What is the meaning of equality in Buddhism? What does the samadhi of equality indicate? On the one hand we are inclined to see spirituality as a mountain to climb, but at the same time, we read that, in the Pure Land, there are no such mountains. On the blog Beneath the Clouds there is an item called "Equal to Enlightenment". This is
a reflection upon a class given by Prof. Sato (a patron of Amida Trust and priest of Three Wheels Temple, London) on the Tannisho verse that says "We attain Equivalent Enlightenment and then realise Great Nirvana. This is due to the fulfilment of Amida's Prayer in which he vowed to let us attain Nirvana without fail." Shinran Shonin is saying that a person of pure faith is equivalent to an arhat, or is like Maitreya, the Buddha who will come in the future.
In commenting further on this verse, I would like to lay some stress on the term "equivalent". In the Larger Pureland Sutra it talks about the samadhi of equality. Faith enables one to dwell in such a samadhi. While we are thinking "vertically" we assume that Buddhas are "on high" and we are lowly. Those with a Judeo-Christian background may be particularly vulnerable to this way of thinking. The samadhi of equality, by contrast, suggests a horizontalization. On the other hand, the European and North American social tradition also has its own strong concept of equality as a foundation for democracy, yet this may not really correspond with the kind of equivalence that the Sutra and Shinran are referring to either. Drawing on our background resources does not, therefore, necessarily inform us quite what it is that Pureland Buddhism is trying to say.
What does Shan Tao mean when he asserts that the heart of the person of shinjin already and always resides in the Pure Land? The Pure Land of Amida, where there is complete spiritual equality, is the home by "naturalization" of all those who have obtained a passport to it by entering into prasada (shinjin, faith). The idea that what faith does is to make us belong to the PL coupled with the principle that there is the samadhi of equality in the PL surely, therefore, helps us to gain a deeper sense of what prasada is. What is this faith that is so central to PL? What does it look like?
A person who has this kind of faith is, in some respects, like an innocent. An innocent will speak to another person in a simple direct way, whether that person is high or low. An innocent will not be hypocritical. An innocent is not over-awed nor is he or she one to shrink away from somebody lowly or unkempt. They do not even realise when they have said something that is socially inept. Some of the stories of myokonin have this quality.
When we become involved in religion, we come up against many distinctions of status. To enter a religious path, one has to follow somebody. You might go to a meditation retreat on a distant island and just do your practice in isolation, but even then, you got that practice from somebody; the author of a book you read, perhaps. Spirituality always involves following, discipleship, and so on. Like all good things, this is good when it works, and like all things that can work, it can also go wrong. What is the nature of the proper relationship? Does the teacher want to be unquestioningly followed, as if one were a machine? - probably not. But the teacher probably does have something to offer and the kind of relationship that can grow up between teacher and disciple is an exquisite gem of great intimacy and mutual trust. Trust implies a kind of equality - not the formal social equality of democratic institutions, but the equality of knowing that we are the same in our heart of hearts, whatever role we may temporarily be occupying in the floating whirling world.
Here at the Amida community, one of the things that people learn a lot about is how to relate to others who have authority over them, or are simply senior to them, or over whom they have authority or seniority, or with whom they are peers. All these distinctions are social and functional. The cook's function is different from that of the kitchen assistant. This phenomenon of functional and status distinctions collectively creates a hierarchy. It is not a rigid one, but it exists.
People who are imbued with the Western social tradition sometimes rebel against this arrangement as though any kind of hierarchy were intrinsically evil. Really they are struggling with their own emotional reactions. In fact, in the world, there are hierarchies everywhere and if there were none we would all be living like non-social wild animals - without government, without employment, without schools, without any kind of organized labour. On the other hand, it is undeniable that hierarchies do often result in oppression. So how can one have hierarchy that is truly just functional and not exploitative? How can we have social relations that function that are also vehicles for deep mutual resepct?
On the other hand, there are other people who rebel in the opposite way by abandoning responsibility for their own life and giving all initiative to the guru or to seniors in the community. As a junior one does as one is told, but if this becomes an unthinking, unreflective, mechanical reaction, it is not what is being looked for. Similarly, one listens to teachings - a holy practice in itself - but it is also part of being a disciple to ask questions - another holy practice.
So what goes on between teacher and disciple is a kind of dance. The two dance partners do not have the same steps, but they complement one another. In many dances, there is one who leads and another who follows, but the one who follows follows in a lively way - they do not become simply like a dead weight or there is no dance. And if the leader misses a step, it may be for the partner to carry the flow through so that both can recover and go on together. This is also like chanting together. One person leads, but if whenever the leader falters everybody else stops, the chant will not flow. Leaders always falter from time to time. We have to learn about these things. This is why sometimes the disciple leads the chant and the teacher is among the followers. We have to get to know what it feels like.
Buddhist training is, therefore, in some measure, leadership training. At the heart of being a good leader, however, there lies an attitude of equality.
In Buddhism we see Buddha as our highest teacher. Straight away we are back into the vertical. Amida is up there and we are down here. Really, however, it is not like that. Amida want to dance with us. We can let him lead our dance and we will learn new steps, but if we really learn to dance with him, then we will get into a flow in which it is difficult to tell who leads and who follows. Certainly we will not be just a passive lump. The music and the contact bring us to life. To be equivalent to enlightened means to dance with Amida in a lively way.
When one is in the flow of a dance, one is enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future. Indeed, one's sense of the future takes on an aura. In the arms of the one we love and trust, we feel that all will be well. Whether circmstances prove clement or dismaying, all will still be well. In those arms we dwell in a sweet land. We have no doubts about the life to come. It will all take care of itself because we have the one thing needful.
Shinran Shonin teaches that the person who attains Pure Faith is immediately brought to the stage of enlightenment equivalence. This does not mean that we have climbed up or that Amida has come down. It means that the dance is always going on and we have, at last, decided to trust it. Functionally, in life, we are sometimes up and sometimes down, but spiritually all that matters is to enter the dance and be held in the arms of the beloved and respond with all one heart and soul and being.