Follow the link for a synopsis of the talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist meeting on Sunday.
Good morning. I want to express my gratitude to you for inviting me to speak at this universalist church. I too follow the universal religion, though, of course, as a Pureland Buddhist priest, I shall talk about it in my own terminology. To say that I am a Pureland Buddhist means that I take refuge in Amida Buddha, have faith in Amida Buddha, place my life in the hands of Amida Buddha.
I guess that all spiritual people take refuge in a Buddha. I do not mind if your Buddha is called Krishna or Jesus or who it may be. My Buddha is Amida. To take refuge in a Buddha is to get caught up in that Buddha’s work. Buddha is trying to save me and to save all sentient beings. Buddha is trying to help us and all people to find the middle way, to live more noble lives, to avoid or overcome the afflictions that come in this samsaric world. Samsara means the worldly world.
One of the things I want to bring out in this talk is the fact that there is a worldly way of thinking and a spiritual way. The universal religion is what links people who think in a spiritual way. So, Buddhas are trying to help us to live in a spiritual way. They want to help us to surmount the spiritual dangers of life. When we talk about danger, there is a spiritual and a worldly way of thinking. Buddhas are primarily trying to help us overcome the spiritual danger. Let me try to explain this.
When the worldly mind thinks about danger, it thinks about physical or practical mishappenings. One of us might suddenly start to feel ill and go to the doctor and might find that we have a serious illness - perhaps even only have a shart time to live. Or due to some political or economic event outside one’s control one might lose one’s job or business and many plans that one had made may come to nothing, and so on. Large and small mishappenings of this kind are part of life. We can avoid some of them but we cannot avoid all of them. In the worldly mind this is what counts as disaster and the risk of it as danger.
Yet, from the spiritual point of view it is not these things exactly that constitute danger. When any of these things happen a spiritual danger certainly arises, but the spiritual danger is not the mishap itself, it is what happens after. All kinds of spiritual catastrophe may follow. A person might become embittered or fall into despair or apathy or start to act in destructive ways. They may seek respite in drugs or take out their frustration on others over whom they have some power. In the extreme they may ruin or end their own life. These are all spiritual disasters.
Then, it is also true that even when things happen that from the worldly point of view might be good things there is also spiritual danger. There is spiritual danger when things go well, when we have sudden success, when we get rich or lucky. The greatest spiritual danger at those times is that one might become smug, self-righteous, condescending, uncaring about others or inflated in one’s view of oneself or one’s own life, beliefs or party. These are also serious spiritual dangers.
We must also acknowlede that these spiritual disasters are not just an individual occurrence. They also afflict collectivities of people. Whole nations may have such spiritual accidents that can have massively devastating effects upon others far and near. Spiritual disasters bring further worldly one’s in train and so terrible viscious spirals can be created - a kind of spiritual hurricane.
In Buddhism, we say that spiritual danger is composed of instances of greed, hate and delusion. Greed means grasping at things; hate means pushing them away; and delusion means self-conceit, egotism, pride, both positive and negative, aggrandizement and dejection, that sort of thing. When we fall into these things, a spiritual accident has occurred. Actually, Shakyamuni Buddha put it in very strong terms. The way he said it was that the world is on fire. He said the world is on fire with the fire of greed; it is one fire with the fire of hatred; it is on fire with the fire of delusion. Everywhere the world is on fire and he wants to help us not to get burnt.
So we can see that spiritual danger is not the same as worldly danger. Spiritual danger is more common than worldly danger, but it is also true that spiritual danger is, in principle, completely avoidable whereas worldly danger is not. The fire is everywhere, but it is, in principle, possible to avoid getting burnt. Buddhas want to help us in this matter of spiritual danger. They want to help all beings to avoid getting burnt. When we get burnt all the time, this world is hell. When we do not, it is heaven. But even though it is heaven, in one sense, it is not really heaven if we see others being burnt all the time. So for Buddhas life is extremely bitter-sweet. For us ordinary folk, it is recurrently frustrating and sometimes acutely painful, but these afflictions are also punctuated by glimpses of what is possible - perceptions of glory and bliss; times of love and appreciation.
