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Good Ultimately Prevails

QUESTION: Before our pureland service yesterday, the Sheffield Amida School members listened to the third talk in the "Characteristics of the Amida School" series. There was reference to "five spiritual laws". 1. The universe is not answerable to my personal will. 2. Dependent origination. 3. Karma is inexorable. 4. Good ultimately prevails. 5. Longing springs eternal. Could you say a little more about these, particularly the fourth, "Good ultimately prevails?

DHARMAVIDYA: These maxims describe the broad framework of Buddhist thinking. Of course, some thinking might implicitly or explicitly challenge them, but they do quite well describe the tennor of much Buddhist thought. We start from the existential issue that we are in a universe that seems to go on quite independently of us and persist whether we do or not. Indeed, we seem to be a function of it. This realisation is an important first step. It punctures our sense of omnipotence. Everything in this universe arises in dependence upon causes and conditions, our own mental states not excepted. In this respect, Buddhism is not unlike modern science in its basic philosophy. This, however, is only a background philosophy since Buddhism is essentially a spiritual path. It has more to say than just this. Given that we are in an inexorable universe, how should we live what can we do? Buddhism suggests there are higher laws - spiritual laws - in addition to the ones that account for the mechanical aspects of the world. These are the laws of karma, of good prevailing and of our inextinguishable spiritual longing. These three define our spiritual life. We are beings who come into this life not as a blank sheet, but laden with karma. The Pureland understanding of this is that we are foolish beings. Yet, although we have all kinds of delusions and tendencies that bring pain and suffering into the lives of ourselves and others, there still is another way. There still is a path of light where good prevails. This is a second step, if you like. Initially, having recognized this, we think to follow this path by our own effort and so conquer the problem set by the world of Mara. Our despair has as its frame our recognition that we so seldom manage to follow this simple path of love.

The path of goodness - the Eightfold Path - is that upon which good ultimately prevails. It does not always proximately prevail, of course. Sometimes we have to persist through many difficulties. This is because there is always still a residue of old karma which has to be worked through. Old wheels continue to turn, but if one were to persist upon the path of goodness, eventually it prevails. When we fail to do so and then examine ourselves, what we find is some failure of faith. Faith rather than will-power is the vital ingredient. Where there is complete faith one does not really falter. Everything somehow works out. We all long for the good and this longing draws us back toward faith while our experience of short term setbacks in life tend to undermine faith. But this undermining only works when there is some chink in our faith in the first place. Pure faith is intrinsically stable. When pure faith is born in us we are very fortunate.

Sometimes pure faith exists within us but we do not realise that this is the case. The other day I was involved in a discussion with several other people and listening to them talk I suddenly realized that I have complete faith that when we are engaged in this activity of creating a Buddhist community, the eternal Pure Land is present in that activity. I have complete faith in that. even though I do not necessarily know what the next step is or what we will be doing in this respect next year, I have no doubt at all that in this activity of creating a Buddhist community together the eternal good is present. Not only is it present, it is indestructible. This certainty in no way reduces the fact that I see all of us who are involved in this task - and myself most acutely - as foolish beings. The good that always prevails does not reside in me nor in the next person. It is not a property of persons, it is a property of purposes. This is why Buddhist ethics is so much about intention.

When we sing Tan Butsu Ge, we are reciting the words of Dharmakara Bodhisattva when he was at an early stage of his bodhisattva career. On the one hand, his sincere aspiration is full of naive grandiosity. On the other hand, it completely expresses the eternal good that wells up in him as an unassuageable longing. Oh, if only I could make a perfect Pure Land, he seems to be saying, then everybody would find peace. That would be wonderful, wonderful. And in the activity that spring from such faith, the Pure Land is immediately present in all its fulness. I don't know how to explain it better than that.


Even Good People Go to the Pure Land

QUESTION: There is a quote often attributed to shinran that says something like "Even the good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person"....i'm finding this statement difficult to understand, perhaps you could offer an explanation

DHARMAVIDYA: Thank you. This quotation comes from Tannisho which is a work compiled by Shinran's disciple Yuien after the master's death. The first half consists entirely of quotations from Shinran and this is one of them. It brings out Shinran's distinctive take on what Buddhism, especially Pureland Buddhism, is all about. Essentially there are two possible approaches to Buddhism. One approach is to become a Buddha oneself by one's own effort by achieving moral perfection, medative stability and limitless wisdom. That approach is called the Path for Sages. The other approach is to rely upon the Buddha's grace. In this second approach one is transformed naturally by allowing the Buddha to enter one's life. This is a path of faith and ecstatic response to the Tathagatha's transcendent presence. This latter is called Pureland. It is the bhaktiyoga of Buddhism where the Path of Sages is the karmayoga. Teachers like Honen and Shinran observed that although the Sages Path was the official form of Buddhism in their day, the so called sages did not exemplify the standards established in the sutras. In fact, nobody exemplifies them. Some people are better than others, but nobody actually matches the level of perfection supposedly required. They concluded that we must now be in mappo, the Dharma-ending age, when nobody has the capacity to follow the Sage Path completely any more. So Pureland rests on the principle that there are two approaches to Buddhism in principle, but only one works in practice. The one that works is the Pureland Path and that is what Shinran taught.

Now the Pureland path is specifically the method for bonbu, i.e. ordinary people who do not have super-human capacities for moral perfection, meditative stability, or limitless wisdom. We bonbu cannot get to nirvana by effort and self-refinement, only by relying upon the fact that Buddha - especially Amida Buddha - accepts us as we are (rather than as we would be if we perfected ourselves). Entering the Pure Land is, therefore, for bonbu, not for the virtuous. But since Amida's compassion is without limit, one must say that even virtuous people are also allowed. Hence, even the virtuous enter the Pureland, how much more so sinners.

What this means is that Pureland or Amidism is religion for ordinary people - for Mr and Mrs Everybody. In Pureland we make the simple basic religious distinction between the sacred and the mundane. The mundane is ourselves and our world. The sacred is Amida and the Pure Land. Our religious practice then consists of the feelings we have when we contemplate this configuration and we express these feelings by calling the Buddha's name, usually in the form "Namo Amida Bu." This call is called the nembutsu. It may express longing, joy, despair, gratitude, awe, request, hope, excitement, calm - the whole range of religious sentiment. It gathers into one phrase the whole expression of our reflection upon our own short-coming in relation to the sacred realm that we contemplate and call upon. It is only meaningful, however, in relation to a sincere and deep realisation that we are bonbu and the sacred realm is not.

This makes Pureland, in one sense, the most simple, basic form of religion there is - simple enough for bonbu like us. However, there is also a subtlety in it, since Shinran is aware that the person who strives toward self-perfection is also the person who does not really have faith in anything other than themselves and such a person actually has much more difficulty entering into the grace that religion offers. Such a person is really trying to stay in control of their own fate and has not got the basic willingness to trust that religion is all about. So this more subtle sense is a second dimension of meaning in what Shinran is saying. An everyday illustration of this spiritual problem is found in the fact that we can commonly observe that people who are ethically strict are often, by the same token, intolerant, whereas there are plenty of examples of people who are self-indulgent who are equally happy to indulge others and so are more tolerant and easier to live with even though they perhaps keep their precepts less strictly. Virtue does not always make for heaven, either for oneself or others.

Amidism is, therefore, that most basic form of religion in which unholy beings such as we contemplate holy things; and do so in such a way that feelings arise in us - feelings that then reshape our life, death, sense of our place in the universe, and so on. It is about naturalness and fellow-feeling rather than perfectionism. Shinran had this special talent for one-liners that bring this situation home to us with immediacy.


Do Social Engagement and Practice Conflict?

QUESTION: From the looks of things, the Amida Trust does a lot of work devoted to thinking about issues of engagement, social issues and Buddhism, and so forth. What are you learning and discovering about how notions of monasticism might be reshaping in the 21st century. Similarly, what have noticed about new trends in thinking about engaged Buddhism? Is anything apparent to you in terms of what distinct, new energies/ideas Westerners can offer these two areas? As far as you understand my dilemma, do you have any thoughts? What wisdom might your tradition have to offer in terms of thinking about work in the world and the priestly/monastic vocation?

DHARMAVIDYA: Thank you. Good question. First, the issue of monasticism. Buddhist renunciant practitioners might be called monks, but the original concept was not that of a cloistered person following a rule of stabilitas (staying in one place) which is the definition of monk in most western traditions. Buddhist monks were really friars. They are mobile (homeless) in basic concept. This is certainly our concept at Amida. Full renunciation implies freedom to go wherever one is needed in the service of other sentient beings. That is what faith and practice mean. Our monastery is, therefore, the mother ship for expeditions. People go forth and return. There is then a synergism through sharing. We all learn from one another and grow in faith together.

As for the internal style of monasticism - the liturgical life, the community, the roles and relationships, the day to day work - they should all be shaped to help people learn how to be errant bodhisattvas able to handle responsibility, work in harmony with other, remain established in deep faith even in the midst of adversity, trust one another and so on. The monastery is a training ground for character, a spiritual power house where people can come and recharge, a mirror for each of us in which we see all the crinkles of our foolish nature. This is where we find out what we are, abandon some of our more glaring pretentions and antisocial quirks, and grow up a bit. Pratice is about doing something about oneself - which means no longer spending all one's time reprocessing one's delusions.

