Posts Tagged ‘Amida’

Touching the Limitless

August 6, 2017

“But do not ask me where I am going. As I travel in this limitless world, where every step I take is my home.”

In the above quote Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen School of Buddhism in Japan, captures the essence of the Nembutsu — the core practice of Pureland Buddhism. Nembutsu has many forms. In our tradition, Nembutsu involves the recitation of “Namo Amida Bu.”

“Namo” represents us as unenlightened beings. This is not negative, just realistic. As much as we would all like to be enlightened, the reality is that we are caught up in various conditioned thoughts, emotions, and actions. We get annoyed, angry, impatient, etc. We are blown through life by our past actions and our continuing desire to find happiness and avoid suffering. This is fundamental ignorance.

“But do not ask me where I am going.”

Dogen’s first sentence is the “Namo” of the Nembutsu. This is not an ordinary statement. Dogen’s is not saying, don’t ask me a mundane question like, “Are youflip-flops going to the market?” He is saying instead, don’t be confused about reality. There is no “Dogen-ness” that is going.

He is indicating that if we really look within, we cannot find any SELF that is a true first cause. All that we find are moments of experience arising from/with various causes and conditions. Because we do not see/understand the reality of dependent arising in each moment, we are foolish and deluded beings.

“As I travel in this limitless world,”

In the first phrase of the second sentence Dogen reveals the nature of reality as limitless. This is the “Amida” of the Nembutsu. Amida is measureless. Amida is unconditioned, beyond the human habit of dividing, separating, measuring, and comparing. To see the world as it truly is, we must get beyond the measuring mind. Unfortunately, the mind that measures — the thinking mind — cannot think itself out of our reality conditioned by thought. Amida, the measureless, must break in upon us from “outside” and awaken us from the dream world of conditioned thought. Once we awaken, we begin to see the limitless (Amida) in even the most ordinary of tasks and circumstances.

“…where every step I take is my home.”

In the second phrase of the second sentence, Dogen brings us back to earth. It is not good to be caught up and confused by our fundamental ignorance, nor is it possible to live our entire lives “measurelessly.” We are, after all, human beings. We live and die. We eat, dream, and have lives. Our survival depends on our ability to judge, measure, and make distinctions.

Our awakening must be lived in the world. Living that awakening as a foolish and ignorant human being is the “Bu” of the Nembutsu. Nothing is changed. We still get up in the morning and have breakfast and then go to work. We do all the normal things of life. However, we have seen the Buddha. We have been touched by the reality of the limitless. We have awoken, if only briefly, from the dream of conditioned thought. We have discovered the preciousness of each moment. Thus, our lives are lived more deeply. And, hopefully, we act more lovingly in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

One Nembutsu and Universal Salvation

August 1, 2017

In Pureland Buddhism iSukhavatit is often taught that a single recitation of Nembutsu — Namo Amida Bu — is sufficient to effect one’s salvation after death. As a result of reciting one Nembutsu, one will be reborn in Amida’s realm of love and bliss, instead of being swept along blindly by one’s karma toward an uncertain rebirth after death.

This is essentially a view of universal salvation through grace. It is an eschatology that places the realization of divine truth in the future — after death — and outside of this world. Our actions are unimportant. There is nothing good or ill that we can do that will affect or effect our salvation after death.

For those who are powerless, oppressed, and suffering tremendously, this eschatology is valuable, even hopeful! It offers an escape, an end to one’s distress and grief. Since it is universal, the good and the wicked are saved indiscriminately. This is particularly important. The powerless and oppressed are often forced into livelihoods that a society considers sinful and/or religiously tainted. For those who are marginalized by society, traditional religious salvation can be denied them because of their lack of status or the socially “impure” work that they perform. Thus salvation through grace, even after death, may be the only form of salvation available to them.

Those of us who have the good fortune to live in stable countries, with our basic needs met and some level of autonomy, security, and freedom, are the rich and powerful. For us, salvation cannot come simply as a release from suffering and hardship at the end of life. We have already been saved from so much distress and deprivation that we cannot appreciate salvific grace. We still suffer, of course, but much of our suffering is existential. It is the suffering of affluence and not of deprivation.

Luxury and abundance are so normal for us that we have lost the ability to appreciation the simple and wondrous joys of life. Clean water is essential to life. We cannot go more than a few days without it. In fact, life on this planet would not exist without water. But we are so spoiled with fortune that we take for granted the water running through the pipes in our houses. For many people on the planet —even today — such easy access to water is nothing short of miraculous. Yet we are so accustomed to the availably of water that we cannot see the miracle that occurs every time we turn on a faucet. We, the materially fortunate, have lost salvation through our own discontent.

Therefore, we must work for our salvation. It cannot be found solely through quiet meditation or great feats of spiritual discipline. Our lives have harmed too many for that. Salvation requires that we make amends for the wrongs that we have committed and for the atrocities from which we have benefited.