In practice, because we have a history, because we are karmic beings, we do not, in fact, avoid spiritual danger. We certainly do not manage to avoid it simply by being smart. That is why we seek refuge in a Buddha, so that we get some help. It is overly simplistic to think of Buddhism just as techniques for spiritual survival. It is much more than a matter of becoming spiritual streetwise. Buddhism is a religion - joining together - a refuge. We need the help of a Buddha - of all the Buddhas.
However, as soon as we take refuge in a Buddha we get caught up in the Buddha’s work. When we no longer rely upon our own ability to be smart, but let a Buddha take a part in guiding our life, we get recruited. Now Buddha is not just trying to save me, of course, he is trying to save everybody, so the work I get caught up in is a universal work. Even though I myself am still a million miles away from being able to manage my own spiritual life effectively, I find myself being used in various ways by the Buddha in Buddha’s attempt to reach and help others. This is rather mysterious and can be quite disconcerting. Getting involved in religion can seriously redirect your life. Buddhas do not do things the way that ordinary people do. They have different priorities.
Now I want to say a bit more about the nature of spiritual danger and the way that it can be averted. We have already seen that there is a circumstantial dimension. Spiritual danger is more acute in some circumstances. Conditions play a part. Buddhas are trying to create safe spaces where spiritual danger is less or absent. Safe spaces are places where people can heal. Safe spaces are called sukha. Dangerous places are called dukkha. As we have seen, even success and good fortune can be dukkha.
Safe space is not something that we can create unaided entirely within ourselves. The smallest unit of safe space is a relationship between two. When we say that we have a safe space “within” there is still always a relationship dimension to it. It may not be a relationship with a human being - “Shakyamuni saw the morning star and was enlightened”. The isolated self is intrinsically unsafe. When Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened, he called the Earth Mother to witness. When he was immobilised by indecision immediately after his enlightenment, the Brahma Deva Sahampati spoke to him. All the crucial moments are mediated by such relationships. The self must escape from itself. “Sarva dharma anatma” - all Dharma is non-self. The smallest unit of safety is in a relationship.
When we take refuge in a Buddha we establish such a relationship. Being involved with a Buddha is both a one to one thing - a safe space that is established in one’s life that helps one to cope with all the unsafe spaces that occur continually - but it is not just a one to one thing - it is also involvement in a movement that aims to establish safe space everywhere for everyone. Buddha’s light may shine into my heart, but it is shining everywhere for everybody else too.
This “safe space everywhere” is what we Buddhists call a Pure Land. Buddhas are constantly at work nurturing the emergence of Pure Lands. Buddhism has a vast sense of cosmic space and time. The time spans are enormous - even more vast than those envisaged by modern astronomy - and the idea of space likewise. In the Buddhist conception there are innumerable worlds all at different stages of development. Buddhas take a long term view. The final outcome is uncertain, but the intentionality of Buddhas is eternally reliable. They are always trying to save all beings, to cross them over from the realms of spiritual fire and danger into Pure Lands of bliss and purity, and, in the process, recruiting assistants. Those who become assistants we call bodhisattvas. Some bodhisattvas are advanced spiritual beings, but most are just ordinary folk like us who have, nonetheless, rather in spite of ourselves, made some small step in the direction of faith. Realising that we are not very good managers of our own spiritual destiny, we have given ourselves over and asked for help from one Buddha or another.
We are too dumb to fully understand how Buddhas do it, but once we allow them to start taking a hand in our life, remarkable things can happen. Our lives start to play their part in a bigger picture, a bigger scheme. We find we are engaged in all sorts of ways and we start to find sweet moments occurring unexpectedly. We may also find that progressively bigger demands are made on us. Each time we say yes, we find ourselves in deeper water. The deeper the water the stronger our faith becomes.