Second the question of Western Buddhism and social engagement. Even today Western (and quite a few Eastern) approaches to Buddhism seems to me to be fundamentally at odds with engagement and, in my view, therefore, at odds with what Buddhism is and should be about. I do not see Buddhism as a quest for personal enlightenment that is somehow the property of an individual and I fear that Western Buddhism has taken Buddhist practice and commodified it. Far from understanding non-self ever more deeply and growing in faith, Western Buddhists are all too often just making practice into a personal indulgence and support for introspective rumination. They think that the more disengaged they become the more spiritual they will be and this is a fallacy. An activist friend of mine said: "You see good activists become Buddhists and then you never see them again." In other words, the Western approach is still strongly implicated in quietism. Despite the fact that many people think that Westerners are more world-oriented and extavert than Asian people, broadly speaking, in Asia Buddhism is a social force as much as a personal one whereas in the West it is not.

In Pureland, I do feel that there is a different outlook - in fact, there is OUT-look rather than only IN-look. For us there is no basic conflict between practice and enagement - they both tend in the same direction and are difficult to distinguish from one another. Practice is faith and faith is tested and strengthened through encounter. Engagement is, therefore, a strong and essential part of our practice. Another strong part is encounter with each other. This yields communnity, fellow feeling and team spirit, which are all expressions of faith. We have quiet periods as part of the natural rythm of life, but we would not think that silence matters more than communication, say.

We have developed a system of different forms of commitment and ordination baed upon people's availability, which is a function of their degree of renunciation. The more renunciant people are the more engaged they are likely to be. It is the flly renunciant people who are likely to be sent to India or Africa. Others might support them, but they are not free to go. It is important to ask, do I have the aith to do Buddha's work? Do I have the faith to respond to what the universe puts in front of me? Or am I too busy with my own plans for my own salvation to listen to the suffering in the world? What would Buddha have one do?

One might need extra contemplative time to recuperate or digest experience after particularly challenging assignments, but we do not see a conflict between engagement and deepening of practice - they are synonymous. If one really is not free to go forth abroad, then one can go forth locally. Whatever the details, engagement is practice, even if it is engagement with one's housemates or the lants in the garden.

The majority of Western Buddhists seem to be caught in a concept of what Buddhism is that is essentially antithetic to engagement and yet still feel from first principles that engagement must be necessary or right and so finish up in a conflict. I suggest this is a misunderstanding of Buddhism. All Buddha's disciples are bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are those who have th faith to do the Buddha's work. Doing the work strengthens that faith. It all points in one direction.

If one thinks that practice is something done when one disengages, one misunderstands practice. If one is seeking something for oneself from the practice, one misunderstands practice. So I would say: Just have faith and go forth in Buddha's light and it will all take care of itself. A path will unfold. There are people - there are certainly some here - who will be companions for you on the Way and together we (even though we are and remain deluded beings in many ways) become the Buddha body collectively. Buddha lacks for nothing, yet needs something - you. Don't keep him waiting too long.


Can Purity Survive in an Impure Society?

QUESTION: Is society a group of individuals joined together because of their belief in self and work in self-strenghtening? Is society, as a natural consequence of that self-preoccupation, immoral and impure? if the entire society structure is immoral, where is the place of a moral and pure individual in such society? Is the adjustment to and being a part of such society immoral and impure? How is it possible to be pure and to remain a part of society? Or is it that a pure individual cannot be a part of society?

DHARMAVIDYA: Probably an individual who was conscious of their purity would not be able to be part of society. They would have to maintain some distance. For some Buddhists the consciousness of personal purity is important. In the case of Pureland Buddhists, we are more conscious of our impurity - our klesha nature. A bodhisattva is also a bonbu - a foolish being full of impure nature at the same time as being one who has awakened to Amida's grace. In relation to society, therefore, the follower of Amida is both inside and outside, participating and non-participating (samjna-asamjna), world renouncing and world affirming all at the same time. We are acutely aware of our nature as fallible humans and, at the same time, of the fact that we are part of Amida's sangha, part of the Buddha's Great Vow of universal transformation. So a bodhisattva must know his or her own imperfection in order to have the fellow-feeling that is the basis of compassion.

Society is not just a group of individuals. The group is more than the sum of the parts. There is a life lived by a group that is over and above the lives of the individuals. In Buddhism, we learn to be part of something much bigger than ourselves. The sangha group is a transformation agent for society. By living according to Dharma principles we become like a lens that collects and focusses the Buddha's power. We do not control or direct it, but by simply living Dharma lives we become the vehicle or the transmitter. Buddhas alone are not enough to transform worlds. There has to be also a sangha.

Also, although beings are impure and self-seeking, Amida receives them just as they are. Even though we might have all sorts of destructive habits, Amida still receives us and does not judge us. Of course, we judge ourselves and that can be painful and immobilising sometimes and it can be hard to believe that we are accepted just as we are, but it is so. The only completely moral and pure individual is a Buddha and a Buddha does not see the impurity except insofar as he sees the suffering people cause themselves. A Buddha does not adjust to such a society, but sees it through awakened eyes and those eyes know only tenderness.

So we remain part of society, conscious of our impure nature, aware of the suffering around us, inspired by Amida's all-acceptance, moved by the grace that we receive through Amida's vows to perform deeds for the benefit of all sentient beings, and, through sharing this faith, creating communities that both work as a leaven in society and exemplify an alternative.


Western Buddhism, Buddhism Itself, and Pureland

QUESTION: The more I reflect upon it the more I am convinced that Pure Land Buddhism is closer to Christianity than to Buddhism itself. This is shown not only by the emphasis on faith above all else, but also on the idea about how foolish we are. The best testimony that I can think of right now on this regard is Dostoievski's The Idiot, consciously Christian all throughout. But so many other Western artists and writers come back to the same feeling: that of being nothing but a speck of dust compared to the grandiosity of the universe or God. In fact, if we look at things closely it is one of the very basic themes of Western philosophy and arts. I have studied Buddhism quite a bit especially in the last couple of years, and I won't say, of course, that this aspect of "fear and trembling", as Kierkegaard would put it, is absent in Buddhism as a whole, but it is definitely not as present as in the Christian or other monotheistic(-semitic) traditions. You might not agree with me at this point, but I think that Buddhism, at least the way it was taught originally by the Buddha, leans a great deal more towards knowledge than to faith or surrender. This is not to say that Pure Land Buddhism is not Buddhism – it is Buddhism in its own right, and sprouted out of certain historic-cultural conditions that made it the
way it is. Just as Tibetan Buddhism resembles traditions that were already established in the area or nearby (art-wise and philosophically), so happens with all the rest. Tibetan Buddhism is of course Buddhism, but it is in so many ways so close to Maniqueism, Christian Gnosticism and other non-Buddhist sources that one wonders about labels altogether. It is interesting to me, in this respect, that you use the Buddha as your main reference point all throughout your book, since the tone and the underlying attitude is not, in my view, that Buddhist, but, as I said before, generally Christian.

DHARMAVIDYA: Pureland is Buddhism itself. It is true that Pureland is somewhat different from much of the Buddhism that is presented in the West, but there are reasons for Western buddhism being generally preented the way it is - a way that is rather different from how it is presented in much of Asia. But if we go back to fundamentals for a moment, in most lists of qualities valued by the Buddha, faith comes first. Everything else follows. The term bonbu in Japanese that is translated into English as "foolish being" means "being of klesha nature" and klesha is a term used all the time by Shakyamuni. You are right that Shakyamuni puts great emphasis on "knowledge" of a certain sort, but his point is that the vast majority of people (i.e. us) lack that knowledge - thus we are foolish beings. What can be said is that Western Buddhists do not tend to emphasise this as much as Shakyamuni did and do not generally give faith or devotion the prominence that they have in Asian Buddhism. So one could say that Pureland is closer to "Buddhism itself" than it is to Western Buddhism (WB) and is this not because Western Buddhists are somewhat allergic to anything that reminds them of Christianity so that WB is only a selection out of Buddhism itself, a selection that excludes the elements that are Christian-like, hence Buddhism itself is bound to seem more like Christianity than WB is? To restate this:
WB=(Buddhism itself) minus (faith, devotion, klesha-nature, anything else that looks Christian...),
hence Buddhism itself is closer to Christianity (and most other religions) than WB is. It would not be surprising if there is a fair bit of common ground between major religions. Having said that, klesha nature and Purelnd teaching have nothing much to do with "fear and trembling". The Judaic God may have been something to fear but there is no equivalent in Buddhism, certainly not in Pureland. Similarly, Pureland is not about surrender in the sense understood by the monotheisms. It is about refuge which is certainly the bedrock basis of "Buddhism itself". I will not take up your points about Tibetan Buddhism, - I am sure that most Tibetan Buddhists I know would take issue with you -but it is not my brief. I hope this explains things a bit. Pureland is Buddhism itself, that is, it is faith in ultimate refuge as taught by Shakyamuni and all other Buddhas. Pureland has its own styles of expressing that faith - nembutsu and so on - but style is not the ssential. Pureland derives from the very earliest days of Buddhism, from the teachings of Shakyamuni himself and there is actually no legitimate school of Buddhism that does not teach the deluded nature of the vast mass of humanity, no school that teaches fear (with or without trembling), no school that does not teach faith. They may not emphasise these features in the West, but it is so.

