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Buddhadharma : Win 2012
50 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 1 2 seek to create his Pure Land here in this life. In Japan, these teachings became the basis of several distinct Buddhist sects, included those founded by Shinran and his teacher, Honen. Shinran taught that Amida is the Buddha in his dharmakaya form—his ultimate, liber- ated nature—and that the Pure Land is a poetic description of nirvana. Putting the insights of Mahayana Buddhism into a narrative format, he described how Amida vowed to embrace all beings, no matter how bad or good, and liberate them from their greed and delusion. According to the stories contained in the sutras, this liberation for all is something that Amida accomplished ten kalpas ago—a time so ancient it is almost beyond reckoning. Shinran advanced his interpretation further, stating that “Amida seems to be a Bud- dha more ancient than kalpas as countless as the atoms of the universe.” This meant that Amida’s “vow” transcended history altogether and was thus timelessly true. Shinran understood Amida as buddhanature. As he puts it, “Buddhanature is none other than Tathagata [Buddha]. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain buddhahood.” Liberation is therefore always naturally avail- able and needn’t be chased after endlessly. Shin- ran taught that we must give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion. In this way, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about attaining buddhahood for ourselves and instead becomes about expressing gratitude for all that we have received. This is a way of life that deep- ens as the years pass; as Shinran put it, “My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebted- ness ever more compelling.” Buddhist practice is transformed into an act of pure expressiveness that puts our inner feelings into word and deed through the utterance of the nembutsu and other acts of gratitude. Other Pure Land Buddhist masters, including Shinran’s own beloved teacher, Honen, stressed the importance of anticipating the last moment of one’s life, when Amida would rescue us from our sorrows and take us to be reborn in the Pure Land. In contrast, Shinran’s interpretation was came to the insight that meditation, precepts, and other rigorous practices often subtly rein- force our egos. He saw that if we become good at sitting still for long periods of time, we may start thinking, “Wow, I’m a great meditator. Too bad all the other people out there don’t have my capacity.” Likewise, he saw that a glimpse of emptiness often leads us to believe that we are more enlightened than normal people, and that if we manage to adhere to strict precepts, we tend to slip into thinking, “I’m a good person, and people who don’t stick to the precepts are bad.” Indeed, Shinran found these sorts of attitudes in himself, and in his fellow monks as well. I know that I’m guilty of this, too. Shinran concluded that very few of the monks he encountered, if any, were reaching levels of attainment akin to those described in the sutras. Furthermore, he felt that the exclusivity of monastic practice left behind those most in need of freedom from suffering. If Buddhist practice so often reinforced self-attachment and created divisions among people, even as practitioners believed they were making spiritual progress, then the only solution, according to Shinran, was to abandon the traditional practices altogether. Turning away from self-power, the notion that one can achieve realization through one’s own efforts, Shinran looked to power-beyond-self, taking refuge in Amida Buddha. For Shinran, Amida Buddha was the embodi- ment of power-beyond-self. In the hundreds of Mahayana sutras discussing Amida and his Pure Land, he is described as infinite light and life (the meaning of Amitabha and Amitayus, the San- skrit forms of his name), which represent unlim- ited wisdom and compassion. Pure Land motifs and practices are part of virtually all Mahayana schools of Buddhism, in Tibet, China, and else- where; every day, Tibetan lamas visualize Amida Buddha, Zen monks chant his name during funerals, and Fo Guang Shan nuns in Taiwan When we say Namu Amida Butsu, we aren’t begging to get into the Pure Land or trying to win favors with the Buddha. We are saying, “How wonderful to receive so bountifully! Thank you very much!”