them as offerings.
Flowers falling from the sky, means, in Buddhist parlance, results emerging out of shunyata. The image derives from the assault of Mara upon the Buddha-to-be on the night of enlightenment when Mara’s hosts are turned into celestial flowers. The point is that the Dharma-farer does not live within the normal samsaric round. In normal mentality, “nothing comes of nothing”, as King Lear disastrously affirms. However, in the way of noble ones, everything comes of nothing, which is to say, is done for love.
Therefore, citizens of Sukhavati gather the fruits of love and offer them indiscriminately to innumerable Buddhas.
As soon as a person gives rise to “a single moment of true faith” (ichinen) they are naturally accepted as a citizen of Sukhavati. This will become their destiny after death, but it is also their identity here and now in this life, rather as if one might have got one’s passport to travel The activity of Pureland Buddhists here in this life is, therefore, naturally, to anticipate life in the Pure Land. Although this world is full of problems - social, political, ecological, and so on - Purelanders are natural bodhisattvas, “springing from the earth”, as it says in the Lotus Sutra, to assist Shakyamuni in his work of transforming this very world. We are not going to succeed in making this world perfect any day soon, but we have a direction.
Monotheism and exclusivism is dangerous, especially in the context of our Western culture where so much blood has been spilt and where, even today, powerful nations seek to impose their way of life upon others by force, which is as much as to say, “You will worship our god” even if it is only a coca-cola deity.
Amidism is a path for those who serve all sentient beings, not merely an exclusive segment. We are simply foolish beings, but, nonetheless, we can use our secondary faculties to do what good we can, and it is clear enough from this examination of the sutras that doing good essentially means performing intentional acts of gratuitous kindness. It means that we are not bound by precedent conditions, nor by a need for results, but proceed in faith. Our actions, embedded in faith, naturally speak the Dharma, no matter how foolishly we enact them.
It is clear from innumerable Mahayana sutras that the path to Buddhahood is the making of offerings to innumerable Buddhas. It is clear from the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra and the Amida Kyo that these Buddhas are to be found wherever one is and in all directions. There is nothing exclusive here in the sense of exclusivism that we are accustomed to in the West. Honen made his point about exclusion in order to simplify the practice, not in order to exclude beings from the beneficence of the Buddhas. First choose nembutsu, then everything becomes nembutsu, is the core of the message.
The final talk of our Bodhi gathering 2019. In this talk Dharmvidya speaks about how the path to innocence is through the nembutsu and reflection on the precepts. He also answers a question about the language of Buddhism, and one on dealing with trauma.
Here’s my talk from the Bodhi gathering 2019. I talk about outside practice, and of receiving particular insight whilst chanting the Tai Shih Chi (Mahastamapratpa) mantra.
Listen/download audio (mp3) or watch below:
Acharya Susthama recounts the story of Queen Vaidehi’s vision of the Pure Land. She tells of the difficult circumstances that befell the queen, and how her acknowledgement of past heavy karma leads to her receiving a vision from the Buddha.
Listen/download the audio (mp3) or watch below:
Bodhi gathering 2019 - talk one. Rev Master Dharmavidya David Brazier gives the first talk of our Bodhi gathering.
"In this time of materialism it is not even possible for people to follow the path of faith with any ease. In fact, many people have become inoculated against faith by exposure to its degenerate forms. What can possibly avail us in these latter days? Life has become immensely complicated. People are under pressure from all sides to conform to the path of worldly success." "The innocent heart is unselfconscious. Through innocence one can find faith renewed. Through faith renewed one can find the real meaning of the practices. In these real forms one can meet the Tathagata. Meeting the Tathagata one can receive the transmission. It all unfords naturally. We are in the fourth age, the Post-Mappo, and a return to the simplicity of innocence is now the only gate that is not locked."
:: audio link
In my Dharma talk today I suggested that we are now in the fourth age of the Dharma. In the first age of the Dharma Buddha Shakyamuni was still in this world or had recently passed away and people became enlightened by direct encounter with him or with one of his great disciples. This was the age of direct inspiration.
In the second age of the Dharma, people were able to become enlightened and enter nirvana by means of self-power practices. It was not that these rituals had an intrinsic power, but they were what still connected practitioners with the original source. By doing what Buddha did, people received the transmission. This continued for eight hundred years or so.
By the third age of the Dharma, called Mappo, things had deteriorated. Although the self-power practices remained a shining example, there were few or no people capable of actually realising them. The times were degenerate. At this time there arose teachers who showed the path of faith as the only available possibility for deluded beings to reach the Buddha and receive the transmission, if not in this life, then in the next.
Now we are in the fourth age, the Post-Mappo. In this time of materialism it is not even possible for people to follow the path of faith with any ease. In fact, many people have become inoculated against faith by exposure to its degenerate forms. What can possibly avail us in these latter days? Life has become immensely complicated. People are under pressure from all sides to conform to the path of worldly success.
Those who still attempt self-power practices do so mostly for the sake of this-worldly benefit. We do not have Shakyamuni nor Shariputra, Kashyapa nor Ananda to show us the way. We are more sophisticated than the people of old, but this very sophistication blocks our way back to the source. What is needed now? What is needed now is a return to innocence.
Only by cutting through the interminable woes and worries of our age can we hope to find the light and this cutting through involves a great simplification and lightening. Lighten your life! Reclaim the innocent eye of the child without letting go of the knowledge gained by maturity. Learn once again to play and skip. Life has become too heavy.
We are all weighed down by possessions and responsibilities, deadlines and protocols, debt and work. Riding the Dharma, leap free. Break out of the prison. Embrace nature. Let the mind expand in wonderment. Talk to the stars and bathe in the light of the moon.
The innocent heart is unselfconscious. Through innocence one can find faith renewed. Through faith renewed one can find the real meaning of the practices. In these real forms one can meet the Tathagata. Meeting the Tathagata one can receive the transmission. It all unfords naturally.
We are in the fourth age, the Post-Mappo, and a return to the simplicity of innocence is now the only gate that is not locked.