Thursday, July 24, 2008

Some discussions on the nature of Amida Buddha

I share with you here, a few passages from my discussions with some Jodo Shinshu practitioners about the nature of Amida Buddha. Please read the previous two articles in the category "Amida Buddha" from this blog, for a better understanding.

Anonymous: "The way a Buddha is seen in Mahayana definitely looks like a 'supernatural being' to someone outside of the Dharma without the knowledge necessary to differentiate the idea of a Buddha from a god and that may cause more problems of understanding than solving them for these people."

My answer: “I still do not think that from the explanations I did about the three Buddha-bodies and the two bodies, and also the explanation about Buddha-nature and Dharmakaya, or from other more simple explanations made by the masters of our tradition, one can still understand the Buddha like a supernatural being. This person outside of the Dharma who wishes to know about the Dharma, can make an effort and listen to the teaching and explanations about what a Buddha is and what gods and demi-gods are, and how in Buddhism are recognized many realms of existence. This person can understand if he truly listens, that gods, like any other beings are still NOT enlightened but still under the influence of their karma and illusion, and that a Buddha is someone who attained true freedom from the bondage of karma, etc. He has Infinite Wisdom and Infinite Compassion and Amida is also a Buddha, but he made a special vow to save all beings who rely on him. What is it so difficult to understand here? And more than that, which is more difficult to understand: the Letters of Rennyo, Tannisho, or the explanations of some modern scholars of today? I rather think that explanations made by so many scholars of today will make newcomers understand nothing and gave up their interest in Jodo Shinshu. I saw this situation many times at our Dharma meetings in Europe when newcomers understood nothing from the talks and paper presentations of many invited teachers. Do you know how many people were sleeping at these Conferences? My answer is – many! :))

You also mentioned that Theravada Buddhists have a different understanding of what a Buddha is.
Its ok for me that Theravada Buddhists understand the Buddha in a different way, but I am not a Theravada follower. I am a follower of Mahayana Buddhism and especially of Shinran Shonin. For me he is the supreme teacher in matters related with Buddhism and if someone comes to Jodo Shinshu I have to make clear to him the Dharma as interpreted by Shinran Shonin and the seven Masters, not the Dharma as explained by Theravadins or the Dharma of other schools. Of course, this does not mean that I do not respect their opinions and interpretations that differ from that of Shinran.
I think that explaining the Jodo Shinshu teaching to new comers, in ways different than that of Shinran Shonin, Rennyo Shonin and the seven Masters will not do any good to them. My task as a priest is only to present exactly what Shinran Shonin, Rennyo Shonin and our masters said and taught.


"Many Shin priests and scholars do not believe in the Holy Story literally, Al Bloom and Taitetsu Unno just two of the more known among those..."

My answer:
Well, with all due respect for the scholars you mentioned, I prefer to entrust in the words of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna rather than their words and opinions.
Nagarjuna talked about Amida Buddha in his Junirai (Twelve Hymns of Adoration) that we all recite during nembutsu meetings. It is very clear for everyone who reads this hymn that Nagarjuna actually worships Amida. He declares plainly that Amida Buddha really exists, like Shakyamuni, takes refuge in him and recommends everyone to do this. In the Pure Land sutras, and traditional texts, Buddha is always considered a real enlightened person to whom one can rely and worship. How can one say that Nagarjuna is in fact worshiping a concept or a fictional character or whatever some “modernists” would like to say.
Then, we know that Master Shan-tao was well versed in contemplation of Amida Buddha and his Pure Land and practiced the method of contemplation as described in the Contemplation Sutra with great success. He also took Amida Buddha as a real Buddha, like Shakyamuni.

“But Nagarjuna is also the main philospher of the middle way, the
rejection of extremes, including those of the real and the un-real. So I am not so sure that Nagarjuna didn't view worship as a skillfull means.”

My answer: 
“When speaking about Amida Buddha in his Junirai, Nagarjuna does not reffer to him in the middle way style of philosophy.
Rather, while not forgetting his middle way philosophy about emptiness and so on, this doesn't stops him from simply worshiping Amida as a real and living Buddha. To worship and entrust to Amida Buddha is also a supreme practice, and Nagarjuna recommends it to others, and he himself is doing it. By worshiping Amida, Nagarjuna shows that even he, the great philosopher and practitioner can have a simple faith in Amida.

But why should we look to his simple texts of worship from the position of his other texts on emptiness and middle way? My opinion is that we should keep this simple text for our practice and leave the texts about emptiness and other complicated matters to people who follow other practices. Shinran Shonin considered Nagarjuna as a Pure Land Master because of his texts related with Amida.
Nagarjuna himself made a difference in his text "Path of difficult Paractice and the Path of easy Paractice" between self-power practices and other -power practices and he recommends these practices according to people's capacities. So lets chose and not mix and do not think to the simple Other-Power practice and entrusting in terms of the Path of Sages. To practice and understand emptiness is to follow the Path of Sages, not the Pure Land path.
…..I forget to mention: Junirai is a hymn, and usually in hymns, Masters of the Past and also of present times, write their own understanding on various topics. This is one of the main characteristic of a hymn.
Master Shinran also wrote Shoshinge in order to present his own understanding. There are also many devotional hymns written by many Buddhist Masters. In Junirai, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna writes devotional verses full of joy to Amida Buddha. It is a personal hymn of devotion. I think this is the very reason of this hymn - to express his joyful devotion. The words of the hymn clearly show this.