Do we need to be Academic?

QUESTION: My own belief is that the Buddha that you portrait in your book The New Buddhism is actually the Buddha that you yourself want to become rather than Siddharta Gautama, the historical Buddha. Of course, there is nothing inherently "wrong" about this. Your ideal is perfectly legitimate and I share it hundred per cent, but we need to be careful at least from an "academic" point of view.

DHARMAVIDYA: I am not substantially in disagreement. My book is not academic and I do say in it, I think, that it does not present a "balanced" academic assessment. It presents my intuitive sense of what Buddha and Buddhism is about. The Amida sangha is a movement within Buddhism. We have an agenda. If you "agree with it 100%" I'm glad and I am quite happy to let the academics go be academic. Whether the Buddha was a revolutionary is a matter of interpretation, of course, but it has palpable consequence. If you go to India today you can witness the Buddhist revolution in the Ambedkarite movement in which millions of untouchables have become Buddhist in an effort to overthrow the graded inequality system of Indian society. They could have become Christians, of course, but they did not see that as the most potent route. Their chosen revolutionary ideal is Buddha and his (their) recent contemporary prophet Dr. Ambedkar. Now this is controversial in Buddhist circles and there are plenty of non-revolutionary Buddhists who will argue for a different interpretation of Buddha just as there are any number of Christians who see Jesus as a pillar of the establishment. Academia has its own agendas and looks at Buddhism and Buddhist texts "from the outside" as it were, whereas we, as Buddhists, look at them as working tools in the enterprise of turning the Dharma Wheel


Christian Pureland Parallels

QUESTION: A coincidence between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity is the way the practice of Nembutsu goes, which, as far as I know, is extremely close to that of praying the Rosary. Other common features are Heaven on Earth/Pure Land, but particularly the fact that both are religions for the masses and the poor. Extraordinary coincidences.

DHARMAVIDYA: Yes - and probably more than coincidences, but in which direction lies the influence? Buddhism is older than Christianity. Where did the Christian ideas come from? - not just from Judaism. It is possible to see Christainity as an adaptation of Pureland Buddhism to a theistic ambiance. In all probability religions have been influencing each other back and forth throughout human history. Religions are human artefacts. They reach for something beyond human contrivance, but they are made by people and the process of borrowing goes on all the time in all directions. For instance, despite the rhetoric about purity of tradition and lineage, the schools of Buddhism that co-exist in the West are borrowing from one another all the time. Through this a certain degree of concensus has grown up and on some issues Pureland challenges this concensus. Broadly speaking, Western concensus Buddhists (WB) believe in and (over-)emphasise Buddha nature, oneness, meditation, mindfulness and non-duality while neglecting faith, moral discipline, and deluded nature. Purelanders are closer to original Buddhism. We have doubts about the sacred cows of WB. It is actually very difficult to establish the WB position from the texts. Buddha nature is not an idea deriving from Shakyamuni. Buddha says a lot more about "standing against" than about oneness, non-duality or merging - he simply was not a "go with the flow" kind of guy. Meditation plays a large role in his teaching but it is not the be-all-and-end-all and mindfulness in the texts does not mean acute awareness, it means (just as it does in standard English) keeping wholesome things in mind (which is what nembutsu is about). The idea of mindfulness as dwelling in the here and now in everyday life has no reference in the Buddhist sutras to my knowledge, but is a later (Zen) extrapolation. Regarding the practices and teachings you single out:
- the mala or rosary has always been used by Buddhists since long before Christianity was invented. A closer analogue to nembutsu in Christianity, however, is the Jesus prayer. It seems much more likely that the Eastern Orthodox Christians got the idea from Buddhism than the other way around.
- Heaven and the Pure Land are well established in the earliest Buddhist texts which again antedate Christianity by a long time.
- Mass religion: Buddhism must have been a mass movement from an early stage. Pureland in the Japanese form particularly became a mass religion as a result of the preaching of Honen (1133-1212) but it is very unlkely that this had anything to do with connections with the West - tho some people have seen remarkable parallels between medieval iconography in Japan and Europe so we cannot rule out influence altogether. This was, however, well before Marco Polo opened up trade between Europe and East Asia.


Faith in the Future

QUESTION: I'm not sure one can have faith in the future without having faith in a conflicted world (in both senses). There may be a doctrinal point at issue here. mike

DHARMAVIDYA: Yes, there are all sorts of philosophical and theological issues. A lot hinges on whether you think that everything in the future has to come from the past. It can and has been argued that if the answer is yes, then there is no freedom. Tillich would say that in that case there is nothing truly worthy of the name history - merely development. From a Buddhist point of view, do we think that the doctrine of dependent origination is telling us that everything depends upon conditions and therefore that all of the future depends on the past and there is nothing else to the future than the past unfolded - that the future is simply the implicate order of the past, or do we think that it is telling us that all of that part of the future that depends on the past is already in the province of Mara and that there is something else to be found which is the real (true, eternal) Life of enlightenment etc.? If there is something else - in what is it grounded? These are fundamental questions that I am writing about in my next but one book.

Two Additional Articles


Metaphysics and Critical Buddhism

QUESTION: I have finally finished "The New (old) Buddhism",...having been sidetracked by some others in between. Wonderful stuff - creating sparks which should take hold anywhere there is some good flammable stuff to be found. It has already created some revolutionary fires in me !!! You probably won't be surprised that i concur strongly with the critical buddhists' standpoint. This is pretty much what i have been trying to say all along, only not very eloquently. If i understand correctly, they seem to be pretty much against the metaphysical concepts which have crept into Buddhism over the years such as the idea of an "eternal soul". The concept of "Buddha Nature" does not seem to be so explicitly theistic. It all depends on interpretation as you said. So it can be either a useful concept or not, depending on how one defines and understands it. The critical Buddhists seem to be trying to assert that Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy rather than a religion. Have i understood this correctly? You wrote "A superficial reading of Critical Buddhism can lead the unsuspecting Westerner to think that this is a resurgence of logical positivism, of rationality and doubt over faith. This interpretation is, however, completely wrong." I admit that i haven't read the writings of the Critical Buddhists, so i am sure you know better than me. However it seems a little unfair to lump rationality into the same basket as logical positivism and doubt. Also it does seem to me that they are arguing for exactly that... a resurgence of (at least) rationality over faith in the metaphysical. Again, it all depends on definitions.... language can be such slippery stuff. (Politicians seem to be acutely aware of this and deliberately slime it to further their goals). You suggest that this would be a misinterpretation because "the heroes of the Critical Buddhists are people of faith..." p.155. But then on the same page you go on to say that, "In the West, faith tends to mean faith in the transcendent ultimate. In Buddhism, however, faith is really the faith to live without that comfort." So in other words, the Buddhist definition of faith is virtually opposite to the Western understanding. A guaranteed way of creating confusion. So doesn't this mean then that Buddhist faith is essentially atheistic? It is faith in the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha, and the potential of these three jewels to bring about positive change in the world. Using metaphysical or mythological figures such as Amida or Quan Shi Yin for inspiration and motivation or perhaps for reassurance, seems reasonable. But do problems not arise if practitioners come to rely or depend on these mythological figures or to believe that they actually exist? Wouldn't this be a state of ignorance rather than seeing things as they really are? Couldn't it create confusion, foster dependence, and take away one's motivation, initiative and sense of responsibility? And is it really necessary to have such figures. It seems to me that the Buddha and his teachings are extremely inspiring in themselves. Do we need anything else? Warm regards, - J

DHARMAVIDYA: Dear J. Well, there are many points in your question and from a Western viewpoint they may all seem to be pointing in the same direction, but from a Buddhist perspective they may seem to be pointing in many different directions. “The Buddha’s teachings are extremely inspiring in themselves”. OK. So here are some of Buddha’s teachings from the Pali texts, common to every school of Buddhism:
- Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear, open, evident, and free from patchwork. In the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus, which is clear, open, evident, and free from patchwork, those who have sufficient faith in me, sufficient love for me, are all headed for heaven. MN22
- Vaccha, there are not only one hundred or two hundred or three or four or five hundred, but far more householders who, without abandoning the fetter of householdership, on the dissolution of the body, have gone to heaven. MN71.
- Bhikkhus, when anyone’s faith has been planted, rooted and established in the Tathagata through these reasons, terms and phrases, his faith is said to be supported by reasons, rooted in vision, firm; it is invincible. MN47
- Bhikkhus, suppose there were two houses with doors and a man with good sight standing there between them saw people going in and coming out and passing to and fro. So too, with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I see beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. I understand how beings pass on according to their actions thus, “These worthy beings... on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. Or, ... have reappeared among human beings. But, these... have reappeared in the world of ghosts. Or, ... the animal world. Or, ... on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. MN130

And so on. There are lots of passages that show what Shakyamuni Buddha believed. As you say, “Do we need anything else?” But I suspect that this is not quite what you intended. The Buddha’s beliefs seem to have been rather common ones; namely, good people go to a good rebirth, even heaven, while bad ones go to less enviable places, and what makes the difference between people acting well or acting badly is faith, especially faith in the Tathagata. What is the Tathagata? The Tathagata is a being in whom “no defiled states are found” MN47. “A Tathagata appears in the world, accomplished, fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed. He declares this world with its gods, Maras and Brahmas.... He teaches the Dhamma. MN27. At the very least, a Tathagata is an archetype. We call the Tathagata Amida. Shakyamuni lived a life animated by identification with the Tathagata. Most Buddhists live lives identified with being those who have faith in the Tathagata. A Tathagata in itself, however, is not a human being but something that goes beyond the ordinary human state and inspires faith, love and devotion. That is a religion.

