Pastoral Letter 21st June 2006
We are now entering the summer. Life is easier. Yet, even in the midst of ease, human frailty and folly continue. A friend recently told me that her brother had been arrested for attempted murder. I also heard of various suicides and, even in our own Amida-shu communion, small as it is, several members are seriously or even gravely ill. As we go through life we oscillate between ease and disturbance, and some of the disturbances are major, coming like sudden summer storms, ripping through the fabric of a life that has been built up over many years and laying it scattered like the effects of the tsunami witnessed by Sr. Modgala when she visited Tamil Nadu 18 months ago.
In the past year, volunteers recruited and trained by Amida Trust have been back to Tamil Nadu to offer a little help. In a material sense what they can offer is tiny in comparison with the devastation. In a spiritual sense, however, the knowledge that others care and are willing to come is immensely strengthening to the local people. They themselves must repair the fabric of their lives for themselves, for those who come after, and for all of us, and it strengthens them in this to know that there are others who have faith in and with them. The spirit given us by Lord Buddha is the greatest gift we can offer.
It is like that in individual lives too. The will to rise above adversity springs from faith. Some have reached the state of anjin - faith that is settled - but, for many, faith itself is still conditional and fluctuates with circumstance. The ethos of those around us is a critical variable in this respect. This is why the Buddhas say, “Keep good company,” and exhort us to manage our relationships in an equable way. In this way we all support the faith of one another. Faith will always be tested, won’t it? It is the nature of life.
When suddenly there is nothing circumstantial to rely upon, we need that which transcends circumstances. Faith brings ease and reasonableness and so enables one to persevere in difficult times and become a source of strength to others when they are all at sea. Thus faith gives rise to compassion and practical wisdom, too. It brings consistency and strength into one’s life - an ability to act on principle and not simply be swayed by the dynamic of the group one happens to find oneself in. Shakyamuni Buddha often used the figure of crossing a river to express this point. The current is going a different way from the direction of the wader. He or she has to persist even when the current is crosswise or counter or swirling. The spiritual life is like that.
Thus each day we join together for our services. Performing a religious service regularly gives life a centre of gravity. I strongly recommend to every member of Amida-shu to have a service that you do at least several times per week. Depending upon your circumstances it may be short or long. When we chant the nembutsu we know that Amida hears us and we also know that we are in connection with all the other members of Amida-shu and with millions of other Pureland Buddhists around the world who also call Buddha’s Name.
Our Buddhism is not an individual thing. It is not about attaining or maintaining a particular state of mind. It is about being rescued from our self-centred life by Amida; by Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; by the thought of the Pure Land toward which all merit can be tranferred. Our services are not magic nor are they primarily about personal transformation - they are assurance and connection. They are refuge.
A service should always include chanting nembutsu and this may be in different rhythms or forms. Whether you say “Namo Amida Bu”, “Namo Amitabhaya”, “Namo Tassa...” , “Infinite Light...” , “Kimmyo Jinjipo Mugeko Nyorai”, or some other form is not what matters, though we usually say “Namo Amida Bu”. What matters is that you intend the nembutsu in your heart and express that intention with the voice. The Chinese character for “faith” combines the characters for “person” and “voice”. It shows a person standing by their word. Expressed true intention is the act of faith and it is the act of faith that brings complete assurance.
Provided that one has the intention of nembutsu firmly established, a service may also include auxiliary practices. The following auxiliary practices are good. Prostrations are nembutsu with the body as is circumambulating the Buddha. Reciting the “Summary of Faith and Practice” is helpful. Reciting other Pureland passages encourages and educates the heart. A short period, say ten minutes, of Nei Quan each day is also invaluable. Generally we end with some verses in praise of the Tathagata, perhaps followed by offerings and a final verse:
The original and sacred vows
Are the unique and essential path
To enter the :Pure Land
Therefore, with body, speech and mind
We are devoted to the teachings
That all may attain the state of bliss.
Do not make the service too long or burdensome. Just establish a time to experience the joy of calling the Buddha’s Name and experience the assurance that it brings. Whenever possible it is good to join together with others for a service. This is very strengthening for everybody. Services are a cornerstone of community, joining us across continents.
When we do Nei Quan we review our actions over the past 24 hours or in the interval since we last performed the exercise and take stock of the blessings we received, the merit we generated, the dedication of that merit, and the troubles we caused. Out of this may come intensified religious feeling and deeper understanding of our bombu nature. We might formulate a prayer, that we might play our part as a link in Amida’s golden chain, or we might be touched by our own darkness to the point where Amida’s Light appears.
