19 February 2024

Spring 2024

Keith Snyder
Resident Priest and Managing Director

When the Buddha Shakyamuni died, his disciples were left wondering how they should regard the nature of one who had realized ultimate truth and had passed into what is referred to as the “Great Nirvana,” a term which literally means final and total extinction. Although he had instructed them to “be a lamp unto yourselves, let the Dharma be your lamp,” there remained questions about the nature of the two things called Buddha and Dharma, and their relation to each other.

An early notion of the nature of the Buddha saw the use of the term “form body” (色身, Skt. rūpa-kaya) to refer to his physical body, and “Dharma body” (法身, Skt. dharma-kāya) to refer to the ultimate truth that he realized in his religious awakening.

Also, at an early stage in the history of Buddhism, it was thought that because it would take an incalculable amount of time over the span of innumerable rebirths to attain enlightenment, the Buddha Shakyamuni must have been practicing for eons before becoming a Buddha in our world. From this way of thinking came the Jataka Tales, which depict the Buddha in both human and animal form practicing acts of religious merit and kindness in former lives.

Next the idea of multiple buddhas of the past and future entered the thinking of the early Buddhists, and with the rise of the Mahayana movement the ideal of the bodhisattva became key to understanding the Buddhist path.

“Bodhi” means enlightenment; “sattva” means being. So a bodhisattva is one who strives for enlightenment. Each bodhisattva makes four general vows, starting with the vow to save all beings from the rounds of birth-and-death, and then practices the six paramitas (六波羅蜜) for an extremely long time, advancing along fifty-two steps to complete enlightenment. This was a shift in thinking from the ideal of the Arhat, who practices for the sake of burning up all traces of individual karma and becoming extinct - nirvana means extinction - to the ideal of the bodhisattva who links his own enlightenment to the salvation of all other beings. This new ideal takes the form of the vows and practices of the bodhisattva. Rather than nirvana, the ultimate goal was now termed “Complete and Perfect Enlightenment” (等正覚), and it is the final step of the bodhisattva path.

In addition to the four general vows, or resolutions, of all bodhisattvas, each bodhisattva makes a series of separate vows concerning the nature of the particular Buddha land which will arise once complete enlightenment is attained. So when the final step to complete enlightenment (the perfection of wisdom and compassion) is taken, the Buddha body that emerges is one that represents the completion of practice and the attainment of the fully enlightened state. It is the fulfilment of the vows and practices of the bodhisattva. This is called the Reward Body (報身) because it is the result, or reward, of the bodhisattva practices. With this the notion of the three Buddha bodies is complete. The previously mentioned form body by this time has become the Response Body (応身, Skt. nirmanakaya), also known as the Transformation Body (化身), which generally refers to Shakyamuni, who came into the world to respond to the spiritual needs of its inhabitants. It is similar to the concept of avatar in Hindu religious systems.

Perhaps it is easiest to understand the idea of the Dharma Body (ultimate truth beyond concepts) and of the Response Body (someone born into the world as a flesh and blood individual). But in order to grasp the concept of Pure Buddha Lands in the Mahayana, an understanding of the Reward Body is essential.

The Buddha called Amida in Japanese is the quintessential representation of the Sambhogakaya. This is because of the number of sutras dealing with this Buddha and because of the nature of the resolutions outlined in the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. There are other examples of the particular vows of other bodhisattvas – for example the vows of the Buddha Yakushi (薬師) – but the story of the bodhisattva Dharmakara becoming the Buddha Amida, and the pure buddha field that resulted from it, is the one that inspired the Chinese to make this story and its implications the focus of the Pure Land practices and beliefs that developed in the 5 th century and onwards. Later, after various commentaries on the Pure Land sutras emerged, Honen zeroed in on the interpretation of Shan-tao (善導), making it the basis of his own teachings regarding Amida and his Pure Land.

Worship and the veneration of holy figures has been a feature of Buddhism from the beginning. Once the Buddha Shakyamuni died, relics of his such as bone fragments and teeth were placed in special structures called stupa, and these became the places where the general public directed their worship. Devotional practices have a long history in India with bhakti yoga being one of the standard modes of practice, while an attitude of devotion seems to be common to all the world’s religions. So it is not surprising that after the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni, he would remain the focus of people’s attention.

Eventually, as the three bodies concept developed, sutras emerged which included elaborate descriptions of the purified Buddha field of Amida, as well as detailed visualizations of the form of this Buddha itself. If the Dharmakaya is not conceivable to the mental faculties of human beings, and the Buddha Shakyamuni is no longer with us as a flesh and blood teacher, then the other body, the Sambhogakaya, becomes the Buddha which stands between the two as the one which is accessible to us as the Buddha of the nembutsu, and the pure land of this Buddha is neither a physical place like our earth, nor is it the manifestation of suchness as identified with the Dharmakaya (a deep understanding of the Dharmakaya includes the realization that this world of forms is in itself the dharma body) .

Although some would equate the Pure Land of Amida with satori, it is, rather, the place we enter in order to experience satori. But how do we enter it if we are told that there is nothing we can do to make that happen?

Shōkū (Seizan Shōnin), constructed a system of three stages through which we pass in order to be within the Gate of the Pure Land. First is the Gate of Practices (gyōmon 行門), which is the conventional attitude toward Buddhism. We practice in order to purify ourselves and to eventually reach a state of enlightenment. We abandon these practices when we enter the next stage, which is the Gate of Contemplations (kanmon 観門). This is what happens when we hear the teaching of the Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (観無量寿経), whose sixteen visualizations of the Pure Land of Amida act as the catalyst which brings us to a state of reliance on the fundamental vows of this particular Buddha. The term Shōkū uses for this final stage is [reliance on] the Broad Vow (gugan 弘願). This is the state of taking refuge in, or putting ones trust in, the Buddha as the fruition of all the vows and practices of the bodhisattva, realizing it as a fait accompli and not as something we are hoping for in the future. To Shōkū, the complete enlightenment of the Buddha Amida is in itself our entrance into the Pure Land, while our entrance into the Pure Land is in itself the complete enlightenment of the Buddha Amida. The two things happen simultaneously. Without the one, the other does not happen.

When I look at this three stage process, I cannot help but think of it as a reflection of the way Honen’s spiritual journey developed. Honen studied and practiced the major forms of Buddhism of his time but was left with the feeling that they were getting him nowhere. Then at one point, as he was reading through the works of the 7 th century Chinese monk Shan-tao, one particular phrase about nembutsu hit him in a way that caused him to let go of all striving for perfection and simply be embraced by the Primal Vow (hongan 本願) of the Sambhogakaya.

The fundamental stance of the Mahayana is that of the non-duality of the things of the world and the ultimate truth. All things as they are, are inherently enlightened. The problem is that we are not awake to that reality. The klesha (mental and physical disturbances) obscure our view of things and cause confusion and misunderstanding among individuals (and among groups and nations). If we could merge our consciousness with the Dharmakaya, we would realize the non-duality of thing and Dharma. Indeed, this is one of the practices of Mahayana.

But in entering the Pure Land Gate we retain an awareness of self and other (other here being the Sambhogakaya). Rather than merge with the Sambhogakaya, however, we realize our oneness with it while maintaining a sense of self. This is not the realization of sunyata (emptiness 空). It is the realization that the individual wandering endlessly in the six paths of transmigration is at this moment in a state of salvation effected by the fulfilment of the vows and practices of the Buddha Amida.

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