On the other hand, Amida is not really the ultimate. The ultimate is beyond human access. Amida is the most sublime thing we can encounter and contemplate. Even Amida is seen through human eyes. Each religion, therefore, clothes the sublime vision in its own colours. It is bound to do so because religions are human creations. We might conceptualise something that is more perfect than humans can achieve but, by definition, we cannot achieve it because we are human. One extreme is to say that because humans cannot be perfect we should abandon all image of the sublime. The other extreme is to say that because we can conceive that there is an ultimate truth, then our most sublime visions must equate to it. Really religion has to be a middle way. It has to provide imagery that orients us toward the sublime – gives us faith in the Tathagata – without asserting that the image offered by this or that sect is itself the ultimate truth. All religious imagery is a signpost.

It is clear, however, that the Buddha advocated faith in the Tathagata – either directly or through the intermediary agency of a teacher. As for the relation between faith and doubt and faith and rationality, the Buddha saw them as complimentary to one another. The opposition that has become so much a part of Western popular thinking is not something he shared. When he preaches against doubt, he is, I think, really talking about cynicism. Doubt in the cleaner, more technical or philosophical sense is part of “investigation” – something the Buddha sees as a support for faith.

As for metaphysics, we cannot do without it. “Whereas physics is the attempt to discover the laws that govern fundamental concrete objects, metaphysics is the attempt to discover the laws that systematize the fundamental abstract objects presupposed by physical science, such as natural numbers, real numbers, functions, sets and properties, physically possible objects and events, to name just a few. The goal of metaphysics, therefore, is to develop a formal ontology, i.e., a formally precise systematization of these abstract objects. Such a theory will be compatible with the world view of natural science if the abstract objects postulated by the theory are conceived as patterns of the natural world.” (Metaphysics Research).

What I think you are asserting is not an absence of metaphysics but rather a metaphysics that asserts that the “abstract objects” be confined to ones approved by scientists. This, however, has many pitfalls. Science has changed many times and will no doubt continue to do so. The metaphysics of Buddhism really allows for a vast multiplicity of phenomena and abstract objects going well beyond the confines of science as modern (or even post-modern) people conceive it. Buddhist metaphysics is generally inclusive where contemporary popular metaphysics is exclusive. The contemporary modern person has been taught to exclude whatever they think has not been “proved”. In fact, however, nothing metaphysical is ever proved, and that includes all the theories of science. The current theories of science are simply what has been proposed but not yet disproved according the game rules of science – but even those rules are unprovable metaphysical postulates. Their value lies in their usefulness to science, not in their demonstration of truth. In the definition at the beginning of this paragraph, the term “fundamental concrete object” is metaphysical. Philosophy, psychology and popular thinking all rest upon fundamental non-concrete objects. Who, for instance, has ever seen a consciousness, an unconscious, an ego, an inner child, a popular opinion, etc? They are all fundamental non-concrete objects – i.e. metaphysical.

So since we have to have some metaphysic, what metaphysic does Buddhism suggest. Buddha was not atheist. Nowhere does he deny the existence of gods. He does, however, demote the gods. In DN11, for instance, he tells the story of a disciple visiting all the gods to get the answer to a question and having in the end to come back to the Buddha to get the right answer. Buddha’s universe had heaven and hell, ghosts and humans, devas and brahmas, and all manner of other things. Throughout it all, however, one needs prasada and bodhi – faith and vision. This is what makes Buddha’s teaching timeless and universal. Even if the metaphysics changes, Buddha would go on saying the same thing – that faith and vision, love and compassion, are what matter.

What the Critical Buddhists are objecting to is not Buddhist metaphysics, but Hindu and Japanese metaphysics that have been imported into Buddhism. Japanese metaphysics gives pride of place to nature. However, many natural things are abominable. There is no particular reason to think that cannibalism is unnatural. Certainly all manner of indulgence can be considered natural. Japanese Buddhism has thus tended to become non-ethical. Hindu metaphysics suggest an underlying sub-strata of “dhatu” to existence. This “ground of being” idea is alien to Buddhism. Buddhism prefers the idea of conditional arising, which allows things to happen without the need to postulate a constant “something” that persists through all the changes. The reason that Critical Buddhists do not like the dhatu idea is, apart from the fact that they think it is bad Buddhism, that it tends to introduce a conservative element into life. It suggests that things are as they are because they should be so. The Buddhist metaphysic does not place a particular value on “things as they are”. The combination of Japanese and Hindu metaphysics, the Critical Buddhists suggest, leads to an attitude that (a) is weak on ethics and (b) favours the status quo even when it is oppressive.

Buddhist metaphysics is different. Possibilities are virtually unlimited. Things can be very good or extremely bad. There is no reason to think that just because something is so that that makes it good. At the same time, the universe is essentially ethical in its basic nature. Karma applies. Karma without dhatu, however, does not lead to fatalism. It leads to the sense that one should act ethically whether the times are with you or against you – that you should not base your efforts upon whether they are likely to succeed in the short run or not. All good will have effect. Faith in Buddhism, therefore, includes faith that karma will take care of it. Our responsibility is not to make sure justice happens – that’s karma’s job – our responsibility is to be consistently compassionate. This requires faith. Faith requires an object. The object offered in Buddhism is the Tathagata.

Many contemporary Buddhists in the West would like to reconstruct Buddhism with a modern Western metaphysic. I can see the attraction of this, and have sometimes found myself tempted by the project. We should, however, pause and consider whether the contemporary metaphysic is (a) really conducive to the kind of life Buddha advocated and (b) likely to last more than a generation or two. On both counts there are serious reasons to be doubtful. Modernism is under attack from all quarters philosophically precisely because it does lead to narcissistic concern, materialism, consumerism, imperialism and all sorts of other evils.


Are some people evil?

QUESTION: This is interesting: Diagnosis Evil. I guess most “wrongdoing” comes under the heading of avidya but what would your view be regarding those who behave extremely and with no sense of fellow feeling, as though they are manipulating insentient objects - those who are labelled as sociopathic or psychopathic - as though there is some missing wiring? - S

DHARMAVIDYA: I agree with Robert Simon in the article:
“Evil is endemic, it's constant, it is a potential in all of us. Just about everyone has committed evil acts....... Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream.” I would add that no serial killer has done any worse than our governments have done in our name. We human beings are exceedingly destructive. The Japanese would say we are all akunin. Aku means wrong-doing. Nin means person. I have worked with people who had been diagnosed as psychopathic, but I have yet to encounter anybody who was really different in kind (rather than just degree) from you or I. As Buddha said, it all depends on conditions. We are all capable of manifesting as hell beings given the appropriate circumstances. Facing this reality is lesson one and we all do well to do revision on it periodically. Recently there has been a case in the news of a man who killed his girlfriend by stabbing her many times. He was a satanist. Satanists are people who have insight into the akunin nature of the human being, but who then think that if that is what we are like then that should be how we act. Lesson two is that just because something is literally natural does not mean that it is a good thing. Many things that are natural leave a very distressing aftermath. Naturalness alone, therefore, is not an adequate guide. In our natural state we are not that admirable. We understand something better. Each spiritual system has its own terminology. In Pureland we call the something better Amida in the Pure Land. This is the basic position of the human being: akunin facing Amida. The useful power that we have in ourselves is the power to perceive the Amida, but this is not really an own power at all. It is more like the “power” that a mirror has or that the moon has to reflect the light of the sun.


Sexism in Buddhism

QUESTION: Sexism in Buddhism?

DHARMAVIDYA: I was recently talking to a monk of another tradition. He knew that in our ceremonies at Amida the celebrant is often a woman. When the celebrant comes into the room, we all stand to show respect. Actually, it is not really just respect for the person, it is respect for what he or she represents, since the celebrant in a ritual acts on behalf of the whole community. However, this monk would not stand up if the celebrant was a woman. Why not? "It is against our tradition." "But surely that is the wrong thing to do. We should not have sexism in Buddhism." "Well it is just the same in..." he named some other large Buddhist traditions. "But, I noticed that you used to do it." "Yes, but I have been thinking about it and I realise I should not do it. It is against the tradition."

This monk clearly thinks that his tradition represents the true Buddhist way. It seems to be true that adherence to his tradition has brought about a change in his behaviour - but it is one for the worse. This is alarming. I sense that his critique actually goes a lot further than just this article of behaviour. He thinks that his tradition is actually the only right one - and I am aware that a great many members of his tradition think the same. This sort of thing deeply saddens me. If the great way of the Buddha is reduced to exclusivism, sexism and condescention, many ordinary, supposedly less enlightened, people will correctly very soon realise that it is worthless in that form. What is amazing, however, is that such forms continue to flourish - and are even supported by large numbers of women making a free choice in the matter.

When one discusses this problem seriously with some other members of such traditions, it is quite common in the West to get a response along the lines of: "Well, yes, it is wrong, and we minimise the effect of the sexist discriminatory rules in our own community, but it would simply be too difficult or complicated to get the rules themselves changed." This means that groups of more enlightened members of such a tradition remain marginalised and disempowered. If you talk to other members of the same tradition, especially those who have spent time in the East, you get a robust assertion that the male dominated way of doing things is the correct way.