"The way Shinran described Amida makes room for a cosmic understanding of this reality and is certainly not limiting him to merely a point in space and time (which is what a literal understanding of the Holy Story actually does)."

My answer: 
A literal understanding of the story of Dharmakara becoming Amida is not limiting Amida to a point in space and time. We have to read this story in the context of the Larger Sutra and relate it with Shinran’s explanations because he is the teacher who explains the Larger Sutra. Shinran Shonin accepts the ultimate reality of Amida, in terms of Dharma body of dharma nature, which can’t be fixed in time and space, but he also speaks about Dharma body of Compassionate means.
However, it is a long distance from Shinran’s explanations about Amida as Infinite light or like in the hoben-hosshin (1), and for example, Nobuo Haneda’s explanation of Amida Buddha as "a fictional character" like Hamlet or Faust." I didn’t say that "Amida Buddha is only a Buddha among many or that he is sitting somewhere in the west" A literal acceptance of the sutras and the writings of Shinran Shonin does not mean that Amida is a static Buddha. He is ever engaged in delivering beings from samsara and the glorious manifestations of his Pure Land comes from his vows.


"'s nothing wrong with you or generally those who believe in the sutras literally, but I often get the feeling that those who do believe them literally think that there's something wrong with people who can't just believe it the way it is written - and that is the problem. While we who consider Amida as a personal symbol for a reality that can't be grasped, who consider the Pure Land not as another dimension somewhere in the West, but as a wonderful poetic description of the reality of Nirvana etc. have no problem with accepting other views (it's all about skillful means), many of the literal believers do have problems with us."

My answer: 
Also many of those who do not believe literally in the sutras, tend to think there is a problem with us, who take the sutras literally. :))

Shinran Shonin also said that when we are born in the Pure Land through the gate of the 18th Vow, we are in fact, attain ultimate Nirvana. So, we, people of literal understanding, take this explanation of Shinran Shonin as it is. We also believe that the Pure Land is in essence the ultimate reality.

(1)1. Dharma body of Dharma nature (Hossho-hosshin) and 2. Expediency Dharma-body (hoben-hosshin)

1 comentarii:

Paul Roberts said...

Your explanations of True Shin Buddhism are right on the mark. Once again I am grateful for your efforts as a true teacher of Shinran Shonin's Dharma.

In regard to the person who complained that we consider those who cannot accept that Amida is a real and true Buddha of transcendental body to "have a problem", here is my response:

First, we're not judging anyone. Not a single one of us, by our own merit, is worthy of taking birth in the Pure Land. We are all prone to foolishness, blind passions and evil thoughts and actions. This was Shinran's own self-judgment, and it is the self-judgment of anyone who is a person of the same SHINJIN.

At the same time, we declare exactly what Shinran declared concerning the person and work of Amida Buddha - and the problem of unbelief that many encounter.

Like it or not, those who do not entrust themselves to the living Buddha as Shinran did, and all the other Pure Land Masters did before him, cannot and will not experience immediate Buddhahood at the end of this life. Either they will continue to transmigrate in Samsara - or if they have some sort of faith that is not yet settled, and thus marred by self-powered efforts and understandings, they will be born in the intermediate zone described by Shakyamuni and Shinran as "the womb palace", "the borderlands", "the place of indolence and pride" - and also by the words, "their lotus buds will not open immediately upon entry into the Pure Land".

The #1 purpose for getting together as a Sangha, according to Master Rennyo, was so that those who were still plagued by some sort of unbelief would be able to have a Dharma dialectic - a teacher/student dialogue - with those of settled SHINJIN.

Even though the Sangha is egalitarian - this does not mean all Dharm a vies and opinions are created equal. We can see that easily enough by simply contemplating the nature and purpose of Yuien-Bo's TANNISHO; or by reading over Shinrans pastoral letters, or Rennyo's pastoral letters, too.

The understandings of Master Shinran and Master Rennyo are THE PLUMBLINE for all authentic Dharma discussion in Jodo Shinshu. Anyone who is not of this mind is free to start their own Dharma school - but they should not dishonor Master Shinran's name by ascribing to him Dharma views contrary to those he lived for - and was ready to die for.

It is time for the Shin Sangha to return to the True Teachings of our True Teachers. Those who do not wish to - as Master Honen said - will perhaps go to another Pure Land than he; and they should have the courage to leave Master Shinran behind and begin their own school - or the humility to bow their heads and come honestly to a resolution of their lack of faith.

It is better - far better - to be a humble agnostic - to say "I don't know" - and then ask for clarity and wisdom to come. Amida Buddha, able to perceive our needs just as he perceived Ananda's 2500 years ago, can respond by revealing himself to anyone who is truly open.

He has done so for me, for you, for Kobai Sensei, for Inigaki Sensei, for George Gatenby, for Nagarjuna, Master Shinran, Master Honen, Yuien-Bo and Master Rennyo.

He can do the same for anyone - even if they have a college degree or two.

The bottom line is this: We are pitiful creatures who see precious little of what is really there to be seen. We can either insist, like the fools in Plato's Cave, that what we see is all that is there - or we can listen deeply, and allow Amida Buddha to make transcendental reality of the Mahayana real for us.