changeable as the weather.
Namo Amida Bu -
the silver lining
in every cloud.
Working and resting,
like a turning wheel.
Namo Amida Bu,
is always reliable.
changeable as the weather.
Namo Amida Bu -
the silver lining
in every cloud.
Working and resting,
like a turning wheel.
Namo Amida Bu,
is always reliable.
In both turning away and turning toward the element of faith is of crucial importance. Without it the turning does not complete because, panicking inside, we cling on to our old ways. In the case of turning away, one might arrive at the feeling of revulsion, yet still slip back into the bad habit. We might indulge obsessions and addictions until we feel sick and this might give us pause. However, one might then drift back. Think how many people have given up smoking for a short time, but soon taken it up again.
This happens because, however loathsome or foolish the habit, it still served some purpose in our life. It still fed the ego. We tend to dignify our bad habits by calling them “needs” and when we are without them we feel “needy”. To bear this feeling of lack requires faith. Buddhism is about faith in emptiness. The ego fights back and always wants to fill the emptiness, usually with something unwholesome.
Similarly, in the case of turning toward. One might have a generous impulse, but then, as from nowhere, a string of thoughts urging caution spring up. Soon one has talked oneself out of it, or, we might say, Mara has talked one out of it. By then, in any case, the moment has passed. Perhaps one now feels badly about oneself, but, however that may be, the fact is that the opportunity has been lost. To not give in to such cowardly thinking requires faith. Faith means knowing what Mara is up to yet acting anyway.
THE FAITH TO PLUNGE INTO LIFE
The life of faith is thus also one of much spontaneity, exuberance and enthusiasm. The kind of Buddhism we are talking about here is not one of cold detachment. It is not by ever greater self-control that one becomes liberated, but by releasing the energy of joy, compassion, and belief in what one is doing and living.
Where does such faith come from, one might ask? The bedrock of our faith is confidence that we - even beings such as we, prone, as we are, to such cowardice, addiction, obsession and destructiveness - are loved and cared for by the Buddhas. The light of their smile is always shining and even though we live in the tormenting realm of impermanence, there is a spirit that is not impermanent that runs like a silver thread through every dimension of existence. This spirit has the feeling of emptiness. It is beyond purity and impurity. It is the light that comes from the Tathagata who glances back.
In Buddhism, we call this refuge. We take refuge from the harm that might otherwise be done by our wayward mind; we find a shelter, a pure abode, where emptiness is experienced, not as terrifying, but as total liberation. Alone, we are inclined to panic, but when we have Buddha always in mind as our spiritual companion, we can turn back, confront Mara, and defeat him, since nothing prevents us. Finding inner silence and stillness, we become invisible to his armies, and this calm is then experienced, not as a loss, but as a lightness and ease - something to be happily grateful for.
Thus, when paravritti occurs, conforming to the precepts ceases to be an effort and becomes the only natural way to act. In fact, we no longer need precepts as our natural action will be what precepts attempt to point out. Self-power means exerting effort in order to conform oneself to the path, but in the condition of paravritti such effort is non-effort.
In this series I have tried to show how paravritti gives us a practical sense of spiritual awakening and the life that flows from the awakening of faith. We can be inspired by the examples of the Buddhas and ancestors. Each of them turned back from the seduction of conventional life and social posing and so were able to live authentic lives. They were each very distinct persons, aware of human limitation, yet free in spirit.
The idea of turning back can be applied in the many different ways in which we can experience natural freedom. I hope this exploration helps us to appreciate many different Buddhist teachings that all inspire us to make a crucial turn in our lives.
“I’m better than these people” “I’ll never be as good as these people” “They’re all cleverer than me” “I must let everybody know that I know important people” “I’ll include in my little speech all the important books and concepts I have read so that others know I’m not inferior” “I’m worth it” “I’m not really worth it” “I don’t love myself enough” - with thoughts such as these people ruin their lives and distract themselves from the glory of existence.
Personal worth is not worth thinking about. If there is a job to do, get on with it as best can. If there is no job to do or duty to fulfil, use the time to contemplate - say the nembutsu. Contemplate the majesty, wisdom and compassion of the Tathagata. Study the forms of nature and the vastness of the firmament.
Know one’s limitations, vulnerability and bombu nature, but don’t put a score on it and don’t engage in relative comparison with others. We are all bombu. That’s enough. To go beyond that is pride and conceit, whether one rates oneself high or low.