If a tradition is incapable of reforming itself in such an obvious respect, something is deeply amiss. If it is really the case that there is little actual will to change and those in authority in the tradition personally think this kind of discrimination is the true Buddhist way - or just want to keep it that way because they happen to be men in this life - then the situation is even worse. It is, therefore, very important that we develop women leaders in our Buddhist institutions, projects and initiatives so that this antiquated way of thinking is dislodged. In the time of Shakyamuni, there were many women arhats. But where are the records of women arhats after his time. The tradition fell into the hands of people who had sexist ideas. The Buddha himself did not make rules that were difficult to change - only those who came after did that. Now many Buddhist traditions are burdened by the millstone of statutes that are oppressive that they fear to change. This is not the true spirit of Buddhism and no sincere Buddhist of either gender should conform to it.


What is Buddha?

QUESTION: Recently I have been pondering the Question: “What is Buddha?” For it seems that once we jump into Pureland Buddhism we are in the Realm of the “Cosmic Buddha.” Elsewhere, amida is defined as meaning “without measure” as the Buddha of limitless light. This seems clear enough and yet I am wondering how or even if this differs from the Christian God or the Hindu God or the Islamic God or the Taoist Tao, etc? Is Amida the Buddhist God? What are your thoughts?

DHARMAVIDYA: Big subject: Here are some part answers:
1. The question "What is Buddha?" has a lot in it and it is probably not much of an over-statement to say that it was reflection upon this and related questions that gave birth to the whole of Mahayana Buddhism. Given that Siddhatha Gotama died a long time ago, what is one taking refuge in when one takes refuge in Buddha?
2. The term "cosmic Buddha" usually refers to Vairochana. Vairochana is considered the embodiment of Dharmakaya. Simplistically we can equate:
Vairochana - Dharmakaya
Amida - Sambhogakaya
Shakyamuni - Nirmanakaya
but this does not always work as some sages talk about three kaya Amidas and so on. Amida is thus not the ultimate abstraction of Buddhahood, so much as the most exalted aspect that we corporeal beings can experience or encounter.
3. As for the comparison with the theistic god:
Amida saves,
Amida is light, love, wisdom
Amida is object of devotion
Amida did not create the world
Amida does not judge
Amida does not answer personal prayers
4. The tone of Amidism is quite different to the tone of theism. We are traveling in North America at the time of writing this and here there is a lot of debate on the question, how can you believe in an all good omnipotent creator god after the tsunami? Well, this just does not arise in Buddhism. Tsunamis are made by nature, not by Amida - he/she/it is as subject to them as we are. We are dependent, weak beings. We need help. Amida helps. Amida is not fundamentally on a different plane from ourselves.

QUESTION 2: Thank you for your insightful reply. There is some question nagging my mind but I cannot find the words to articulate it. Yes, we do get to skip over the whole problem of Theodicy. I particularly appreciate your concise comparison of Amida with the theistic creator god. I never thought of “Buddha” as something that I would have personal relationship with. I guess it was just very abstract. Buddha was either historical or Mythological for me. Buddha is a title that means awake or awakening. So when I take refuge in Buddha I am taking refuge in Awakening. Amida means limitless. So when I take refuge in Amida Buddha I am taking refuge in limitless Awakening. This seems very clear. After all, I am always limiting reality with my misperceptions and clinging to self. Limitlessness seems a very positive way to articulate non-self. If at
every moment I try to awaken to the limitless nature of reality then I begin to perceive the world from outside the crushing wheel of Samsara. But where does the Bhakti element of Amidism come from? One of my core practices is a pure land practice but it is not particularly devotional for my part. It feels more like a constant retraining in how to perceive and think about the world. Is Amida just our vocabulary for awakening and Amidism is just our methodology or our Upaya for attaining Awakening? When we encounter Buddhists from other traditions can we just change our vocabulary a little? Instead of talking about Amida when hanging out in Zen circles we talk about emptiness. When we are in the Tibetan Gompa we talk about Guru Yoga and Mahamudra or Rigpa. When we are with Theravadins we talk about non-self. I apologize for the lack of clarity! I hope that someone can intuit what thread I am pulling at and shed some light. Wishing you all the Best!

DHARMAVIDYA: Not everybody’s religious feeling or mystical experience is the same. Perhaps there is an ultimate reconciliation, but we do not live in the ultimate dimension, we live in the existential world. Religious feeling and mystical experience occur to beings like us, here in the relative world. Sometimes the form they take is abstract, sometimes personal. Rigpa refers to the experience of pure spiritual light. Amida is such light, so rigpa is Amida. However, Amida also appears to us as a person. In the Tibetan system this is not called rigpa, this is called yidam. It is therefore possible to have a personal relation with Amida, or with one’s yidam, but the idea of having a personal relationship with rigpa does not make a lot of sense. Amida could appear to us as anything, according to the sensitivity of the particular person. Many people experience the light of Amida reflected in their experience of the natural world.

Because Amida is mostly thought of as sambhoghakaya, we are not thinking of something absolute and ultimate – a oneness within which all opposites are finally reconciled – we are talking about the kind of spiritual experience that ordinary foolish beings like ourselves do sometimes have. Such experience is relative in that it has characteristics that can be expressed in dualistic language – it impresses us in particular ways that are different from other possibilities – perhaps making us feel inspired rather than dejected, say.

If you want to tell Amida what you are doing in your life, you can and Amida may give you signs that guide you, but we do not usually think of Amida answering direct petitionary prayer. Amida does not manipulate this world – he/she/it helps us to awaken faith and become free from existential anxiety. It would not be appropriate to pray to Amida for a better job or that Aunt Jane not die just yet, but one might experience Amida’s blessing and guidance, and that might be very personal and specific.

The bhakti in Buddhism no doubt derives directly from the feelings people had about the sage Gotama. There was something about that man that made him more than just an ordinary being, even though, in a slightly different sense, that “something” could be said to reside in the fact that he was the most ordinary being who ever walked the earth. That “thusness”, however, was deeply cherished by all who followed him. Thus it is easy to envisage the origins of devotion that is sometimes directed toward the person and sometimes toward the quality abstracted, as it were, from the example of that special person’s life, work and way of being.

I understand our Pureland religion not so much as a body of doctrine but more as a way of working with religious feeling. There are doctrines, for sure, but they exist just to provide a holding framework within which we can express and explore our faith. Faith does not manifest as one constant mind state. It wheels through many modes. Sometimes there is the ecstacy of shinjin experience; sometimes the quiet confidence we call anjin; sometimes the spiritual intimacy called shimmitsu; sometimes the purposefulness of bodaishin (bodhichitta). Sometimes it takes the form of a clear conceptual understanding; sometimes a vision of light; sometimes a personal encounter. Amida is all of these things, appearing according to the need, phase and capacity of the particular person of faith.



QUESTION: How does an amidist comprehend the incomprehensible suffering and destruction that has resulted from the tsunami disaster? namo amida bu - tharakesh

DHARMAVIDYA: We live in a world of troubles where the elements treat us as “straw dogs”. We are of no significance to waves and rocks. Everything is impermanent except the Dharma. The uncertainty of our situation should give us a sense of urgency. Let us think what is most important and get on with it. If we think "I will do it after I have ....... " - fill in your own blank - then we may well be swept away first and never do what matters. A spilt bucket of water might be a tsunami for the ants that live around the kitchen floor. We are no different. There is no point in building up philosophies predicated upon ourselves as a special case. The universe treats us just like everything else. We are in this existential situation where the wave may come any day. So many people live their lives tossed about, never having done anything that is not trivial. The Pureland perspective helps us to realize that even seemingly insignificant beings can be vehicles for universal love. Even if our life is only a pin prick, it can be the one that lets light into the dork world. The light comes from beyond.


QUESTION: Do you have "The Life of Eshinni: Wife of Shinran Shonin," by Yoshiko Ohtani (trans. by Taitetsu Unno)? If so, how does this new translation of her letters compare to the earlier one? I'm always curious when a new Jodo Shinshu work is made available, but not sure if this one is worth buying since I already have a translation of Eshinni's letters. - Jeff Wilson

DHARMAVIDYA: No. But we have recently been reading Letters Of The Nun Eshinni : Images Of Pure Land Buddhism In Medieval Japan (ISBN:0824826671 Dobbins, James C. Publisher:Univ of Hawaii Pr Published 2004) which is excellent and gives a lot of insight into both Eshinni and Shinran and their times. It particularly brings out the medieval context, but in a way that suggests that the medieval approach may have more going for it than the modern one.

Existential anxiety

QUESTION: As a background to my question, I would like to explain that since I was very young (my parents say six) I have had periodic episodes of anxiety and panic due to thoughts about the uncertainty of death, not understanding who we are and why we are here, leading to an overall sense of meaningless and hopelessness. This has reoccurred several times over the years. I am now 43. I discovered eastern religions starting in high school through books, felt a real connection to the concepts, but never engaged in practice. In the past few years my interest resurged and I bought a number of new books, including Zen Therapy by David Brazier, which probably impressed me the most. I have read it a couple of times. This got me interested in some form of practice. I didn't know any groups here so I have been meditating on my own, but don't feel much is happening. This year I have suffered two really extreme periods of anxiety and panic. I am currently having another serious episode of anxiety and panic. I cry a lot. I really need help. I read on the Questions part of your website the following advice: “I would not recommend meditation to anyone with major psychiatric illness as what people in that condition generally require is not more introspection but more reality contact. I would be wary of offering meditations that involve attention concentrated upon bodily processes, such as the breath, the heart beat, or other body functions, to people prone to anxiety states or currently experiencing major grief since this may well make them worse rather than better.” I don't know whether I would say I have a major psychiatric illness, but I am definitely prone to anxiety states. My question is what course of action is recommended for someone like myself?

