Saturday, September 22, 2012

Returning from the Pure Land (explanation of the 22nd Vow of Amida Buddha)

Section from the Larger Amida Sutra Mandala.
 Samantabhadra is seen near the Shakyamuni
Buddha on his white elephant.Maitreya and Manjushri are 

also depicted in the right and left ofthe Buddha.

“If, when I attain Buddhahood, bodhisattvas in the Buddha-lands of other directions who come and are born in  my land should not ultimately and unfailingly reach the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excepted are those who wish to teach and guide sentient beings in accordance with their original vows. For they wear the armor of great vows, accumulate merits, deliver all beings from birth and death, visit Buddha-lands to perform the bodhisattva practices, make offerings to Buddhas, Tathagatas, throughout the ten directions, enlighten uncountable sentient beings as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges, and establish them in the highest, perfect Enlightenment. Such bodhisattvas transcend the course of practice of the ordinary bodhisattva stages and actually cultivate the virtues of Samantabhadra”.
the 22nd Vow

At my first reading of this great vow I wrongly thought that it is referring to two categories of beings born in the Pure Land, one that will reach the stage of a Buddha after some time spent in the Pure Land (one more life) while the others, those who wish to teach and guide sentient beings in accordance with their original vows return immediately to samsara to save all beings. But when I deeply contemplated this vow I realized that it is referring to only one category of people - those born in the Pure Land attain Buddhahood and also return to save all beings. Please follow my explanations carefully.

I think that the key element in understanding this vow is the 2nd section of the Larger Sutra where we can see how the great Bodhisattvas who were among the assembly on Vulture Peak (Maitreya, Majushri and Samantabhadra)[1] are working to save and guide sentient beings. Shakyamuni explains:

Each of these bodhisattvas, following the virtues of the Mahasattva Samantabhadra, is endowed with the immeasurable practices and vows of the Bodhisattva Path, and firmly dwells in all the meritorious deeds.

Which are the  vows of the Bodhisattva Path? In Mahayana there are two main lists.
The four main Bodhisattva vows:

1.      No matter how perfect a Buddha would be, I vow to become like Him.
2.      No matter how profound the Dharma (the teaching) would be, I vow to fully understand it all.
3.      No matter how numerous the passions would be, I vow to conquer them all.
4.      No matter how numerous the beings would be, I vow to save them all.

and the ten vows or pledges of Samantabhadra:

  1. To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas.
  2. To praise all the Buddhas.
      3.   To make abundant offerings. (i.e. give generously)
      4.    To repent misdeeds and evil karmas.
      5.    To rejoice in others' merits and virtues.
      6.    To request the Buddhas to continue teaching.
      7.    To request the Buddhas to remain in the world.           
      8.    To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
      9.    To accommodate and benefit all living beings.
    10.    To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.

All these fourteen vows represent the aspiration to become a Buddha for the benefit of oneself and all beings. They also show how an Enlightened person will act in his endless career of helping sentient beings. It is very important to understand that these are exactly the original vows or the great vows mentioned in the 22nd Vow.
The term “original” does not mean a personal vow which is somehow separated from the vows mentioned before, but a vow in accordance with the authentic Bodhi mind, and not with the wishes of an unenlightened and limited personality.
So, no matter you now aspire to go to the Pure Land to especially save your mother or your cat from this present life, after you are born in the Pure Land you will spontaneously feel that all beings are as important as your cat or your mom, and you will naturally feel the urge to include them all into your salvation activities.

Now let’s read the further sentence from section 2 of the Larger Sutra:

He freely travels in all the ten quarters and employs skillful means of emancipation.

So, these people who are born in the Pure Land, yourself included, and who wish to teach and guide sentient beings in accordance with their original vows, thus wearing the armor of great vows, will do their saving activities by traveling to all places in the universe and will use skilful means in accordance with the particularities of each being to be saved. This traveling shows that birth in the Pure Land is not a final destination but a permanent return in various forms to help all beings. This is why Shinran Shonin called this vow, “the vow of directing virtue for our return to this world”. In his Kyogyoshinsho he quoted Vasubandhu, our 1st Indian Patriarch[2]:

With great compassion, one observes all sentient beings in pain and affliction, and assuming various transformed bodies to guide them, enters the gardens of birth-and-death and the forests of blind passions; freely sporting there with transcendent powers, one attains the state of teaching and guiding. This is brought about by the directing of virtue through the power of the Primal Vow.

