Saturday, October 9, 2010

About petitionary prayers

In the Kyosho (Essentials of Jodo Shinshu) it is said:

"..we shall live expressing our gratitude without depending on petitionary prayer and superstition. "

Here we see that petitionary prayer is linked to superstition as both are put in the same category of the things we, as Jodo Shinshu followers, should not do.

But what does it mean to use nembutsu as a petitionary prayer or superstition? Simply stated it is to say the Name of Amida in order to receive worldly benefits, like wealth, possessions, success in love affairs, etc. Or to think that by reciting it in a certain manner this will bring good luck and good fortune.
To believe in luck is in itself a superstition as this implies the denial of the law of karma according to which one reaps what one sows. Luck it is said to appear from nowhere, while the karma implies that everything has a cause. One cannot be a Buddhist and believe in luck or good fortune which comes from other sources not related with personal karma. So, any religious method, which implies asking a higher being, a Buddha or a god, to grant ones worldly wishes or any divinatory practice that is believed to modify ones destiny outside the law of karma is strictly forbidden in Buddhism.

I think the above sentence from the Kyosho was especially promulgated by Hongwanji to prevent Jodo Shinshu followers from falling in two wrong views:

1. to misinterpret nembutsu as a divinatory method or a petitionary prayer for worldly benefits and, discourage wrong dependency upon various gods and higher beings

But what if we cry to Amida Buddha, like a child calls his mother when he feels sad or when he is in danger? Can this be considered wrong, too?

For example, when I was in a plane and I was passing through strong turbulences I prayed to Amida and Avalokitesvara and asked them to protect my life. I simply didn’t care then if this was a petitionary prayer or not, and I also think that Amida was not upset on me.

I am an ordinary person who is afraid of death and in times of great sorrow or fear I may cry to Amida or Avalokitesvara: “please help me, I am afraid of this or that…”.
I think it’s all right to do this. Amida and Avalokitesvara and any Buddha we call is always present, can hear our cries and understands our need of protection.

One cannot ask me to suddenly have no fear of death after I entrust to Amida. If we were supposed to have no fear after receiving shinjin then it would mean that Jodo Shinshu is not a path for ordinary people as ordinary people are always capable of experiencing fear. To be free from fear in this life means to no longer be in the category of ordinary people. And Amida Buddha especially this kind of people saves.

Shinran said to Yuien-bo in Tannisho that he himself was afraid of death and did not wish to go to the Pure Land soon. Instead of putting him outside the Dharma, this fear is exactly what assured him even more of Amida’s salvation.

Of course, it is not the fault of Amida that I suffer and have to pass through many kinds of dangerous situations. Due to my heavy karma from the past I deserve to experience any injury – this is the law of cause and effect. But in the exact moment of being injured who can really have a calm state of mind and say to himself: “I am now experiencing the results of my heavy karma so I should stay calm and don’t cry to Amida for help”.

I myself cannot really promise that when facing danger I will not pray to the Buddhas for protection. It’s really impossible for me to never say “Please Amida, protect me”.
I think we should not be strict when approaching Amida in our daily lives or when we meet with problems. We can ask for help, without becoming upset if due to causes and conditions, unknown to our limited minds, we still suffer and apparently receive no help as we wished it. But surely we are helped and supported even if our minds can’t understand how a Buddha helps us.

My opinion is that there is no real Dharmic problem as long as we don’t think we can get money or other things through the nembutsu, or that through petitionary prayers we are born in the Pure Land  or we become more worthy to go there.
As I said previously, I think that exclusion of petitionary prayers in Jodo Shinshu comes from fearing that some might misinterpret the nembutsu as a petitionary prayer or use it to transfer merits gained from a good recitation to this or that worldly gain, or think we can obtain material wealth ignoring the law of cause and effect by praying to higher beings and Buddhas.

It should be very well understood that nembutsu is not a magic formula to solve one’s problems in daily life, but only the manifestation of faith in Amida which causes our attainment of Buddhahood in the Pure Land. Through the nembutsu of faith one receives only the attainment of Buddhahood in the Pure Land, nothing else.

To end all suffering, to become a Buddha and to help others indefinitely, this is the natural outcome of nembutsu. Once we received faith in our hearts and started saying the nembutsu of faith our karma is cut and we are assured of birth in the Pure Land. Having the karma cut means that it doesn’t plant its seed in another life filled with ignorance and suffering, but as long as we live we continue to experience the results of our past actions from this life or the endless past. It is like a flower taken from the ground – it will soon wither away and die but still it preserves its colour for a few hours or days. Our karma is like that flower after receiving faith. We still suffer until we die and we are born in the Pure Land, but after death our suffering is 100% finished and we become Buddhas.

I think there is a great difference between using the nembutsu for worldly means and crying for help in times of danger when we are overwhelmed by fear. The latter is simply the child’s cry toward his mother (Amida Buddha) and no one can say it is not doctrinally correct for a child to cry to his mother.

We should be relaxed in our relation with Amida Buddha, Avalokitesvara or any Buddha, as Buddhas are our parents, and we, as children, should be able to talk freely with them. How can I, a child of Amida, be not allowed to call him in times of great sorrow, fear or danger? Of course, I as a child, can’t always abstain from becoming emotionally overcame with fear or sorrow and act without wisdom. But a mother never judges a child like an adult and in the same way, a Buddha never relates to an ordinary person like to a Buddha.  

I do not know how my last moments of life would be, so I cannot promise that I will die like a courageous person, facing death with bravery, although I wish this so much.
But no matter if in my last breaths I ask helplessly not to die due to my unconscious attachment to life, and I finally die, I know I will go to Amida’s Pure Land and become a Buddha myself. Shinran said in his Letters that he gives no special meaning to one’s last moments. If one has shinjin, then he can die in any way, as he will surely go to the Pure Land.

To have fear or ask for protection and help from the Buddhas in times of great dangers and suffering is due to our own blind passions, while to be saved as we are from birth and death is due to Amida’s Power. These two have no connection with one another.

            In the end of this article I wish to mention one more thing. I know that the example of Shinran’s giving up the recitation of the Pure Land sutras for the benefit of others[1] is always showed as a proof against petitionary prayers and wrong interpretation of practice in Jodo Shinshu. But into my opinion, what Shinran tried to do when he chanted Amida-kyo in that specific situation was transference of merit. He hoped to achieve merits by sutra recitation which to be transfered to those in need. He then realized this attempt is not in accord with the Pure Land teaching, and he stopped.

In comparrison with this, what I did when I prayed to Amida and Avalokitesvara in that dangerous situation, was not a transference of merit but just a cry of help out of suffering and fear.

I am sure that faith and the nembutsu of faith can co-exist with some cries of help in the middle of great suffering.  Amida will not be upset.

[1] It is said that one day, when Shinran saw the immense suffering of peasants from an area devastated by hunger, he secluded himself and concentrated on chanting the Three Pure Land sutras many times in order to benefit them. But after a period he gave up this practice realizing it was a mistake to think that he can rely on his own power of chanting to save others. To chant sutras and transfer the merits thus gained is a custom in many Buddhist schools, but not in Jodo Shinshu because we think only Amida, as a Buddha, has true merits that can be shared with others. 

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