DHARMAVIDYA: Dear Stephen, I sympathise. Panic is no joke. Our approach to Buddhism here at Amida Trust is based on shinjin. Shinjin is commonly translated as “faith” but this translation throws as much shadow as light. At a simplistic level we could say “trusting the process of life” or “naturalness”. Obviously I do not know a lot about you so whatever advice I give might need some fine tuning. As a broad response to your problem I would say “Go outdoors, look at plants, rocks, the sea, rivers. Don't think over much, just look.” We do a practice that is called sunset meditation - we stand and watch the sun set and chant “Om Amitabha Hum” over and over slowly as we watch it go down until the last bit of red light disappears. Or you can look at the moon and chant “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bo Sat”. Or you can just look. Don't do this trying to control the anxiety. Do it paying attention to the object – the moon, the sun, the earth, the wind.

Some anguish is natural and appropriate. Life is bitter sweet; comforting and lonely all at the same time. In Pureland practice we channel these feelings into our practice – not to overcome them, but to celebrate the fact that they are what life is all about. We are not trying to be perfect in any way – we are just foolish beings standing in a wonderful light.

Do write more if you wish, but not until you have spent some time with the natural elements. The first meditation that the Buddha gave to many of his disciples was the meditation on the earth element. He would have them spend time meditating on rocks, clay, the solidness of things. Start there.

Warm wishes
Namo Amida Bu


QUESTION: Could you simplify – where does buddhism fit with wholeness? I want to do worthwhile inner and outer work but I cant say I want enlightenment. Complete healing seems more relevant and western. My understanding of Jung – the spiritual dimension is relevant - DF

DHARMAVIDYA: Dear D., In the profound spiritual experience that is referred to as enlightenment, there is an overwhelming sense of rightness about things. You could call that wholeness if you like. This is sometimes symbolically represented by mandala designs, which Jung studied. At the same time, human beings do seem to be characterised by an incurable woundedness too. Unwholesome impulses arise in the best of us and it does not seem to be possible to arrive at a condition in which this will not recur. So, we are foolish beings of blind passion, but we are capable of glimpsing and even, rarely, seeing clearly but transitorily a glorious and wonderful other way of being that then again fades. This is the nature of the human condition. Our ability to do worthwhile outer work is, in large measure, a function of our ability to see that this is so since from it comes, on the one hand, the capacity for real empathy, and, on the other, the antidote to judgmentalism.

Overwhelmed by the reptilian level

Dear Dharmavidya, Thank you very much for making the Pure Land Topics course available – it was always stimulating and often challenging. I valued it very much. At the end of the last unit you asked some questions about the nature of enlightenment. The thought occurred to me that our current understanding of the triune brain might have some bearing on the matter. Simplistically, is it possible to be “enlightened” in the neocortex but then, at another time, be overwhelmed by impulses from the mammalian and reptilian levels? I have recently been practicing Nien Fo in my personal meditation time. Soon after I started, I noticed some ways in which I was relating differently to others. It does seem to be a practice that directly impacts the heart. Who knows, I may yet be become a Pureland Buddhist! – M

DHARMAVIDYA: Dear M, The two parts to your question are probably more closely related than you think. The Nien Fo practice is designed to help us base our spiritual practice upon acknowledgement that we are “foolish beings of blind passion”, or, you could say, that we have a reptilian dimension to our being. Wisdom and enlightenment are then seen more in the frame of achieving compassion for all through knowing our own nature than in the perspective of attainment to an ideal state. The idea that the wise person is the one who knows just how foolish he is is, of course, not unique to Pureland Buddhism, but it is something that can be lost sight of in the midst of all the wonderful description of transcendent perfection that fill the pages of works on many schools of Buddhism. From the Pureland point of view we are not awakened to our intrinsic perfection so much as to our inner reptile. The reptile needs care and attention and some boundaries, but even Buddhas have got one. Acknowledging deeply that we are all the the same boat in this respect is likely to change the way we relate to one another. It, as you say, directly impacts the heart.

When spirituality seems unreal

QUESTION: Hi. I'm going through a period where the spiritual seems not very real to me. Notions of nirvana or enlightenment see too abstract to strive for. It is a kind of antheism I suppose, but i have always opposed that reductionist materialist viewpoint.. Can you point a way forward psychologically. I still feel an affinity for the boddhisattva way, because really, life seems worthless without compassion. Help welcome, I like that wise blog on politics, very astute indeed. There is a way. All my intuition says so. Any opinions welcome - D

DHARMAVIDYA: We can be existential without being reductionist. Existentially we are here in a universe that does not have intrinsic meaning. We create meaning – nothing wrong with that. Seeing our foolish nature, we conceive wisdom. Seeing our blindness, we conceive enlightenment. Each spiritual system thus generates concepts and categories to help us navigate this life and make it wholesome and even holy. In Pureland we have the ideas of Amida, the unimpeded light of wisdom, the Pure Land, and so on. These ideas come out of fundamental human needs. We should adopt a middle way in relation to them. They are not concrete, literal realities, but they are not nothing either, for they are rooted in real spiritual experience that would be impossible to make sense of without these or some parallel set of idea. In Pureland, we do not strive for enlightenment in the traditional sense. We try simply to acknowledge our nature as foolish ordinary beings without thereby falling out of relationship with the intuition of Buddha that always confronts us. This seems a more modest appraoch, but it is actually extremely profound.

Is meditation necessary?

QUESTION: Yours was the first book I ever read on Buddhism - The Feeling Buddha. It served as a great introduction to the subject and some 3/4 years on, I still maintain a very large interest in 'it' as a way of life; a path. I write to you now in the hope of a response to quite a serious question I have in relation to meditation. The question basically is: do you need to meditate to be a Buddhist? Basically I ask the question in relation to the practise of insight meditation. Over the last few years I feel I have discovered something of a way of life, a noble path which I feel I would like to try to aspire to. It's just in the area of mediation I find a problem. Many years ago I did suffer from an acute anxiety episode; I was very young at the time and did feel like I was going mad - as many anxiety sufferers do. This, coupled with the experiences I have had meditating bring this email back to my opening question: do you need to meditate to follow the path. I guess one does; it is after all the bedrock of the buddhist faith. I just would like to know if meditation can be unhealthy in terms of mental health because if there are any such risks attached to it, I think I would rather pass on it!

DHARMAVIDYA: The simple answers to your questions are: is meditation necessary? No; and, does meditation have any mental health risks attached to it? Yes, but they are not great. The Buddha clearly taught many forms of meditation but, even in the Pali literature, he repeatedly says that the various samadhis do not provide enlightenment, but only peaceful abidings or particular powers.The message seems clear that there are things to be gained from meditation, and the Buddha taught it, but it is not essential. Particular meditations provide antidotes to particular spiritual diseases, but here diagnosis is indicated, so while some self-administered spiritual disciplines may prove useful, a teacher plays an important part.

What are the risks? Well, I would not recommend meditation to anyone with major psychiatric illness as what people in that condition generally require is not more introspection but more reality contact. I would be wary of offering meditations that involve attention concentrated upon bodily processes, such as the breath, the heart beat, or other body functions, to people prone to anxiety states or currently experiencing major grief since this may well make them worse rather than better. For the great majority of people, however, meditation is valuable and the worst that can happen through the use of it is that it just does nothing for you.

Meditation is certainly not the bedrock of Buddhism. Buddha taught different meditations to different people and did not teach meditation to everybody. What he did teach to everybody was refuge. It is refuge that creates the condition for enlightenment, not meditation. People do not get enlightened by meditating. They get enlightened by sincerely taking refuge. All schools of Buddhism practise refuge. Not all practise meditation. If a person becomes enlightened while meditating it is not a result of the meditation, it is a result of taking refuge. All schools of Buddhism have formal ways of expressing taking refuge. In the Pureland tradition, one recites “Namo Amida Bu” which means that one takes refuge in the Tathagata that is in every time and every place. Other schools have other formulas. What matters, however, is whether one can really take refuge with all one's heart, not just whether one can say the words - though saying the words is more powerful than one might think. What stops us from taking refuge truly is attachment to self.

Because of this, there are all sorts of Buddhist practices that serve to loosen one's attachment to self. Correctly prescribed meditations can play a part in this. However, none of these remedies leads directly to enlightenment. They simply clear some obstacles out of the way. However, in principle, even a person with innumerable obstacles can instantly take refuge and fall into enlightenment and even a person who has eliminated thousands of obstacles may still fail to truly take refuge. This is because the person with many obstacles may be more motivated and the person who has supposedly “made progress” may, for that very reason, be afflicted with spiritual pride.

