Friday, February 8, 2008

On not disparaging practices such as Buddha and sutra recitation

Or, alternatively, this could be titled "On not getting too hung up on elegant-sounding principles and neglecting reality".

I recently quoted the Buddhist monk Nichiren as writing that "Neither the Pure Land nor Hell exists outside oneself; both lie only within one’s own heart. Awakened to this, one is called a Buddha; deluded about it, one is called an ordinary person." This comes from "Hell is the Land of Tranquil Light", one of the letters Nichiren Buddhists tend to view as highly instructive in terms of the insights of their tradition's founder. It was a follow-up to my most recent efforts in wrestling with an important concept in Mahayana Buddhism - the idea that nirvana and samsara are "not two". I want to share and explore a comment that was left, and to do so in a manageable way and to make the conversation more accessible, I am replying here as a new post rather than in the comments section.

Here is the very thoughtful and helpful reply:

Yes, but practically speaking, "ordinary persons" might talk a lot about these matters, and have no real transformation. Into my opinion, only a Buddha can say things like this and truly understand them. For an ordinary person, to see Pure Land and Amida as being outside himself, aspire to be born there and entrust in Amida is beneficial and this simple faith can lead him to Buddhahood. No matter how many times ordinary people talk about non-duality, they will never escape it, so why not use it and make it a skillful mean? I think that Pure Land path is really doing this, which makes it different from the Zen path or other paths based on personal power. When reading your post, I suddenly remembered the words of Shinran Shonin in his Kyogyoshinsho:

"But the monks and laity of this latter age and the religious teachers of these times are floundering in concepts of "self-nature" and "mind-only," and they disparage the true realization of enlightenment in the Pure Land Way."
I share the concerns expressed above, and that is why I feel it is important for me to keep pointing such concerns out. I often write that these things sound great but they don't do much good if they aren't connected to genuine insight into such matters. It just becomes some kind of vain speculation, where people like the idea but cannot or do not wish to deal with the reality. It is also why I constantly talk about my inadequacy in discussing such topics.

I am also reminded of something I read several months ago on this very issue which is very pertinent and may be useful to people dealing with these issues...


The Diamond Sutra states, “All mundane (conditioned) dharmas are like dreams, illusions, shadows and bubbles.” Therefore the Saha World being illusory, so is the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Why not enter directly into the True Original Mind instead of seeking rebirth in an illusory world.


In truth, all the pure and impure lands in the tend directions are like dreams and illusions; however, only when we have attained the “Illusion-like Samadhi” can we see them as illusory and false. If we have not yet reached that stage, we will still see them as real, we are still subject to their sway, we will still know sorrow and happiness, we still feel uncomfortable during the summer heat and are even bothered by such small things as mosquito and ant bites. This, how can we speak about things being illusory? We should realize that the Pure Land method is a wonderful expedient of the Buddha, borrowing an illusory realm of happiness to help being escape from an illusory realm of great suffering, full of obstructing conditions and dangers. Them, from that happy, peaceful, illusory realm, cultivation progresses easily and the ever-silent realm of the True Mind is swiftly attained.

To take an example, in this Saha World of ours, the scenes of stifling family life and noisy downtown business districts are illusory, and so are the scenes of temples and pagodas or mountain wildernesses. However, why is that cultivators leave the noisy environment of the cities to seek the quiet, sparsely populated landscapes and pagodas hidden in the mountains? Is it not because family life creates many binding ties and bustling urban intersections are not conducive to concentration, while temples and pagodas and mountain wildernesses facilitate cultivation. For this reason, the circumstances of ordinary people are different from those of the saints. For common mortals to put themselves in the place of the saints is far-fetched and unrealistic. We who are still common mortals should follow the path of ordinary people, and cultivate gradually. We should not look with the eyes of saints and comment too far above our level, to avoid the transgression of false speech, which can be harmful… (pp.140-141)

Going one step further, as stated in the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra: “The Buddha explained to those of dull capacities that all dharmas are dreamlike, silent, and still, lest they develop view-attachment. To those of sharp capacities he spoke of the embellishments of the Buddhas, because they are like lotus blossoms, untouched by worldly dusts.” For this reason, Subhuti, who of all the Arhat disciples, was the one most completely awakened to the Truth of Emptiness (devoid of all names and marks) characteristically received a prediction that he would attain full enlightenment in the future under the title of “Name and Mark Buddha.” Thus the sublime truth of no name or mark is inseparable from name and mark; all illusory dharmas are the Buddha’s dharmas, true and unchanging. (pp.143)

Going deeper still, to the ultimate and perferct stage, as the Sixth Patriarch [Hui Neng, the Six Patriarch of the Chan tradition] has said sentient beings are originally Buddhas, afflictions are Bodhi (enlightenment), and all delusions are the perfect and illuminating essence, truly enlightened, of the womb of the Tathagata (Buddha).

[later in response to a similar question…]

“Persons of moderate and low capacity should strive to repeat the Buddha’s name as many times as possible. While they may still have attachments and see themselves as reciting the Buddha’s name and earnestly seeking rebirth, it is a good thing, because by so doing, they will assuredly achieve rebirth at the time of death and ultimately enter the realm of No=Thought, No-Birth. Where is the worry? Otherwise, not conscious of their own limitations, seeking a direct and lofty way, grasping a the teachings of emptiness while incapable of following the truth of No-Thought – yet unwilling to practice at the lower level of seeking rebirth through Buddha Recitation – in the end they achieve neither. They just remain common mortals in the painful cycle of birth and death!