He then quoted from T’an-luan[3]:

"Directing virtue for return to this world" means that after being born in that land, and gaining the power of compassionate means, one returns and enters the thick forests of birth-and-death, teaches and guides all sentient beings, and brings all to enter the Buddha-way together.”

Now let’s go on reading from section 2 of the Larger Sutra to see how exactly those who attained Enlightenment in the Pure Land save beings:

He enters the treasury of the Dharma of the Buddhas, and reaches the Other Shore. Throughout the innumerable worlds he attains Enlightenment.

Now stop, because this and the following passages are very important and should be well understood. I already explained that the 11thVow is the one in which it is stated that those born in the Pure Land will attain supreme Enlightenment or Buddhahood, so why, again, attainment of Enlightenment is mentioned? And why this time it is said that Enlightenment will take place in the innumerable worlds where we travel to save all beings?
The answer is that this time the attainment of Enlightenment is just a play, a show for the eyes of unenlightened people, a skilful mean, and an accommodation to the level of beings in those places in order to create the necessary conditions for the Dharma to be preached.

The entire 2nd section of the Larger Sutra and other passages from various sutras prove that there are in fact two types of bodhisattvas mentioned in Mahayana texts:

1.Bodhisattvas in aspiration who have made the vows of becoming Buddhas for themselves and all beings, but who are still on the path and still unenlightened (not Buddhas yet). Anyone who now makes the above Bodhisattva vows may call himself or herself a bodhisattva in aspiration. Some bodhisattvas may be very much advanced and on various higher levels, but as long as they are have not reached perfect Enlightement I also include them in this category.

2. Bodhisattvas who already attained Buddhahood or perfect Enlightenment but
who do not remain secluded in this Enlightenment. These are in fact, Buddhas
who manifest themselves as Bodhisattvas. In this category we find Maitreya,
Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Samantabhadra, etc. Such bodhisattvas where assembled at the Vulture Peak when Shakyamuni preached the Larger Sutra. It is clear from the following passage from the end of the same 2nd section that they already attained Buddhahood and are in fact Buddhas who manifest themselves as Bodhisattvas:
“With such roots of virtue, all the Bodhisattvas in the assembly had reached the
shore of Emancipation. They had acquired the Buddha's immeasurable merit and attained the sacred, pure and inconceivable wisdom. Innumerable Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, such as these assembled there all at once.”

If we read the 2nd section of the Larger Sutra we see that an Enlightened Bodhisattva follows the same pattern like Shakyamuni in our present world, when preaching the Dharma. Thus, he first dwells for some time in the Tusita heaven where Maitreya is now dwelling (first dwelling in the Tusita Heaven, he proclaims the true Dharma), and then,

“…having left the heavenly palace, he descends into his mother's womb. Soon after he is born from her right side, he takes seven steps. As he does so, an effulgence illuminates everywhere in the ten quarters and innumerable Buddha-lands shake in six ways. Then he utters these words, "I will become the most honored One in the world."

After a childhood and youth filled with various achievements and pleasures he
encounters old age, sickness and death, and he realizes the impermanence of the world. Then he renounces his kingdom, wealth and throne, and goes into the mountains to practice the Way. After sending back the white horse that he has been riding, together with the jeweled crown and ornaments which he has been wearing, he takes off his magnificent clothes and puts on a Dharma robe. He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, sits upright under a tree and strives at ascetic practices for six years in accord with the traditional way[4].

After realizing the futility of the ascetic practices he washes himself in the river, eats moderately and then he takes a sit under the Bodhi tree with his legs crossed. Then he emits a great flood of light to inform Mara of this. Mara and his army come to attack and tempt him, but he brings them under control with the power of wisdom and makes them all surrender. Then he attains the supreme Dharma and realizes the highest, perfect Enlightenment.

After this attainment of Enlightenment, exactly like Shakyamuni in our present world, he goes on teaching the Dharma, thus guiding others to the attainment of freedom from birth and death:

[…] destroys wrong views, removes afflictions, flushes the gutters of desire, protects the Dharma-castle, opens the Dharma-gate, washes off the grime of the passions, and reveals the pure white Dharma. He unifies everything in the Buddha Dharma, and thus proclaims the right teaching.

