Fundamental Ignorance

As a long time Buddhist practitioner, and a Westerner, I would say that the four characteristics of Pureland Buddhism that stand out are: Amida, Faith, Nembutsu, and Bombu.

Bombu is the Japanese term used to remind us, that we are deluded and ignorant beings. Of course this is nothing new to Buddhism.  The Buddha taught that the primary cause of suffering is ignorance.  However in the West, at least, there is not a lot of emphasis on the fact of our deluded nature. Zen and Vajrayana, as presented to westerners, is about our potential to awaken. That is the focus. Practitioners strive to awaken as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, in this very life.  In these traditions it is, of course, implicit that we are not yet awakened, otherwise why would we need to strive for awakening?  But the emphasis is always on the goal of Buddhahood, not on our fundamental ignorance.

In the Pureland tradition, however, we begin by recognizing that we are Bombu, deluded and ignorant beings. Our religious services, our practice, and our language constantly point us to the realization that we are “foolish beings of wayward passions”. Because until we awaken to this fact, we are stuck floundering in the web of samsara, getting ever more trapped and bound up in the ignorance of self, in this life and in innumerable future lives.

Again, this is basic Buddhism. The question is, once we have realized our fundamental ignorance, what do we do? Generally, as Buddhist, we begin by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  As Pureland practitioners, we also call upon Amida Tathagata, reciting the Nembutsu, Namo Amida Bu!

Having studied and practiced Zen and Vajrayana before settling into Pureland, I have found the shift in the focus of practice from enlightenment (Zen and Vajrayana) to reliance upon the Tathagata (Pureland) quite liberating. Though I still strive to follow the eightfold path, to keep the precepts, and to practice the Paramitas, I do not get despondent when I fall short. I am no longer obsessed with practices, rituals, and amounts of time spent meditating.  Instead, as a Pureland practitioner, I know that when death eventually comes, my future will be held in the hands of the Tathagata.

In the meantime, while there is still breath in my lungs and a pulse in my chest, I recite the Nembutsu, Namo Amida Bu. I strive to live a noble life, like that outlined by the Buddha, but recognizing my own shortcomings.  I keep the precepts close to mind and try to be a small part of creating a world with less suffering, less pain, less mistrust.

Though the Pureland may be our destination after death, this world, home of the Buddha Shakyamuni, is built by our actions (karma). The happiness or suffering of the beings in the world, depends, to some extend on whether or not we listen to, remember, and try to practice the teachings of the Buddha. And what exactly are the teachings of the Buddha: Be Kind in body, speech, and mind. Protect living beings, give of yourself, be trustworthy, and above all keep the Buddha in mind.

Namo Amida Bu!

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