We must find salvation through prayers that are active and engaged. Compassion is our act of contrition. It must be practiced daily. We begin by opening our hearts to the real pains and suffering of the people around us, as well as to those living across the globe. Once we have awoken to the suffering of others, our compassion will move us to action. Sometimes — most times — this is just offering human kindness and understanding. However, it can also motivate us to address some of the many social ills that cause people to suffer unnecessary pain and hardship. Institutionalized greed, hatred, and ignorance, are the sources of much suffering. They must be challenged and resisted. The world is filled with many people who have too little, while we few, the fortunate ones, have so much!

In saving those around us, we ourselves are saved. This is the path of great compassion. In creating a better world — one that is more loving, compassionate, and kind — we begin to discover that salvation lies in our very midst. It is found in the joys of others and the simple pleasures of living lovingly together. Amida’s Pureland of love and bliss, we realize, is both far away and present in all the ordinary moments of life.

One Nembutsu is all that is required to enter the Pureland. But that One Nembutsu must include all. None can be excluded. And we, the fortunate ones, must live that One Nembutsu with everyone.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Proclaiming the Vision of the Pureland

March 8, 2016

In the first issue of Lion’s Roar, formally known as Shambhala Sun, teachers form various traditions are asked the question, “What is the most important [Dharma] teaching to proclaim in today’s troubled world?” Below is my response.

The most important Dharma teaching is the vision of the Amida’s purified realm of awakening (Sukhavati). It is a realm in which all of the troubles faced by us today have been overcome through the Dharma. There is no prejudice, war, or privation in the land permeated by the compassion of the Buddha.

AmidaIt may be tempting to think of Amida’s Pureland as just a myth, a story for a primitive time before the western scientific model. However, doing so would be a grave mistake. A Pureland is the natural fruit of the practice of the Dharma, both individually and collectively. The vision of Sukhavati shows us that as Dharma practitioners we are co-creators, or perhaps co-realizers, of an awakened and compassion-centric society.

Sukhavati does not only exist far to the West. It is not just a post-death destination. It is accessible in each and every moment. There is nowhere and no one that exist outside of the influence of Amida’s Pureland of awakening.

The vision of Amida’s land of love and bliss, frees us from the compulsive and often disheartening need to see immediate results from our practice. The work of awakening is beyond time. It is trans-historical. Our successes and failures in the short-run are less important than our continual opening to the Buddha.

When our heart is open to the Buddha, our actions begin to reflect the Dharma. We become capable of greater love, compassion, and courageous selfless action than we thought possible.

However, awakening to the reality of Buddhahood also means recognizing our shortcomings, our foibles, and self-clinging. We are humbled in the presence of the Buddha.

Collectively we can create the beautiful music of awakening, which is said to fill Amida’s Pureland. To do so, we need a conductor. That conductor is the Buddha. The sheet music is the Vision of the Pureland. The instruments are ourselves, with our diverse gifts, skills, and personalities.

Ultimately, the vision of Amida’s Pureland is the revelation of the world transforming power of the Dharma, as expressed through unconditional compassion for all beings.

Namo Amida Bu!

In the Presence of the Buddha

October 26, 2015

This past Friday we had a gathering of our local Sangha (Community). It is a time to sit in the presence of the Buddha, chant the name of the Buddha – “Namo Amida Bu”, listen to the Dharma, and share our lives with one another. This particular night was special. It felt as if we were basking in the joyous and loving aura of a living breathing Buddha.

Garden BuddhaOf course none of us present were – or are – enlightened beings. Our practice, however, centers on remembering the Buddha and reciting the name of the Buddha. It is a very Bhakti (devotional) practice in which we are always turning the mind and heart towards the beloved – Amida Buddha.

So it is not surprising that our little Dharma Center was touched by the loving and blissful radiance of Amida. The Buddha is always present. It is we who, blinded by our self obsession, are unable to perceive the limitless compassion of the Buddha. We get caught up in our insecurities, our fears and judgements. We forget that reality is much bigger than our self-centered thoughts and the material world we bump up against daily.

Which is the whole point of reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The name is our connection to the reality of awakening – to that which is beyond birth and death. The name works on us continually – purify our mind-streams. It awakens our hearts so that we can experience Amida’s unconditional love and compassion directly. In Amida, none are unloveable – no matter how misguided. Touched by Amida’s boundless love our hearts are easily broken by the suffering of others.

