Pastoral Letter of 26th December 2006
It is said: A Bodhisattva has no ground to stand upon - the ground that he or she stands upon is the Dharma. If you would be a light, then make Dharma your light, for we have no light of our own other than that. In this letter I would like to reflect upon what this may mean in the complicated world of real life where both personal responsibility and willingness to listen, kindness and compromise as well as persistence and principle may all be required and these various factors can sometimes seem at odds with each other.
Firstly, I remember what Shakyamuni said on his deathbed. One who hears the Buddha is a light unto him or herself because the Dharma is his or her light. If this is not correctly understood, great mistakes will be made. There are those who think that being a light unto oneself means doing what suits oneself, but this is only darkness. Only insofar as our light and our ground are the Dharma are we true to our calling. This in the long run yields the most wonderful life and it is to the long run that one should attend.
Yet even if we have understood the principle correctly, we must still have dealings with one another - with our own and other people’s bombu nature. It is in accord with the Dharma to be friendly to all. There are, however, different kinds of friend. The best friend is one who has a long term view - one who can persist in what is right even when short term circumstances are against such a course. In Amida-shu we have met many difficulties even in the short span that we have been together. Where we have come through these difficulties well and emerged stronger in spirit it has been because we have persisted in doing what is right even when it was unpopular in the short run. Sometimes people have been alienated because we would not bend to their short term desires, but many such people come back later when they see that there has been nothing of ill-will in our persistence. There have also, however, been situations where we have emerged well not so much because we were consistently wise and kind, but rather because we made mistakes, discerned them and learnt from them. There is even a procedure known to the sangha called “covering over with grass” where there have been so many faults that a point comes where one must simply say, “Well, enough, now begin again” and do so with goodwill. We are bombu. Amida is always at hand. Practice is nembutsu, not personal perfection.
Sometimes it is difficult to be a good friend. A good friend always does what they believe to be in the good interest of the other, even though this may not always be what that person wants or believes to be best. A good friend may even be in the position of doing good for somebody who is hostile. This means: do not give up on the other party. Always try to ensure that what you take your stand upon is the Dharma and not just your own comfort or convenience and, within the parameters of what Dharma requires, do everything you can to avoid wounding others and to heal whatever breaches may occur.
Living in a Dharma community we get much experience in these principles. When people live in close proximity there can be friction and distrust that can easily grow. This is human. We learn by experience of being a sangha that it need not be disastrous. It can be the raw material for real spiritual progress. The trust and mutual respect that grows up on the far side of difficulties that have been faced is much stronger than the fragile co-operation that goes on between people whose relationship has never been tested. To get to such a point, however, we often need to resort to the help of our friends as third parties. The sangha meets and listens. If we take our stand upon Dharma, then the mind to judge weakens and the mind to heal grows stronger.
When the Dharma is our steady light, we can persist through difficulties without becoming spiritually harmed thereby, whereas when we do something to ease our own short term difficulty at the expense of others, it always comes back upon us later. Sometimes it requires great care to steer a steady course. Sometimes it requires humility to realise we have gone astray and discernment to find a way back. Perhaps, for instance, one’s friend needs help so one tries to help him. But perhaps the help that the friend wants is help to accomplish something that is not entirely wholesome and perhaps the fact that this is so only becomes apparent gradually as the plot of a situation unfolds. Or, perhaps one’s friend has become compromised in some situation that she would have been wiser to have avoided. Or maybe he did something with the best of intentions, but when actually faced with the tasks involved in carrying the matter forward was found lacking in the subtleties needed to handle the resulting human or practical challenges. These sorts of situations are not easy. On the one hand, precepts and principles are simple in concept; on the other hand real life situations are complex.
Given that this is so, one who takes refuge in Dharma tries always to begin from the position of gratitude, modesty and respect, and these three together may be called love, and to continue in that is a great blessing, but finding the best practical course may sometimes defeat even the best among us. All this may be even more difficult when the other party is not a member of the sangha or even is an organisation or other relatively impersonal body.
