Monday, June 19, 2006


Consider the following quotes, both ancient and contemporary, from various Mahayana traditions...

Do you want to understand? The whole world is one of your eyes, the body produced by your parents is a cataract. All ordinary people ignore the indestructible, marvelously clear, unfailingly mirroring eye, and cling fast to the dust cataract produced by the relationship of their father and mother. Therefore they take illusions for realities, and grasp at reflections as the physical forms themselves.

Ultimately, all phenomena are contained within one's life, down to the last particle of dust. The nine mountains and the eight seas are encompassed by one's body; the sun, moon and myriad stars are contained within one's mind.

The Smaller Sutra is a highly imaginative portrayal of the realm of enlightenment in very concrete terms: bejeweled railings, nettings, trees; bathing pools lined with golden sands with steps of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal; pavilions covered with exquisite jewels built on the earth made of gold. The atmosphere is filled with celestial music, rare and exquisite birds, and a subtle breeze blowing through jeweled trees which produces a melodious chorus. This rich and colorful description is said to be a manifestation of emptiness (shunyata) that expresses itself freely in any way it chooses. Since reality is empty of permanent being and all things are in flux, it can take any form.
-Taitetsu Unno

Once you stop clinging and let things be, you'll be free, even of birth and death. You'll transform everything; you'll possess spiritual powers that can't be obstructed; and you'll be at peace wherever you are. If you doubt this, you'll never see through anything; you're better off doing nothing. Once you act, you can't avoid the cycle of birth and death, but once you see your nature, you're a Buddha even if you work as a butcher."

When I was a young novice, I told my Master, 'If the Pure Land doesn't have lemon trees, then I don't want to go.' He shook his head and smiled. Maybe he thought I was a stubborn youngster. However, he did not say that I was right or wrong. Later when I realized that both the world and the Pure Land come from the mind, I was very happy. I was happy since I knew that lemon trees and star-fruit trees exist also in the Pure Land, with dirt roads and green grass on all sides.
-Thich Nhat Hahn

Each Buddha-Tathagata, as the body of the Dharmadhatu, pervades the mind of all sentient beings. This is why when your mind perceives the Buddha, it is your mind that possesses the thirty-two prominent features and the eighty secondary attributes. This mind that creates the Buddha is the mind that is the Buddha, and the wisdom of the Buddhas true, universal and ocean-like arises from this mind. This is why you should single-mindedly fix your thoughts and contemplatively examine that Buddha, that Tathagata, that Arhat, that Supremely Awakened One.
-The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life

I could go on, but I haven't had a chance to collect more of these in one place. I may add more in the future as I find/remember them. Feel free to reply and suggest more if you see what they are all saying.

These quotes demonstrate an appreciation of the constancy of rebirth as the manifestation of emptiness, that through the teachings of no-self and nirvana Buddhism is not espousing some abysmal fatalistic escapism ('life is so bad let’s hope we don’t get reincarnated any more and simply cease to exist because being nothing is better than being alive'), and also that perspective is crucial. My oft-quoted favorite passage from the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, 'affliction is Bodhi and the cycle of birth and death is Nirvana', as I have suggested before, is actually saying the same exact thing as 'form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form'. It just phrased differently to fit a different context. To me other teachings or phrases seemed to echo this as well, such as ichinen sanzen within Namo Myoho Renge Kyo (3,000 realms in a single thought-moment) and Namu Dai Bosa (manifestation of Bodhi in all things), and Ichinen tanen mon'i in Namu Amida Butsu (Ultimate Reality manifested/calling from/to/in Limited Beings). I have heard that in traditional Pure Land writings there is a phrase along the lines of 'Amitabha is no other than the regular person and the Pure Land is the ordinary world'.

Which is why it is so interesting to me to read critiques of Zen from Nichiren Buddhism or Pure Land, or critiques of Pure Land from Zen from Nichiren sources, etc. I am sure that there are many people in various sects and traditions within these schools who really do cling to tenets and doctrines and don't go beyond the constructs of their tradition to what I would personally see as a greater understanding of Buddhist teaching, but I think there are many who do. It's the same with the fact that people always want to put supernaturalism and superstition into their sacred beliefs, creating a duality between the sacred and the ordinary and perpetuating perceived dicohtomies like life and afterlife, heaven(s) and hells(s), etc. Every religion has some version of indulgences (paying off a loved ones time in an afterlife realm of pain), or potions or rituals for 'faith'-healing. It's just a human quirk. So, I am not going to say that 'a true Nichiren Buddhist should think this' or 'a sincere Pure Lander would recognize this teaching as'. However, I do think that often times when a Shin Buddhist talks about comparing 'The Path of Sages' versus 'The Path of Amida Buddha', or when someone in Nichiren Shoshu talks about the 'teaching of the one-vehicle' versus the 'provisional teaching', they are really perpetuating contextual differences born from the doctrinization of teachings coupled with cultural and historical circumstance.

That is not to trivialize the differences in terms of that historical significance or to deny that they exist as these schools are often taught, or to call for a uniform syncretism and total blending/merging of the various Mahayana schools. Instead, I wish to put them in their place, at least in my practice/study of Buddhism, as fingers pointing to the (same) moon. Now when I write on topics such as this, some Pure Landers may congratulate me on beginning to hear the call of Amitabha/Amida, some Chan/Zen folks may silently approve of my rudimentary grasp of sunyata and tathata, and a few in the Nichiren crowd may suggest I have begun to appreciate the teaching of ichinen sanzen (or they may all think I am a clueless wonder who over-intellectualizes everything..could go either way).

If you listened to those MP3s of Dharma talks by the Venerable Shih Ying-Fa I linked to recently, you may recall in the 'Over-Under-Sideways' talk he says something akin to 'Screw the Ox-Herding pictures...the Ox-Herding pictures should be burned if they are an impediment to our practice.' I suppose that's how I react to so many of the exclusionary-sounding (or at least implying) positions that sometimes creep up within the various schools of the Mahayana. I have had the experience before of pointing out to someone that something in their school is also taught in a different form in another school, and they were very surprised, believing it was a break-though in Buddhist thought from the founder of that person's particular school that made it somehow superior to the others. So, while I don't suggest that we should erase the tools and heritage that have developed in different schools, perhaps it would help if we 'got to know each other better'.

(Naturally, this can be extended to other avenues of Mahayana and beyond)

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