And at the end of his physical body, he demonstrates that he passes into Nirvana or in other words, he puts on the show of disappearing into the non-comprehensible state of beyond form and non-form, but in reality, according to the Larger Sutra, he endlessly brings sentient beings to emancipation, which means that his activities in various manifestations continue in other places of the universe, where he starts again the same story.
The sutra says:

Just as a magician with his perfect skill can create at will various illusions, including images of man or woman, at will, so the Bodhisattva, having thoroughly learned all the methods of emancipation and attained serene awareness of reality, can freely teach and transform beings. He manifests himself everywhere in innumerable Buddha-lands, performing acts of compassion for sentient beings, tirelessly and with diligence.

Simply stated, let’s imagine that you, the reader of these lines, are a Buddha and I, Josho, am a stupid unenlightened person :)
You attained Enlightenment many kalpas ago, in the distant past, but because you have Compassion for Josho and other beings of this earth, you decided to manifest yourself here. If Josho is attached to his own personal power, then you need to show Josho that a person like himself can become a Buddha and in order to encourage him to start practicing you take the appearance of a person who is unenlightened and who passes through the same difficulties like him. So, you play this game for Josho because his mind cannot be convinced in another way. After “many struggles” you attain Enlightenment and thus prove to Josho that it’s possible for him too, to become Enlightened. Josho, is thus encouraged to start practicing, thinking that if you, his friend or teacher, struggled and attained, then he can do this, too. Also, if Josho or others become deeply aware of their own limitations and incapacity to become a Buddha like you in this life, and because indeed most of the people from your time and especially after you leave your physical body, will be incapable to attain Enlightenment in their present life, you start teaching them Amida’s method of salvation. Because you are a Buddha, your listeners will trust your various teachings and follow them.

But what they and Josho do not know is that you were Enlightened from the very beginning of your life in their realm and that all your years spent among them were just a useful mean for them and others to entrust to you and to your teaching.

The above explanation you can find in the Lotus Sutra, too, where Shakyamuni is also described as a Buddha who actually attained Enlightenment many kalpas ago and plays this game many times for the sake of unenlightened beings.

            So, we clearly see now that the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life represents the capacity of those who attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land to endlessly manifest themselves in various places in the universe and become active Buddhas there for the sake of sentient beings. When we are born in the Pure Land we automatically gain the capacity to always playing the role of becoming Buddhas and teaching the Dharma like Shakyamuni himself. Shinran Shonin explained this in his Hymns of the Pure Land:

Those who reach the Pure Land of happiness
Return to this evil world of the five defilements,
Where, like the Buddha Shakyamuni,
They benefit sentient beings without limit.

And it’s a logical conclusion that only someone who already became a Buddha can play this role of always becoming a Buddha. Clearly, one who is only a bodhisattva in aspiration cannot do all these saving activities, and the 22nd Vow describes only what those who become Buddhas in the Pure Land will do. As Buddhas from the Pure Land, we will manifest ourselves as Bodhisattvas, that is, as Buddhas who do not remain secluded in their own Enlightenment.
Exactly like the Bodhisattvas described in the section 2 of the Larger Sutra, we act like Samantabhadra who is himself an Enlightened Bodhisattva or a Buddha manifesting himself as Bodhisattva. The text of the 22nd Vow is clear about this:

Such bodhisattvas transcend the course of practice of the ordinary bodhisattva stages and actually cultivate the virtues of Samantabhadra.

As Shinran himself explained in a note to his 17 verse of the Hymns of the Pure Land:

We sentient beings, if we attain the Land of Bliss, will awaken great love and great compassion, and going throughout the ten quarters, will benefit sentient beings. The supreme, perfect compassion of Buddhas is referred to by the name of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

The last sentence, the supreme, perfect compassion of Buddhas is referred to by the name of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra  clearly shows that Samantabhadra attained and represents Buddhahood and that we, after attaining the same Buddhahood in the Pure Land, will manifest ourselves exactly like him.

Some may interpret that the 22nd Vow is a promise only for bodhisattvas in aspiration or Bodhisattvas who already attained Buddhahood and not for ordinary people who have a simple faith in Amida Buddha and who are not capable to follow the bodhisattva path, not even in aspiration. This is a false interpretation and I am going to explain why.