For all these reasons, life in the world is complex even for those who have good intentions - and we all know all too well that our intentions are seldom totally pure. Therefore, it is very important for us to help one another and, in particular, to help one another to discern a wise path.
I feel immense gratitude for the fact that I have good friends that I can call upon. That I can ask you, my friends, to share your perspectives, enables me to get a more all-round view of things. Since I have the responsibility for making many of the final decisions in our sangha, life would be almost impossible for me and dangerous for us all if I were not able to consult with you in this way. It seems to me, therefore, that our sangha has a special excellence in having good arrangements at many levels for mutual consultation and I do urge all members of the sangha to continue to develop and use such arrangements. As we go on each person in the sangha tends to take on more responsibility. We must all learn how to carry this responsibility with dignity and proceed in harmony together and this requires that we continually have resort to one another for good counsel. Even though individually we are bombu and each of us only has a partial perspective, together, collectively, we are like a great net that can catch the light that Nyorai bestows.
I have observed how powerful trust is in bringing people to a point where concerted action to create something good becomes possible. I have also observed how there are many obstacles to trust, emanating from past experience, from present misunderstandings, from unwillingness, and from seeking refuge in lesser lights.
One of the biggest hurdles to be overcome by a new member of a spiritual community, especially if they have been brought up and educated in an individualistic social context, is the task of learning to think in terms of the collective instead of in terms of the individual. Until this shift is made, people find it very uncomfortable trying to live in the spiritual community, but once they have made this transition many things that previously were troublesome cease to be so and become sources of deep satisfaction. This is intensely true for those who live in The Buddhist House or another residential sangha community. The broad principle, however, also applies across the sangha as a whole. It may, nonetheless, be quite difficult for those who have never experienced the communal life to appreciate how important this is.
Our Amida-shu is founded upon the three points: the trikaya nature of the Tathagata, the bombu nature of the practitioner, and the nembutsu nature of all practice. The trikaya means that Nyorai guides in three ways - practically, spiritually and absolutely. To discern that guidance we must help one another and learn to listen collectively. The bombu nature means that we each do our best but none of us can be entirely confident that by oneself alone one can discern the right path. The nembutsu nature of practice means that our Dharma life is the unfolding of a relationship, not merely the application of static principles. As we walk on we become lost and again found and again lost and then found once more and so it continues. This being so, our pride is continually eroded.
To take refuge in Amida is to take as one’s fundamental ground the very highest and finest light that we can intuit. We are in this for the long term - the very long term - five kalpas at least. Although our sangha meets with setbacks from time to time, we shall not be defeated if we keep this perspective and the constancy of Nyorai’s vow in mind. Nembutsu practice means to experience everything in the light of eternity doesn’t it? Think eternal, act today!
Amida-shu is an unfolding miracle. Many of us have already rejoiced together many times that we are part of this glory and this love manifest here in the practical world of society. There is a great power in this and inasmuch as we remain true to it this power will continue to grow and Amida-shu will become a beacon reflecting Nyorai’s light into this world. This is not by our doing, but our trust, gratitude and willingness play an essential part.
If we continually return to gratitude, as many of us do, beginning in that spirit anew every day, then we will be spiritually safe and, even more important, useful. Now the Amida Order has budded and blossomed into a second convocation and the Amida School continues to attract new seekers after truth. Let us welcome them. Truth, however, is true whether we as a group are growing or shrinking, triumphing or licking wounds. There will always be downs and ups from a worldly perspective, but in the great light of Amida the Pure Land is perfectly level. Let us take joy in the spread of the Dharma community. Let us take even greater joy as the true implication of living as such a community comes home to more and more people. To be uplifted by this realisation of the Dharma is a rapture beyond compare. This is a great joy. It is wonderful when people make an outward public declaration of their faith. It is, however, the faith itself that really matters and that is for all time and through all vicissitudes of circumstance. Are we not collectively led by Nyorai and is it not his wish that love, beauty and truth prevail in this world?
In the Tathagata
of Unimpeded Light
Through ten thousand million worlds
I take refuge.
Namo Amida Bu
26 December 2006