29 May 2024

Summer 2024

Keith Snyder
Resident Priest and Managing Director

Once I was helping a chanoyu (“tea ceremony”) colleague pack up some tea utensils after a public event and I was concerned about boxing things up to transport before they were completely dry. This is always a problem because moisture cannot escape from the boxes, and even though we would unpack them to dry later, the time spent in the boxes during the drive home could allow damage to occur. When I questioned my colleague about it his reply was: “In a perfect world....” I was struck by this response, from which I felt I learned something that was more than about packing tea utensils.

We do not live in a perfect world. One of the first lessons in life, one of the first things we have difficulty grasping as a child, is the fact that things don’t always go the way we wish them to go. As children we cry when our expectations are not met, and as adults we become frustrated and react in ways that are not good for us or for the people around us.

A dissatisfaction with the way of the world – with human existence really – is at the heart of the way religions in general view the nature of our place in the universe. The basic teachings of Buddhism begin with the declaration that [our] existence is characterized by suffering. This is expressed by the Sanskrit word dukkha, which has been translated as ill-at-ease, unhappy, suffering. The Chinese translators used the character 苦(ku in Japanese), which means suffering, hardship, difficulty. The opposite of dukkha is sukha: ease, pleasure, happiness. The Chinese representation of this is 楽 (raku in Japanese).

Even though our world is one of suffering, the Buddhist teachings boldly proclaim that an end to suffering is possible. Perhaps, though, suffering is not the right word here. As long as we live in the world we will always experience pain, both physical and emotional, so it cannot be right to say that spiritual liberation equals the eradication of pain. But if dukkha is taken to mean the uneasy feeling we have in not being satisfied with the way things are, then the extinction of “suffering” does seem possible.

If we were to imagine a perfect world in which dukkha does not play a part, what kind of world would that be? The Mahayana answer to that is sukhāvatī, a world of sukha, the Chinese/Japanese equivalent being 極楽gokuraku. The one that we focus on in the Japanese Pure Land traditions is the one created through the vows and practices of the bodhisattva Dharmākara, who becomes/became the Buddha Amitāyus upon the fulfillment of those vows and practices. It is a world that is constructed to facilitate the practices which will bring those who go there to the highest state of enlightenment.

If you go through the 48 vows of the Bodhisattva Darmākara one by one, you will encounter some rather bizarre and often barely comprehensible declarations concerning the Buddha-field to be established by those vows and practices. However, the first of the vows is clear: there will be no hell, hungry spirit or animal forms of existence in that land. So if we have not fully transcended the six paths of existence, at least we are free of the three more difficult paths. They are difficult in the sense that the klesha which hinder our spiritual progress are more numerous and hard to get rid of in these realms.

The eleventh vow states that humans in that land will dwell in a state of meditative concentration until they cross over [into Nirvana]. Here, again, we are cutting off the hindrances to enlightenment, the klesha (bonnō煩悩). So being “born” into the Pure Land does not mean that we immediately attain the state of highest enlightenment. It means that our enlightenment is assured. The one who attains complete enlightenment is the Buddha Amida, and this happens simultaneously with our entrance into that land.

In looking at the life of Honen, it is often assumed that his Principle of Discarding [the various practices] and Establishing [the Nembutsu] (廃立の義) means a categorical casting off of the traditional practices of Buddhism – the so-called 48,000 gates. But he himself never abandoned the precepts, and he actually did encourage his disciples Shōkū and Chōsai to practice the disciplines of Tendai.

More than anything Honen’s teaching of sole reliance on the Nembutsu is a matter of removing the pressure that can come with engaging in the traditional practices. Though their methods were different, Honen and Dogen were both instructing their followers to drop any efforts to either a) get into the Pure Land (Honen), or b) attain enlightenment (Dogen). They understood the psychology of practice.

In this age of therapy and self-improvement everyone wants to know what they should do to change themselves and make things better. But Honen and Dogen are basically saying “do nothing; you can’t get what you already have.” For Dogen the teaching was “just sit,” while for Honen it was “just put your trust in the sambhogakaya, the Buddha of Infinite Light.” You don’t have to be anything other than what you already are here and now in this life, in this imperfect world. This is entering the Pure Land Gate. And once that gate is entered, any practice undertaken, whether it be meditative or doing good works, becomes for the common good of all people. The world improves and you improve.

The world is not as we would like it to be, but neither is it other than as it should be. Our attitude toward it is the problem. From the standpoint of the Dharmakaya, this world of forms and changes is itself the “body” of the Buddha (form is emptiness/emptiness is form). This is a very high level realization, and not so easy to attain. But the story of the bodhisattva Dharmākara becoming the Buddha of Infinite Life in a purified Buddha field which is neither of this world nor at the same time separate from this world, affords us a way into a spiritual reality that is both dynamic and contemplative, both engaged in the world and at the same time removed from an unhealthy clinging to the things of the world.

(Back to List)