When we obsess about our own self-worth, self-entitlement, self-esteem, adequacy, or value, we become dysfunctional, stop learning and find it difficult to interact or cooperate. We become boring. When a person says such things as “I don’t want to sound arrogant” it often means that they are about to say some arrogant things. The urge wells up to show others how one is not actually the worm that one secretly believes oneself to be. However, it is really of no importance whether one is a worm or not. That is not what life is about and is not worth thinking about.
The fact that we become preoccupied with our personal worth is one of the main roots of delusion that Buddha was concerned to try to eliminate. There is no reality in it and it is the foundation of most criticism and conflict. People do not have a relative value. Buddha is not keeping score. Put-ups and put-downs are childish. Don’t dish them out and if they come your way, smile inwardly at the stupidity of it, have a little compassion for the poor soul who is caught up in it, remember that one is oneself also vulnerable, and say Namo Amida Bu.
Conceit has many layers and here I have only highlighted the most superficial ones. Nonetheless, even these can cause us a lot of trouble. What is the antidote? Faith! But when you realise that, in some situation, the gremlins have won and you have got caught up in competition, boasting, timidity or the like, the thing to do is to see it clearly and then laugh wholeheartedly at the human condition. We are all in this same leaky boat.
Recognising our bombu nature is one of the three foundations of the Amida Way. Another is the principle that only nembutsu is true and real. Don’t get caught up in pretending to be something else. Just deal in the objective situation, say the nembutsu and trust in the Trikaya. That is sufficient. All else is just a lack of faith.
INSIGHT AND CALM
In the approach known now as Insight Meditation, there are two phases to practise. The first is to calm the mind and the second is “looking into the true nature of things as they are”. In other words, calm is a basis for the development of insight. However, in our Amida Shu approach it is the other way around. First we enquire into the state of things and then we offer whatever insight we have to the Buddhas who then bestow their blessing of great peace. So in this schema, insight leads to calm, which is to say to peace of mind, for which the Japanese term is anjin, sometimes translated as “settled faith”.
Why does faith need to “settle”? Everybody has faith, or, in most cases, a variety of faiths, that are, much of the time, at odds with one another, all vying for priority. When we say “faith” here, for practical purposes we can say we are referring to what one puts one’s faith in. It might be financial security, or a political cause, or a relationship, or one’s own cleverness, or good health, or many other things. A little insight reveals all of these to be unreliable. they are all subject to conditions and therefore impermanent. None of them constitutes a true refuge, yet all of these things exercise us in ways that are stressful and demanding.
Insight, therefore, can be unsettling. Seeing into the state of things is challenging. The only reliable way to overcome this disturbance is to admit one’s own incapacity to solve the riddle. In Buddhism, one does this by offering all of this to the Buddhas. This is our prayer: “Oh Buddha, please receive my offering. Please receive all the complicated puzzle that is my life. I give it all to you in confidence that you alone know how to deploy it within your scheme of harmony.”
We do not have to use these words; in fact, it is better to use one’s own words and to be specific about what it is that one is offering today, which might be sorrow, or joy, or anger, or longing, or confusion, or whatever. It might be arrogance, or generosity, or stubbornness, or chagrin, or achievement, or defeat. It might be tears. It might be the unreliability of body and mind. It will be whatever one has discovered in one’s inner search. The point is that it is not a matter of offering the right thing, but rather of being honest about what one has found within and offering it unconditionally.
The Buddhas are always offering their peace. Only when we turn toward them and unburden ourselves do we actually receive it. This receiving can be quite physical. One can feel peace and calm descending through one’s body as one offers one’s offering up.
Such peace comes because when we take refuge in Buddha, or, we can say, in Buddhadharma, all our faith is reunified. The reunification of faith is samadhi. This makes one into a suitable channel for the descent of the Buddha light into the heart. This, therefore, is the Amida Samadhi, the samadhi without measure, without limit, that is completely centred, yet boundless. This is what Honen means by “gazing upon the moon”. Here “the moon” represents the spiritual light. Standing outside on a summer’s night and gazing at the physical moon in the sky gives one a sense of peace. This, therefore, has become a way of representing the act of taking refuge. In taking refuge one gazes upon a moon that is eternally present, outside of time, always shedding its benign light.
Buddhism praises awareness, especially awareness of presently arisen states. There is a value in being aware of what is arising, being aware of what is persisting, what is fading away. Thus I might notice that a feeling of sadness is arising, or that sadness is persisting, or that the sadness is fading, or that happiness is arising, or that happiness is persisting, or that the happiness in me is melting away, and so on.
