Friday, May 27, 2005

The Doubt and the Vow

I was reading some discussion between priests, priests-in-training, and knowledgeable lay practioners of various Pure Land Buddhist schools, including the two major Japanese forms, Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. For those who aren't certain what this is, the Pure Land is a Buddha-field, or a realm that is guided by a Buddha, or enlightened being. The Pure Land is the Buddha-field of Amitabha Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Light), also known as Amitayus Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life) and as Amida Buddha in Japan. While the concept of Buddha-fields and the Pure Land flourished with the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, Pure Land didn't become a separate tradition until Buddhism reached China. In traditional Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, the Pure Land is located very far to the West, i.e. far into the unknown. Generally in traditional Pure Land if you have faith in the vows of Amitabha, in particularly the vow where anyone who wishes can be reborn in the Pure Land, aspire to such a rebirth, and have dedication to remembering Amitabha through the practic of name recitation, you will in fact go to the Pure Land when you die.

In Jodo Shu, Honen taught that rebirth in the Pure Land was based on faith in the vow of Amida, rather than through any effort on the part of the practioner. However, Amida and the Pure Land are still seen not as figurative images but very literal objects. The Pure Land is far to the west, perhaps another planet or dimension. This is sometimes referred to as other-worldy emphasis. Another thread of thinking saw Amida and the Pure Land as metaphors or symbols for our true nature and the true nature of reality. They are real, but they are not far away in terms of space and time but rather in perception. Our true nature and the true nature of existence are present all the time, everywhere, but because of our delusion we cannot see them. This view was refined and articulated into a coherent and powerful message by Shinran, the principal student of Honen. Shinran's view became the basis for Jodo Shinshu, which like Jodo Shu, emphasizes that faith in the vow of Amida is the only way to reach the Pure Land.

So, then, we have the primary form of the traditional Pure Land view (the syncretism of self-effort or self-power and other-power leading to an actual Pure Land that exists somewhere far away), the form of Jodo Shu (reliance solely on other-power to reach an actual Pure Land that exists somewhere far away), and Jodo Shinshu (reliance solely on other-power to become aware of our true nature and the true nature of the universe). The actual history and philosophy has much more subtlety and variety but I hope this overview is sufficient to give context to what follows.

Someone in the discussion referenced an article which includes the following excerpt:

Some exponents of Zen claim that it is possible to reach Enlightenment by one's own efforts, physical and mental, through meditation, working at a koan, or catechistic paradox, or in other ways from the artistically delicate to the brutally drastic. But if looked into more closely, it will be discovered that all this self-willed effort is being used only to exacerbate and exhaust the individual ego and prove to it the futility of its own struggle. The Zen practitioner finally reaches an emotional impasse and mental block, the Great Doubt, and comes to realize the utter impossibility of attaining satori by any contrivance of the ego. He must then simply face the Void and patiently wait for the Other Power, which is within, to speak. The rigours of Zen discipline sometimes prove too strenuous even for Japanese powers of endurance, and those few who finally do break through have been granted the strength to do so because of the firmness and zeal of their Faith.

from JODO SHU AND SHIN SHU by Harold Stewart in the Journal of Shin Buddhism

I am not a priest nor have I studied extensively either the Chinese tradition or the Japanese forms, but it would seem that the difference between seeing the Pure Land primarily as this-worldly or other-worldly is kind of like asking which kind half of the delusion of duality you prefer--incomplete and biased answer A or incomplete and biased answer B? From my own extremely meager understanding, cultivating a pure mind (Buddha mind) through exhausting our own effort (self-power) and coming to surrender to the primal vow (other-power) basically tears down the distinction between here and there, far and near, known and unknown, other-wordly and this-worldly. It is akin to the core of the Heart Sutra, which is particularly popular in Ch'an/Zen schools--"Form is exactly emptiness, empitness exactly form. Form is no other than empitness, emptiness no other than form." Whether you approach Amitabha/Amida from a this-worldy or other-worldy perspective to begin with is just a matter of personal preference/karma--the realization ought to come out the same.

In Ch'an/Zen the practice is aimed at cultivating the Great Doubt, which is often expressed in some popularizations as "don't-know mind". As D.T. Suzuki suggests in Buddha of Infinite Light, this great doubt extends to what one can be certain of and what they can do to try to somehow "attain" enlightenment. The short version is that as long as one is "trying" to attain enlightenment, then one has not let go of the ego, the self-centered view of the universe. In letting go of such attachments, one does not embrace nihilism but rather accepts being connected to the foundation of reality and existence. This can be seen as letting go of "self-power" and embracing "other-power", having faith in the Primal Vow of Amida, as per the Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu schools. In China the combined Ch'an/Pure Land practice goes back to the 4th century of the Christian Era, and while I do not know to what extent people have officially practiced a combined Zen (the Japanese development of Ch'an) and Shin (a.k.a. Jodo Shinshu) in the past, I am encouraged and intrigued at the experiment that is taking place in some American Buddhist temples.

As an extra thought, it seems that the unification of the Great Doubt and the Primal Vow is expressed in the action advocated by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (a.k.a. Jizo in Japan) his own vow, which is known as the Great Vow (it can get confusing, huh?). It goes something like this:

"Until the Hells are empty;
I vow not to become a Buddha;
Only after all living beings are saved,
will I myself attain Bodhi."

This sounds exactly like the Primal Vow of Amida without the reference to all people reaching the Pure Land (here it is synonymous with saving all living beings).

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