It is important to understand that in the 22nd Vow the words “bodhisattvas in the Buddha-lands of other direction who come and are born in  my land” are not used in relation to those who aspire to attain Buddhahood for themselves and all beings through their own power. If we read all the 48th Vows in the Light of the 18th(Primal Vow), as Shinran did, in which birth in the Pure Land is promised for those with simple faith, without any mention of special merits, then we come to the conclusion that the 22nd Vow is a promise for ordinary people, too, who come to be born in the Pure Land from all places of samsara. So, bodhisattvas from the Buddha-lands of other directions or bodhisattvas in aspiration also include us, ordinary people of simple faith (shinjin).

Why is that? Because, as Shinran explained, the awakening of the Bodhi Mind – the aspiration to attain Budhahood for oneself and all beings – is fulfilled in the awakening of faith in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Master Shan-tao himself said: “Awake your Bodhi Mind to Amida’s Compassion”, that is, aspire to your and other beings’ Liberation by relying on the Compasion of Amida (his Primal Vow).
So, the awakening of the Bodhi Mind, the obligatory condition in Mahayana of attaining the supreme Enlightenment, appears in Jodo Shinshu in the form of the entrusting heart (shinjin). 

In the “Hymns on Patriarchs”, Shinran said:

“Faith is One Mind
One Mind is the Diamond-like Mind;
The Diamond-like Mind is the Bodhi-Mind;
This mind is given us by the Other-Power.”

The One Mind or faith (shinjin) represents the cause of Enlightenment. Since this is the Bodhi-Mind, it has two aspects[5]:

“To take refuge with One Mind in the Buddha
Of Unhindered Light Shining throughout the Ten Directions
Is the mind aspiring to become Buddha;
So says Vasubandhu, the Master of Discourse[6].”

“The mind aspiring to become Buddha
Is the mind seeking to save sentient beings;
The mind that seeks to save sentient beings
Is True Faith endowed by Amida’s Compassion.”

By having simple faith in Amida Buddha we are assured of attaining Buddhahood in the Pure Land and of coming back, as Buddhas manifested as Bodhisattvas, to help all beings in all places of the universe.
Shinran Shonin was very clear in his writings about the meaning of the 22nd Vow which is a promise addressed to us, ordinary beings of simple faith.  We are the ones who will perform the activity of Samantabhadra after we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land. The following are only two quotes from among many who prove this:

The aspect for our return [to this world] refers to Amida’s directing of virtue so that after going to the Pure Land we are enabled to perform the activity of Samantabhadra and benefit sentient beings[7].

Immediately reentering the world of beings,
We engage in the compassionate activity that is the virtue of Samanabhadra.[8]

And because our attainment of Buddhahood in the Pure Land is due to the working of Amida and all Buddhas who, in accordance with the 17th Vow, guide all beings to entrust to the Primal Vow, we will forever feel gratitude to them and always visit their Buddha-lands to make offerings to them: “make offerings to Buddhas, Tathagatas, throughout the ten directions” as the 22nd Vow promises.

Exactly like Samantabhadra, we will always pay homage to all Buddhas (the 1st pledge of Samantabhadra), praise them (his 2nd pledge), make offerings to them, ask them to go on preaching the Dharma (his 6th pledge) and assist them by saving beings ourselves (the 9th pledge). We will forever encourage and guide beings everywhere in accordance with their capacities, rejoice in their dedication (the 5th pledge of Samantabhadra), help them to enter the ocean of Amida’s perfect merits (the 10th pledge), forever defending and protecting the true Dharma of all Buddhas (the 8th pledge) and bringing it to all places.

Shinran Shonin assured us in his Kyogyoshinsho[9]:

"Thus, when one has boarded the ship of the Vow of great compassion and sailed
out on the vast ocean of light, the winds of perfect virtue blow softly and the
waves of evil are transformed. The darkness of ignorance is immediately broken
through, and quickly reaching the land of immeasurable light, one realizes great
Nirvana and acts in accord with the virtue of Samantabhadra. Let this be known."

[1] The Larger Sutra was preached by Shakyamuni on the Vulture Peak in Rajagriha.
[2] Kyogyoshinsho, IV: 15.
[3] Kyogyoshinsho, IV: 16.
[4] Such an Enlightened Bodhisattva follows the exact pattern of Siddharta Gautama before he became Shakyamuni Buddha.  It is like the story of Gautama repeats itself. 
[5] The two aspects of the Bodhi-Mind are to aspire to the attainment of Buddhahood for himself and others.
[6] “Discourse on the Pure Land” (Jodoron), a work whose author is Master Vasubandhu.
[7] Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, note to the verse 34.
[8] Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, verse 36. 
[9]  KGSS II 72-78

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