About Krishnamurti

Dear Dr. Brazier: We (Eberhard & Phyllis Kronhausen) are social psychologists and psychotherapists. We have read your Zen Therapy and The Feeling Buddha. We enjoyed both and benefited from them in many ways. Thank you! Now, our question is: why is it that there is no reference to the late J. Krishnamurti in any of the Buddhist and neo-Buddhist writings we have ever seen? We have been wondering whether it is because he insisted that “you cannot teach medidation,” that he did not identify with Buddhism, as such (although his teaching were very close to it), and several other such things? Although there are those differences and divergencies, there are ever so many more similarities between, for instance, your work and his. We also happen to know that K. held the Buddha in such holy respect that he would literally shiver in awe at the mere mention of his name. Given all this and the fact that this man went about teaching a religious philosopy compatible with Buddhism in very many respects, for some fifty years, that his published work is well known internationally, and that he established several schools for students on the primary and secondary level, both in America, India, and England “Brockwood”, it is difficult to understand that he is so regularly ignored in contemporary Buddhist and neo-Buddhist writings? We think this is all the more regrettable, since he often
illucidates important spiritual principles that are also core issues of Buddhism. Please let us have your opinion on these matters. Looking forward to your reply and with our most cordial, fraternal greetings,
Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, phylebe@racsa.co.cr.

DHARMAVIDYA: Sorry for the delay in answering this question. I have been on a lecture tour of North America and Asia and only recently returned to quite a pile of pending correspondence. I suppose that the simple answer to your question is that Krishnamurti was not a Buddhist. That does not mean that there is a prejudice against him, but in Buddhist literature one will expect most of the references to be to other Buddhist work and while there will be reference to non-Buddhist thinkers, there are so many of them that the representation of any one of them is likely to be small for purely statistical reasons. There are a great many people in the Buddhist world who do have a high regard for Krishnamurti and I see you think that this should be even more widespread. I suppose there are some who are suspicious of a rhetoric that is apparently anti-guru while being propounded by someone who has clearly got himself into the position of being a guru figure. Buddhists are not anti-guru, generally speaking, but they are wary of philosophies that seem not to be borne out in the behaviour of their main advocate. When one makes even a cursory enquiry into Krishnamurti, one is overwhelmed by advertisements telling you how he does not advertise and this strikes a strange note. Or, again, an intellectual who says “Thought is your enemy” makes a similarly jarring impression. Of course, some people revel in this sort of paradox. Personally, I don't resonate with the idea that thought is one's enemy. I find thought a friend. I think that thought is essential and that if we did not think and did not have thinkers, we would be leaving ourselves open to tyranny - and this all too frequently happens. So I may be more in agreement with some of K's actions than with his ideas. On the other hand, I gather that there have been stories about his private life that give one pause. But then nobody is perfect.

But, given that, as you say, “this man went about teaching a religious philosopy” would it not be more honest for him to say “I do have a message for humanity” rather than “I don't”, because clearly he did? It will be for others to judge whether his message was sound or not, but disclaiming what appears to be plain fact does not seem a recommendation. But then, human nature is so counter-suggestive, that perhaps it may all be put down to “skilful means”. The quickest way to become a guru is to put it about that you haven't the slightest interest in being one and the best way to get wide dissemination of your message is to say you haven't got one. I suppose that what I would like to know about is what suggestions he has for relieving the lot of the poor, the oppressed, and the victims of war, or that might calm the fever of conflict that seems currently to be gripping our world. I know that he held as an ideal that one might reach a point where one was utterly free from conflict, inwardly at least. I have the sense that he enjoyed debate and good quality conversation and would put forward an idea somewhat provocatively hoping that somebody would engage with him in the fascinating sport of seeing how far it can be pushed or whether it can be demolished. I can identify with that kind of spirit and certainly do engage in such sport myself. I am, of course, happy that you enjoyed my books (though I have the impression that if I were Krishnamurti, I might say that I am completely indifferent to whether you like them or not, or perhaps even that I'd rather that you didn't bother with them) and I read that you think that his ideas and mine have a lot in common so it would be interesting to know where, in your perception, that common ground lies, since it had not struck me that way. However, my acquaintance with his work is not thorough by any means and I am probably missing the hidden depths. Perhaps you can enlighten me.

Don Cupitt's Ideas

QUESTION: I was wondering whether you've read much of Don Cupitt's work or had any connections with the “Sea of Faith“ movement. Here is a link to a talk he gave last year as an overview of his thinking:
An Apologia for My Thinking
I've been reading his Emptiness & Brightness book and it struck me that some of his views about what faith, religion and indeed meaning to life may appeal to you. certainly, I'd love to hear a Pureland critique of it!

DHARMAVIDYA: Thank you. Don Cupitt's work is not something I have looked into before and I have not read Emptiness and Brightness, but I have now read the talk you refer to and I certainly appreciate the philosophical dilemmas that he seems to have been struggling with. It occurs to me that in some ways he has been moving through similar seas to myself, though perhaps travelling in the opposite direction, as I, having considered the same areas of deconstruction and encountered the same nihilistic consequences, have gradually become more tolerant of metaphysics (by which I mean something close to what Iris Murdoch called “the sovereignty of good”) and, in particular, have at last come to see the value in “maintaining an unbridgeable gulf between Holy God and the sinful human being”, though, as Buddhists, we do not talk about God, but about the ideal Buddha, Amida. This gulf is not, in Buddhism, at least, “for the sake of social control”, but, rather, serves at once, on the one hand, to ground our spiritual life in a personhood and an existential world that never are ideal, whilest, on the other hand, never losing sight of that ideal by which alone our lives can be lifted and inspired. Collapsing one of these poles into the other one seems to me to be spiritually reckless, though I appreciate that many Buddhists would disagree with me. My position in this respect is characteristically Pureland. I do not, however, see the spiritual life as a journey from the mundane to the divine, the ordinary to the ideal. Rather it is a journey in which both are eternally present as the landmarks by which one discerns a Middle Way. The Middle Way takes into account Amida's illimitable light and my own incorrigible darkness. As a result, I feel accepted just as I am, not as I might become only after scaling whatever spiritual heights there might be, but precisely as I am now, darkness and all. It is precisely this world just as it is that is the place where the spiritual life takes place, and it is here that I discern the “unbridgeable gulf”. This does not instil a feeling of alienation, but of realism, in the ordinary sense of the word. Anything else smacks of hubris.

(The questioner sent me an essay, not reproduced here, explaining Cupitt's position on a number of issues.)

DHARMAVIDYA: Regarding your criticism of traditional religion:
“Traditionally religions have presented the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition (and the world) and so have offered solutions to attain ‘salvation’ and enter the better state to come (E.g. heaven, Nirvana etc.)”,

I feel I want to say, well, there is, isn’t there? How about war, torture, slavery, or, closer to home, everyday nastiness? I suppose I am less sanguine than Cupitt about humans. Saying something is (post-/) modern and human does not recommend it to me. Also, I think his criticisms of the traditional way are a bit overly stereotypic. Is he not setting up a straw man? For instance, in the Western tradition, it was gnosticism that really polarised heaven and earth and that was declared a heresy for precisely that reason by the orthodox traditions. There is a middle way, that recognises human nastiness and offers a better state and that is the Buddhist way, but I think it has also been the way of many traditional Christians too. The idea that “earth is already heaven” that you introduce is valuable in some contexts, but it is not adequate as a complete dogma because it needs to be balanced by the fact that “earth is already hell” too. Pureland accepts that there is much that is wrong with us, but asserts that, nonetheless, we can become acceptable to Amida, even if we have been cruel and greedy and proud, if we give birth to faith. This is because faith will work a transformation within us. It will do so because it will open us up to an influence that, because it is not from within, is not corrupted by our past negative karmic formations. Unless we set up something that is good and sublime outside of self, this will not happen and religion will simply become a game of self-congratulation in which we preen our souls or buddha nature or whatever but never escape from the loop of solipsism. Awareness of our failings is more important than pride in our virtues. Even in Pali Buddhism, Shakyamuni says that he would rather have a sinner who realised his fault than a complacent saint who, through ignorance, was bound to decline. The idea that “Earth is already heaven” is a bit like “everybody is already inherently enlightened”. They are not and it is not. It is beautiful and sublime in many ways, but it is also many other things and dukkha is everywhere.

You say that,
“Traditional metaphysical religion was fixed, unchangeable, firm. It was rock, where contemporary faith must ride the wave, the swell, embracing perpetual motion. But why speak of “faith” at all? Not because we see any merit in “having faith” in unprovable religious dogmas and doctrines. We do not set up “faith” against reason, as metaphysical religion tended to do, nor do we use it as a synonym for blind belief. Faith for us is the trust that it is possible to give value and meaning to life: we can't prove it, but we choose to live by that faith”.

Very interesting. On the other hand, there is certainly some value in religion being a rock. One could say that that is what it is for. The Dharma too is presented as the eternal truth that holds us in the midst of impermanence. There does seem to be some contradiction in saying that there is no merit in “unprovable” things and then setting up in their place something that you say cannot be proved. In doing so you are readmitting what you sought to exclude, which is a faith, call it blind if you like, in value and goodness, that goes beyond the value and goodness that we actually see enacted by the average deluded human being. I think you are right to readmit it and would be better not to exclude it. We have a sense of virtue that lies beyond us. Goodness is something sovereign that we call to from afar. There is actually very little that is provable in this life and insisting that the other fellow conform to a higher standard of validity than one intends to adhere to oneself can easily lead us astray.