[and later still in the next section…]

The sutras say, “To tire of and abandon ‘conditioned’ virtues is the action of demons. Yet, to be greedy and attached to transcendental, unconditioned virtues is also demonic action.” Ancient sages have also said that “Conditioned dharmas, while illusory, cannot be abandoned if we are to attain the Way. Although unconditioned dharmas are true, if we become attached to them, our wisdom-nature will not be comprehensive.” These words clearly demonstrate that, on the path to enlightenment, unconditioned and conditioned dharmas, noumenon and phenomenon are inseparable.

It is also stated in the Treatise on the Middle Way that, “Because common sentient beings grasp at external forms, the sutras destroy them with the truth of emptiness. If as they are free of this disease of attachment they fall into the error of grasping at emptiness, there is no medicine that can help them. As the Prajna Paramita Truth of Emptiness sounds lofty and miraculous, when educated people read of this literature, they usually get caught up in the error of “speaking on the level of principle” about everything and look down on those who follow form and marks in their practice. Thus, they create the karma of arrogance and self-importance. While they mouth the Truth of Emptiness, their actions are entirely in the realm of existence… (149-150)

One more point to bear in mind: if we speak about the Truth of Emptiness without having attained that stage (or at least reached a certain level of achievement in our practice) we certainly cannot convert others but will only end up in useless arguments and disputes. (pp. 152)

Of the two types of attachments, to existence and to emptiness, the latter is very dangerous. Both the Lankavatara and the Esoteric Adornment Sutra state:
"It is better to be attached to existence, though attachment may be as great as Mount Sumeru, than to be attached to emptiness, though attachment may be as small as a mustard seed.”

Attachment to “existence” leads to mindfulness of cause and effect, wariness of transgressions and fear of breaking the precepts, as well as to Buddha and sutra recitation and performance of good deeds. Although these actions are bound to forms and not free and liberated, they are all conducive to merits, virtues, and good roots. On the other hand, if we are attached to emptiness without having attained True Emptiness, but refuse to follow forms and cultivate merits and virtues, we will certainly sink into the cycle of birth and death. (pp.153-154)

-excerpted from the comments of Master Thich Thien Tam in Pure Land Buddhism: Dailogs with Ancient Masters (from the section "Doubts & Questions about Pure Land")

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  1. Thank you very much for this wonderful quote and explanation!

  2. I thank you. Your words reminded me of the comments of Master Thich Thien Tam, which I think are very relevant to myself and I suspect to many other Buddhists, would-be Buddhists, and people interested in Buddhism.

    For example, I think that what Master Tam says makes sense and it accords with what I have heard and read from many respected teachers in many traditions. So I am on board, so to speak, with his point of view about attachment to form and attachment to emptiness.

    But I think that's the problem, too. If you have a practice that you can stick too, and really devote yourself to and focus on, then that, as Master Tam says, will help you on the Way. But if I already "know" that this or that practice is just an expedient means, then for me anyway it becomes hard to believe in something that is just a substitute or stepping stone to something else. Even though I don't have the capacity to really perceive the Truth to which such practices ultimately point, I have trouble accepting such practices and really, sincerely believing in them. So, in effect, I am like the person Master Tam describes thusly:

    "[N]ot conscious of their own limitations, seeking a direct and lofty way, grasping a the teachings of emptiness while incapable of following the truth of No-Thought – yet unwilling to practice at the lower level of seeking rebirth through Buddha Recitation – in the end they achieve neither. They just remain common mortals in the painful cycle of birth and death!"

    But Master Tam is also on point when he writes:

    "[O]n the path to enlightenment, unconditioned and conditioned dharmas, noumenon and phenomenon are inseparable."

  3. I myself accept that Buddhism as a whole is an expedient mean,and if I was a Buddha, I didn't need it. Buddhism is a method, a medicine given by Buddhas, to sick people who are not Buddhas yet. So, I don't think too much and ask too many questions that I don't understand. I am like the man hurt by a poisoned arrow. I just do this practice of the nembutsu of faith in Amida, because I know this will lead me to birth in the Pure Land - this will take the "arrow" out of my fragile body who has limited time in this world. I understand that many things are beyond thinking and human understanding. Thus, because they are like this, even this phrase "these practices are just expedient means" are only words. The Buddhas really help beings if the beings are open to them, this is real help for blind people, from someone who is healthy and has eyes. By saying this is only an expedient mean it does not mean that their help is not real, but that it is a reality we cannot understand with our limited minds. We may have faith and rely on someone who already became a Buddha, even if we don't really understand exactly what is to be a Buddha and how his help works in detail. It's so hard for me to express in words...

  4. By saying this is only an expedient mean it does not mean that their help is not real, but that it is a reality we cannot understand with our limited minds.

    Definitely, but I think there is sometimes this impatience where some people want to skip to the end. I cannot say this is typical of all cultures and it certainly is not true of everyone in any particular culture, but I think that for many Americans, there is idea of taking a short cut, of cutting through the red tape, of getting past the formalities and getting right down to whatever lies beyond all of that. As if the expedient means were just some pretty but unnecessary wrapping and packaging and the real prize, enlightenment, is underneath. I think this tendency to to want to skip to the end holds true even when the path itself *is* the lesson or when it has no shortcuts.


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