The name – Namo Amida Bu – is non-other than Amida Buddha. To recite the name is to be in the presence of the the Buddha. Awakening is simply seeing that which is already present. It is nothing special. Yet in a moment of awakening, everything is changed.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Making Friends with our Fundamental Insecurity

July 5, 2015

No one likes to be afraid. Nevertheless, at an existential level, this is the reality of our situation. Nothing is secure. Our bodies are unreliable: subject to disease and death. Relationships change. Material things lose their value and/or decay. Emotions, positive and negative, arise unbidden. Thus insecurity continually expresses itself in various subtle and gross forms of anxiety. This anxiety is what the Buddha identified as dukka.

Our constant state of anxiety (dukkha) is painful. It changes our breathing and our heart rate, creates tension in the body, and stimulates the arising of various anxious making thoughts. Dukkha lies behind our anger, our craving, our need to be distracted. We lash out in anger when we are afraid. We try to accumulate pleasure to protect us from the pain of fear. Or we seek to escape fear through intoxicants be they substances or entertainments.

In short, because of our fundamental state of anxiety we often act in unwholesome ways that actually increase or perpetuate our insecurity and fear. 

Most of the time we are unaware of the subtle level of anxiety that runs continually in our minds. We see only the symptoms: anger, jealousy, desire, and unease. We may even wonder why we are never really happy, even though we know have much to be happy about.

For Buddhists, and probably contemplatives of all traditions, one of the most difficult practices we can undertake is “making friends” with our fundamental insecurity. We cannot fix or change or get rid of it. Attempts to do so are misguided and, at best, only hide this unpleasant and spiritually crippling illness. This anxiety, this illness, is our direct and personal experience of dukkha. It arises because we misapprehend the nature of reality and reify the self as something that is truly existent, i.e. permanent, eternal, and separate. 

We are so focused and identified with “our” thoughts, fears, sensations, etc., that we never see the container within which these contents, the things we mistake for our selves, are held. A container which is none other than Measureless Unconditioned Awakening. 

Thus in Pureland Buddhism longtime practitioners talk about the experience of being held by, or loved by, Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the reality in which we swim. Like the ocean itself, Amida supports and surrounds us. To recite the Nembutsu – Namo Amida Bu – is to continually remind ourselves of the vast radiant interconnected reality of Awakening. 

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Difficult and Humbling Buddhist Path

May 11, 2015

As Buddhists, we live our lives for the benefit of all beings. We try to alleviate suffering with our words and actions. We pray that others may do good, abandon what is unwholesome, and be liberated from suffering and the causes of suffering. At the very least, we hope to avoid adding more suffering to others’ lives. 

Living a Buddhist life in the world is difficult. Practicing compassion for those around us is hard. We are continually challenged by encounters with people who are antagonistic, mentally ill, or completely enmeshed in unhealthy and unwholesome lifestyles. Our youthful and romantic notions about our ability to transform the world are shaken as we stumble over our own shortcomings and self-centeredness. Often we ourselves are the problem. We are the ones who need saving. We begin to understand that there is no hard distinction between benefiting ourselves and others. All beings are interconnected. Love benefits all. Hate harms all. Yet we continue to struggle to practice love instead of hate, and it is painfully obvious that we are completely lost. We are incapable of effecting our own or others’ liberation.

Startled by this humbling reality, we cling to the Buddha as our only hope. We observe the precepts to benefit ourselves as well as others. We undertake various religious practices for the same reason. We cultivate compassion, not so that we will be more compassionate, but rather so that there will be more compassion in the world. 

We follow the Dharma, not for ourselves, but so that we may all awaken together. Awakening is not a goal to be obtained in the distant future. Rather, awakening is an ongoing process of living love and compassion moment to moment, encounter after encounter. In those moments of love and compassion, the Buddha’s light, which is always present, manifest in the world. We sit in the presence of the Buddha while our confused and deluded selves fade into the background.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Refuge, the Heart of Buddhism

December 27, 2014

Recently I attended  a refuge taking ceremony. It was a simple affair. The participant sat holding strands of various colored ribbons attached to the Buddha image and thrice recited her refuge vows along with the entire community. Taking refuge in Amida. Taking refuge in the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Dharma. Taking refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Pure Land. Thus affirming her entry onto the Buddhist Path.

320px-Wave_Acapulco_BreakingDuring this particular ceremony the minister asked us to reflect on how we have been a refuge for other members of the community. This is a humbling contemplation because it quickly makes obvious how often we have actually failed to be a refuge to others. Life presses hard upon us all. It demands our time and energy. Thus we often only see others through the filter of our own life dramas. We cannot see or hear the other person for who they are; their unique life history, their pains, their joys, and their humanness.

Being a refuge, a shelter to others, is the heart of Buddhism. It is the perfection of compassion and wisdom. Only Buddhas can be a true refuge. Yet sometimes, the Buddha’s light shines through us and we are able to see and love another as they truly are. No pretenses, just openness to the other.

For some this openness comes more naturally than for others. We can all improve. Faith in the fundamental goodness of the universe is essential. Without this faith it is easy to lose heart, to be crushed by the ugliness of the moment.