As with all exercises, there are good ways to do this and there are also pitfalls. Let us firstly consider the pitfalls. If one does this as a deliberate meditative exercise, it is at first interesting, but after a time one will tire of it because it does not, in itself, lead anywhere. One observes one thing after another and then one’s mind wanders off onto more interesting topics.
Secondly, there is a danger of over-doing. If one is ardently trying to be aware of every arising state then one observes. Let us say, one observes sadness. One is now in the state of observing sadness, so one should observe this. One is now in the state of observing oneself observing sadness, so one should observe this. One falls into an infinite regression, observing oneself observing oneself observing oneself observing sadness and so on. It become absurd. So there is the danger of fatigue and that of absurdity.
So what is the better way? It is not enough to be ardently aware. One also has to be mindful of one’s purpose. If one’s purpose is to live a life of faith, then noticing states takes place within the frame of this purpose. Thus, on the one hand, one investigates how what one observes relates to one’s faith and, on the other hand, one realises how one’s faith transcends what one observes.
How does what one observes relate to one’s faith? If I notice sadness or happiness or anger or joy or envy or sympathy or whatever, then I know that I am a creature that is of the nature to give rise to such things; I am a vehicle for them; they pass through me. Knowing this, I also know that it must be thus for other beings also, and this is the foundation of compassion, the grounding of love. We are all here together in the same boat. The alloy of this observation with faith is courage. Seeing things as they are gives confidence. It permits joy when things go well and equanimity when circumstances are adverse. These are some of the ways that awareness of states relates to faith. Much reflection is possible in this area.
How does one understand that faith transcends what one observes? The states one observes come and go. They are like visitors, whereas faith persists. One’s refuge in Buddhadharma encompasses all states. We should not think that Buddhist practice is matter at arriving at one particular state and remaining there permanently. The flow of states cannot be arrested. Yet when one has discovered one’s faith, it does not wash away. It is not a conditioned state, but participation in what is unconditioned. It is of eternity.*
Awareness is not, in itself, a factor of enlightenment, but it is a contributor. Correctly used, the development of greater awareness of the flow of consciousness brings insight, therapeutic gain, and a degree of liberation. Wrongly applied it merely leads to confusion or fatigue. Awareness rightly used deepens understanding and strengthens one’s capacity to be of benefit to others. It is a wonderful enhancement of one’s precious human life.
* [Digression: A person might object that his faith wavers. This is not true faith. This is probably merely belief. Beliefs are always subject to doubt. There has been much confusion caused by equating faith with belief. I do not know whether the heavens and hells exist or not. I do not know whether gods exist or not. If I think they do or I think they do not, these are beliefs and they are open to doubt either way. Faith, however, is something more fundamental. Faith is the deep intuition that enables one to recognise Dharma when one encounters it. One may express one’s faith in formulations, but really faith transcends them. I may say that I have faith in Buddha but my faith would remain even if the word Buddha had never appeared in my experience. Buddhism is a vehicle for my faith. It is a good vehicle, but if it were not available there would be others.]
Buddhism talks a good deal about shunyata, emptiness. What is this emptiness? The earliest Buddhist texts provide a psychology of what we could call the point mind - a mind without content. Our modern (and later Buddhist) psychologies speak a lot about the content of the mind and much therapy and education is devoted to filling the mind up with supposedly good things. So is the mind full or empty?
The Japanese psychologist Tomoda who translated the works of Carl Rogers into Japanese and then went on to develop a system of psychology closely related to Buddhist and Taoist thought was particularly struck by the way that Rogers’ method (if not his theory) provided the client with a safe space in which he could be entirely alone, even though in the presence of the therapist.
To my way of understanding, the idea of shunyata can well be approached through this matter of aloneness. When one dies one is alone. One is alone facing a complete unknown. Whatever your belief about the afterlife, now what is happening for real and you know that something very powerful is taking place that you actually have no knowledge about. You can enter it in fear or in faith, but either way you do so alone. This is emptiness. Whatever connections, relations, loves, achievements or projects you have accomplished in your earthly life, all are left. You are alone. This is shunyata.
Buddhist enlightenment - spiritual awakening - is like this: to die before you die, to find that utter aloneness while still hale and fit for action here in this world. That is also faith, for you dare not enter such a state without great faith. It is a kind of fearlessness, which is not really to say that one never experiences the feeling of dread as a sensation, but rather that one has access to something that carries one through all difficulties. This something may be called the bodaishin or bodhichitta. It is not something that one can possess, but it is never unavailable.
Buddhism has a multitude of methods for helping people to approach such a state, but the final step - that in which one is seized by an other power - one must, as at death, take utterly alone, and, as at death, it is not something one can contrive nor be in control of.