A service of an hour or more can include all these elements, but short services that include only one or two of them in addition to nembutsu are also good. These can be integrated into daily life - a prayer before meals; junen (ten nembutsu) before a job of work; a prayer before watching the football; or at any time...
Be my delight
Shine on me
The life of faith is a turning from soul (atma) to spirit (Amida). Soul is the life of nature, passion, and desire. Spirit is the life of enlightenment, moderation and reasonableness. Soul is centred on one self. Spirit is universal. What is most personal is most universal. The way of Amidism is to rise out of soul into spirit. It is anatmavada - the path of relinquishing soul. This is the special characteristic of Buddhism.
When life is easy it is easy to forget and lose the strength and power that the Dharma brings us, isn’t it? As bombu we are vulnerable to falling into addictive habits great and small very easily. These undermine the will, erode faith and make one unreasonable. Many people find some compulsive habit the only way that they know to manage the chronic recurrent anxiety that fills their empty moments. This is very sad. Such a person is as if possessed by a demon that repeatedly pulls at them to indulge in the particular habit until they succumb. However, each time they do so they only encourage the demon to be even more insistent the next time, and, in the meantime, they lose faith, self-respect, looks, health, attractiveness, and they spiritually wither away. This is very sad to see. None of us really wants to be fat, smelly, weak willed, unproductive, hyper-tensive, and a slave to habit, nor do we want the destruction of health that many compulsive habits bring in train, but, at the time when the urge is upon a person it is very hard for them to bring these disadvantages into focus. The thought “Why shouldn’t I?” springs strongly into mind and the self-destructive act momentarily seems to be a compelling assertion of self, defiant independence, and indispensable comfort.
Then there are the problems of ordinary desire. According to Buddhism, desire has two levels. There is the primitive mode of desire represented by greed, hate and confusion. This is the state of the soul pulled this way and that by pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. It is a thoroughly conditioned life and is the natural or undeveloped state of the atma (self/soul).
Then there is the developed level where desire has become synonymous with self-conceit. The atma has developed into an elaborate structure mediated through relationships with other things in the world. At this level desire is no longer simple, but is complicated by being always modified by the consideration of self. Every circumstance is assessed on a scale that runs from self-threatening to self-affirming and mental pleasure or pain are experienced accordingly. Sometimes these two levels of desire conflict. Something may be self-affirming even while at the simple level being intrinsically painful, as when a person conceives him or herself to be a martyr in some respect.
These three modes - the addicted atma, the primitive atma and the developed atma - are all ways of coping with a world in which one comes, day in day out, into encounter with others - other things, other people, circumstances - that are not under one’s control. The person seeking ease either flees into the distraction of addiction, or blindly pursues short term pleasure, or tries to maintain a purified self-identity and keep it immune from the vicissitudes of impermanence. None of these strategies works. None achieves lasting stability. All three are inherently unstable, but none of them actually self-destructs. The only way out is a lateral leap into a life of faith.
Worldly people are those who do not make this leap. Religious people make it. However, in most cases, it is not made completely. They find a place for faith in their life while also holding onto one or more of the other three modes. Sometimes this is due to a misunderstanding of what the life of faith is like. People may assume that because the life of faith liberates one from three modes of atma, that desire just evaporates and no further problems arise. People then try a life of faith in a kind of puritan mode, find they cannot sustain it and give up. The life of faith, however, is a middle way, a moderate path. The natural desire continues to crop up. The self structures that have already been built remain, slowly decaying like old ruins. The addictions that one has indulged remain there in the background. We never cease to be bombu. The soul level remains the undergrowth of life. However, spirit enables us to grow great trees that dwarf that undergrowth. When a tree falls, the undergrowth springs up again temporarily, but since the forest of faith is full of good seeds, such undergrowth only provides cover for new trees to rise.
As members of a faith community, we are all part of the spirit that encompasses and goes beyond ourselves as individual souls. We go forth into the world just as Sr Susthama has now gone to Hawaii to take the Dharma message to all manner of folk. Our lives are lived on a big canvass. Shakyamuni showed us how to liberate our lives in this way. As soon as we have the faith to let go our the castle of atma, we quickly find ourselves in a completely new mode of life. Although our old anxieties still rise up through old habit, they are dwarfed by the larger world we have leaped into. Even though we meet with adversity, friends die, illness afflicts us, still we know the truth of Inagaki’s verse:
Time to fall
Is time to float
For a lotus blossom.
Some of those amongst us who are most personally afflicted are, nonetheless like shining lights - like beams of Amida. They inspire. Faith transcends circumstance.
In love and respect for each of you.
Namo Amida Bu