Refuge is about going beyond one’s limited self. It is about being a friend to the friendless. It is offering hospitality to the stranger. It is providing shelter for those caught in the storms of life. Often we may find that the strangers or the shelterless are our neighbors, perhaps even our own family members. It is just that we never took the time to really notice them and ask ourselves, how we can be a refuge today?

Peace, Paul

Photo by Atruro Man at Wikimedia Commons

Creating a More Compassionate Society

December 9, 2014

peter_maurinIn this last month of the year, I have found myself dipping back into the writings of Dorothy Day. I am rereading parts of her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” She and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker continue to inspire and shape the way I understand what it means to live a religious life.

Being a Buddhist myself, some of the Catholicism does not resonate. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of striving to live a life rooted in faith and love and forgiveness are solid. The emphasis on voluntary poverty, non-violence, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for effecting positive change in the world are as relevant today as they were when the Catholic Worker was founded in 1933.

Watching the grotesque theater that passes for politics, it is clear that politicians are not going to be able to address the serious issues facing us today. There is just too much money and power to be had by protecting the status quo: A world of greed and hatred.

We, individually and in small groups, must find ways to live lives that value and promote peace and compassion. The seeds of a more compassionate, a more loving, and more peaceful tomorrow are found in the accumulation of innumerable little daily actions, words, and thoughts. It is found in how we treat our neighbors. Do we speak kindly and compassionately about others, or do we engage in gossip and vicious speech? Do we think about those who are difficult, or have wronged us, with compassion and forgiveness or anger and impatience?

This is the hard long term work of creating a more compassionate society. Of course it is not enough to be satisfied with our own inner transformation. We must also do the important work of creating a better world by, “Resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted.” This is where the rubber meets the road. To end war, or end hunger, or protect children from harm and exploitation, we must be willing to work towards these goals in real and concrete ways. We ourselves may not see an end to war or poverty. But if we adhere to non-violence, compassion, and love as our method, we will find the goal is already present in the work that we do.

Life is short. Tomorrow may never arrive. Today, let’s begin to live compassion filled lives so that our children may grow up in neighborhoods, cities, and societies that are free of war and privation.

Peace, Paul

Photo of Peter Maurin care of Jim Forest

Love is an act of Faith

October 20, 2014

In a recent blog post, I shared the wonderful woodcut from Fritz Eichenberg entitled “Christ of the Breadlines.” It is a powerful and moving piece of art that inspires and challenges me to try and encounter each person I meet with love and compassion. Though coming out of the Catholic Worker tradition, this picture is an image of what Mother Theresa called, “Christ in his distressing disguises.” It is a romantic depiction of what it means to recognize the intrinsic or sacred value of each human being. Certainly we would like to think that we could see the effulgent Christ, or Buddha for that matter, within each person, no matter how dirty, dysfunctional, dishonest, or seemingly unlovable. However, as Dostoyevsky points out, and Dorothy Day was fond of quoting, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” We all imagine that we want to be able to love everyone, until we understand the cost of that love. To love all, we must be stripped our of selfness, our revulsion, our judgement. The practice of love is an act of faith. To strive to love all unconditionally is to be humbled and humiliated, daily, by own selfishness and imperfection. Faith allows us to continue to love in spite of our shortcomings and failures.

2014: Sitting in the presence of the Buddha

December 31, 2013

This year the members of our Buddhist Congregation have been invited to participate in the recitation of 1 million Nembutsu. One million sounds like a lot. However, it is only the recitation of 26 rounds of Nembutsu, on a 108 bead Buddhist rosary, every day. It is a wonderfully simple practice. Each day we make a small effort and call out to Amida Buddha. Over the course of a year, our small daily effort results in the recitation of 1 million Nembutsu.

Nembutsu, calling out to the Buddha, is the heart of our Buddhist practice. It is a simple practice, involving only the recitation of “Namo Amida Bu!” At first the calling out to Amida may feel forced and contrived. But we must ask ourselves, what has brought us to take up the Nembutsu? What about our life is not working? Because surely if your life were completely satisfying you would not be taking up a religious practice. No. To come to the Nembutsu, to take refuge in the Buddha, is to recognize that we do not have the answers. The Buddha offers us the cure for our existential pain. The Buddha offers us answers.

To embrace the Buddha is to awaken experientially to the reality of our limited and deluded selves held within Measureless Awakening and Compassion. Nembutsu is not so much the path to awakening as the dynamic reality of Awakening. “Namo Amida Bu” is the Awakened Action of the Buddhas in each and every moment.

There is nothing special about reciting 1 million Nembutsu. It is simply an opportunity to sit daily in the presence of the Buddha and see where that leads.

Namo Amida Bu!

Ananda