Now I said that the smallest unit of spiritual safety is in a one to one relationship. Another way of saying this is that it is friendship. Buddhism is the movement for spiritual friendship. The Buddhist word is kalyana mitra. Mitra means friendship. Kalyana indicates wholesomeness or spiritual skillfulness. Spiritual friendship is the kind that averts or helps us through spiritual danger. This is not, however, just an instrumental thing - as in receiving advice. It is he friendship itself that is the safe space. When we are in that space, the danger is not there. Taking refuge means having that kind of friendship with a Buddha. Refuge makes spiritual danger disappear.
It is worth reflecting upon the nature of friendship. Friendship is not a complete take over. We may learn from our friend and even imitate some of their ways, but I am not trying to become my friend and she is not trying to become me. Amida Buddha does not want me to become Amida, he wants me to become most fully David and he sees the way to this as being for David to avoid the worst spiritual accidents.
But let’s be realistic. A fair number of accidents are going to happen. We’re like that. Even the freedom we have we do not necessarily use in the most skilful ways and even after we have taken Buddha as our friend we do not always listen or let ourselves be influenced. Buddhist psychology is largely a great body of knowledge accumulated over centuries that explains just how stubborn, blind, self-willed and stupid we ordinary people can be, not to mention those who are really off the rails. So Buddha is not just hoping we avoid the worst, he is also trying to provide a space in which we can heal and those who do the Buddhas’ work are also in that business.
This means that Pureland Buddhists are involved, wherever they go, in creating little instances of safe space, miniature Pure Lands, using whatever is to hand. Such microcosms of heaven may be precious moments in a one to one encounter; or they may be places of refuge - a beautiful garden, a calm spot, a welcoming home - or conditions that protect or replenish people in one way or another. They grow up in a rather organic sort of way. One friendship leads to another. This seems haphazard. It is not like providing a service, though it might include that, so much as allowing friendship to extend. It is about letting love grow.
Sometimes this is directly inter-personal, but it may also take the form of artistry or craft or the love that goes into a garden or a house. Always Buddha is busy creating the conditions for the emergence of a Pure Land. At the same time we have to remember the difference between a Pure Land and worldly success. Simply making everybody richer may not result in any diminution of spiritual danger, for instance. Often this is a matter of quality rather than quantity. Often it involves helping others to be helpful to yet others. Safe space thus extends.
We say that the kind of social engagement that grows out of this approach involves three levels. These are resisting oppression, assisting the afflicted and demonstrating an alternative. Resisting affliction is, substantially, an antidote to the greed in the world. Many parts of the world have been devastated by the tendency of rich countries to plunder poorer weaker one, for instance. Assisting the afflicted is an antidote to the hatred and aversion in the world. Worldly disasters occur, but do people then get helped? There is great spiritual danger when hurt people experience the realisation that others do not care. How much do we care for the people dying in far away wars, even when our own government is one of the parties in the war? Insofar as we do not care there is spiritual disaster for us and great danger for them. Demonstrating an alternative is the antidote to delusion. It is the attempt to turn our whole life into a safe space and, beyond that, the collective life of all those inspired by the Buddhas examples.
So Buddhism has always been involved in the creation of communities. A Buddhist community is an attempt at creating a mini-Pure Land. If we remember that such community is the anti-dote to self-conceit we soon realise that the core of such a community must be refuge and the faith that we palce in the Buddha.
We can remark that those who allow a Buddha to influence their life most strongly often are not the richest people, not necessarily those with most resources or power. Buddhas are not much bothered about worldly success. They are working on a different dimension. If one is alive to the spiritual way of thinking then one might or might not find oneself with worldly resources, but whatever the case is, one will look at them with a different eye, with a different set of priorities in mind.
So I hope I have conveyed something of the difference between a worldly and a religious way of thinking and I hope that I have indicated at least a little how a spiritual life is inevitably an engaged life and one that works out through encounters and friendships and quality interactions on large or small scale. This seems to me to be some indication of the presence of the universal religion. Thankyou.