So, on that basis, surely, metaphysics is only a problem when people make undue claims for it - but then, that is true of anything. To reject something because some people make such claims would lead to the rejection of all worthwhile things, for they are commonly, and understandably, over-sold. A metaphysic should have descriptive predictive, and normative value. Of course it is man made - it is a human discipline - just as physics is. However, it tries to describe something that is not man made - the moral order of the universe. As we say in Buddhism, the law of karma is not answerable to my personal will.

Then again, as between mysticism and metaphysics, mysticism does not win every time. For instance, saying that X is the same as not-X is of limited utility and has been seriously over-worked in Western Buddhist circles. Similarly, dismantling all structure relating to our appreciation of the moral realm has serious pitfalls. Of course, no particular metaphysic is the ultimate and unsurpassable - any more than any particular physic is. In physics, Einstein is supposedly better than Newton, but his theory is neither ultimate nor self-evident, and the older system does work better for most everyday purposes. Sometimes this is true in metaphysics too.

I must thank you for your efforts. Debate on these things is very clarifying. I do not think we have reached the last word - that is the nature of the subject, but we have turned up some interesting threads.

Sexual Love in Buddhism

QUESTION: Maybe when I've read Zen Therapy I will understand myself a little more: Right now I'm in a wave of emotion they call love, but I would liken it more to an addiction, with painful withdrawal symptoms... I've always felt that I was missing my other half, but despite that I'm still not convinced that it is an answer. I can't say I really understand how procreation/sexuality and love fit within the Buddhist model, at least the engaged Buddhist model, because I can't be intimate with someone without getting wrapped up in the emotion of it, it's the rapture that gives it intensity, but also anguish.

DHARMAVIDYA: Sexual love, as you say, has great power to create anguish, rapture and confusion. The Buddha gave it up completely, but that was after having explored it rather thoroughly. If people were more aware of the down side of it, there would be a lot less misery. People would enter into commitments less rashly and, having entered into them would be less easily tempted to break them. It isn't all its cracked up to be in the commercials. This, however, is principally because people tend to go into relationships in order to get their own narcissistic needs met rather than out of a real care for, or even sufficient knowledge of, the other person. Romance can seem almost a substitute religion, promising to bring a kind of salvation in which all our deficiencies will be healed as if by magic. The reality is different. When the glitter has worn off an intimate relationship challenges us to become more mature, or it becomes a spiritual trap in which we collude in co-dependency.

A good relationship can be a real spiritual path since it involves intensity of concern for an other and this can take us out of self in a not merely superficial way. A harmonious couple can bring great benefit not only to themselves, but to everybody they meet.

Reflecting this reality, within the Amida Order there is a place for both married and celibate persons. Celibate people can devote themselves wholeheartedly to the path without distraction. Married couples in which both partners are devotees can work as a team and advance together. Married couples in which only one partner is pursuing the spiritual life can present a more difficult situation, but it depends upon the attitudes of those involved. Within the Amida system it is possible for the Buddhist partner to be a lay member or even to ordain as a chaplain and eventually become a minister with a full role within the Order, so long as there is agreement from the other party. The really difficult situations are those where people are committed to a partner who actively opposes their faith. Here it is for the couple to work out themselves what the real meaning and importance of their relationship is and why they are set in such a conflict with one another if they really do care for one another. The Pureland forms of Buddhism, particularly, tend to value lay and family life as wholesome ways to express the Dharma.

Compassion, Meditation and Non-self

QUESTION: Can I ask you a question, because I got confused in a discussion about compassion. Some people were saying that you can generate compassion through meditating a lot. I said you can meditate a lot and not be compassionate because I have met people like this; compassion happens when you are brought outside yourself by something else, not by working hard on the cushion - which could be another ego project. Then they said, you have to work on yourself and be compassionate to yourself, so I said, compassion really means realising that there is no self rather than loving the self. Then they said that if self is empty, so are other selves, so who are we feeling compassion for? Then I couldn't think what to say.

DHARMAVIDYA: There is quite a lot in this question. Several questions, in fact.

Compassion is an English word that is generally used to translate the Sanskrit karuna. Compassion carries the implication of feeling (passion) with (com). It is closely related to sympathy. Karuna is almost the same thing, but is usually defined as a wish. It is the wish that others be relieved of their suffering. Karuna is, therefore, a mental activity which has an other as an object. Karuna is a mental activity that tends toward actions to relieve suffering. It is possible to generate karuna by meditation techniques. One can imaginatively establish an other in one's mind, discern their suffering, and then generate the strong wish that that suffering be mitigated or eliminated. One can further imagine doing something about it. This type of meditation will help to strengthen the karuna function in the mind. So on the question of cultivating compassion through meditation, if we take compassion to be karuna, then there are effective meditations for this purpose. This does not mean that all meditations will have this effect. Of course, behaviour, speech and mind are a closely tied system with constant feedback from one to another. If we generate mental karuna but do not act upon it, then the mental faculty will decay. This is because action in the world is also a powerful way of cultivating the mind. If my meditation is cultivating karuna at the same time that my actions are cultivating non-karuna, then actions are likely to win. In any case, if there is no visible fruit in action from a meditation, it is suspect how genuine the meditation was in the first place. As for meditating “a lot”, it is really quality that counts, not quantity. A moment of real change of heart is worth any number of hours fermenting on a cushion. That said, it takes some time to establish deep calm and if this can be done it provides an excellent foundation for any form of meditative cultivation. The basic message is that meditation and action should reinforce each other or they will neutralise one another.

The Matter of Self: The Sanskrit word being translated as self is atma. Atma really means the bit of God in the person and the idea that the Buddha is really trying to refute is that of predestination. The general structure of Indian religion is the idea that there is a bit of God in each of us that will inevitably find its way back eventually to the great divine source. Buddha is saying that there is nothing inevitable about it. The future will be generated from the conditions that are created. If we create bad conditions, there will be a bad future. Killing leads to more killing. Stealing leads to more stealing. Hatred leads to more hatred and so on. We are not all predestined to become enlightened, though we can do so. I read the anatma doctrine as giving us total responsibility within our existential situation.

Again, the bit of God is supposedly immortal whereas all the rest is ephemeral and contingent. Buddha is therefore not saying that we do not exist, but that what does exist is ephemeral and contingent. This effectively leads to a disaggregation of the self. My body is dependently originated. My emotions are dependently originated. And so on. The conditions for one are not identical to the conditions for the other. We are complex. So are others. As one thinks in this way, all these componants start to be seen as others: hence the crucial teaching, “Thou art not that”. They lose their self quality. When this genuinely happens, one becomes tranquil and objective, at the same time as experiencing a vast expansion in the arena of karuna. To care for another is not to care for one thing. It is to address oneself to the different currents that flow in that being and try to find a kindly response to at least one of them. This is why listening and observing is so important. A person is not just what presents on the surface. Compassion require penetrating wisdom. Similarly, one cares for one's body in the same way as one might care for any other body one had responsibility for. There is no "-ishness" about self any more. When people talk about loving the self, therefore, one needs to get clear what they mean. In a sense it is one of those phrases that gains energy from not quite making sense, or, at least, relying upon a shift in the meaing of words. Love, in Buddhism, is maitri. It is parallel to karuna. Maitri is a mental act with an other as object. It is the wish that the other be happy, prosperous, successful, etc. One can cultivate this through meditation and through action in just the same way as karuna. Now, for a person who has reached the stage where the self has disaggregated and become many others, it is perfectly possible to have maitri toward the skandhas (aggregates of self) without any element of selfishness being present. This is the basis of the Zen adages of the "When tired, sleep; when hungry, eat; when the bell goes, put on your robe," type. If one attempts this process the other way around, however, starting with self indulgence, the result will be adverse and self deception rather than wisdom will result. So we can say that “loving oneself”, or, at least, taking good (but not excessive) care of those things that others mistake for a self, is a natural consequence of spiritual cultivation, whereas indulging one's whims is something that blinds us to the very meaning of the good life. The idea that loving oneself is a pre-requisite for helping others is a fallacy.

Rider Also, from a Pureland perspective, we would say that the contingency of all the elements of our being ensures that we remain foolish beings, imperfect in many ways. Nonetheless, even in our foolish, imperfect state, we can live in the light of what really is immortal, which is the goodness, beauty and truth that is in the world, to which we give provisional names like tathata (suchness). We can conceive of a person who lives entirely congruent with suchness, a tathagatha, but we cannot actually be one. It is an inspiration, not an achieveable goal. We live in the light, but do not become the light. We should, therefore, guard against hubris. Nonetheless, if we live in that light, the consequences of our actions will, whether we know about them or not, tend to the good and this will benefit all beings. Now, according to Buddhism, our ephemeral and contingent being operates according to the principle of dependent origination. It is not random, but nor is it pre-determined. It is a case of freedom within parameters. If we have faith in the Buddha light (or, loosely, in goodness) then we will exercise that freedom consistently in a certain way, which is a way that benefits others. There are an infinite number of ways of doing so. If we are blind to that light, we will tend to slip into following old tracks and following selfish passions. There are only a few ways of doing this, so the selfish person effectively becomes less and less free as habit closes in around him. To live a liberated life will utilise all the affective and cognitive resources we can muster.