Pastoral Letter of 9th October 2007
My last pastoral letter focussed primarily upon the fact that our sangha mission seemed to be at a liminal point as we noticed that we are being drawn into a phase of growth and outreach. This prediction has been confirmed by the sequence of events over the six months since that letter was written. Our community at Narborough has grown during this period continuing a trend that started some time previously. Not everything goes perfectly, but we are clearly in a period of rising energy and, what is more important, deepening faith and practice. While what a Pureland Sangha offers may not be immediately popular due to the fact that it does not chime with current fashions either in popular spirituality or secular rationalism, those who take the opportunity to examine what it offers may be impressed with the seriousness and the spirit of love that they find in a communion springing from the earliest traditions of Buddhism and led by Amida’s grace.
I am conscious, therefore, that it is important at a time when we are experiencing what could be considered to be worldly success that we not fall into worldly mind. It is in the nature of samsara that things fall and rise, rise and fall, and the correct Dharma attitude is to just say, “Oh, that’s interesting” and then go back to getting on with the spiritual life, for it is the quality of that life that matters, not the measurement of the worldly tokens of it. Ideally, we do not take credit, but rather “immediately transfer the merit”. “Immediately” means without deducting some credit for ourselves. “Merit” means happiness of heart. “Transfer” means that we see that whatever happens through the medium of our efforts is, in fact, a direct gift from Amida Buddha to all sentient beings wandering and adrift who are in need of proximate and ultimate refuge from the many spiritual dangers that they find themselves in. None of this, however, means that we should not rejoice to see how fruitful Amida’s work may be nor that we do not experience inspiration and uplift together from sensing how we are becoming part of a movement of grace much bigger than ourselves. Of course, these are ideals and we continually fall short of them, but to understand the principle is certainly helpful, especially at this time when there is a certain dispiriting vogue in the secular world for absolutist atheism and a corresponding danger that Buddhism will be stripped of its essential glory and be reduced to a set of self-improvement exercises. The term “secular Buddhism” is already commonly encountered.
What is important at a time like this is not for us to rely upon our own strength, but to entrust ourselves more completely to our source of inspiration. The quality of the presence in what we do will be far more powerful than the mere amassing of things done, and, in fact, if that presence is apparent, it is likely that at the end of the day we will find that in any case more has actually been done, for worldly concern is a rather self-defeating thing.
This autumn, at The Buddhist House, we began our studies with some reflection upon Vasubandhu’s five practices. Vasubandhu lived in the 4th century of the common era. The five are to worship the Buddha with actions of body; to praise and celebrate the Buddha with actions of voice and thought; to enter into the Buddha’s peace in one’s heart through making vows or prayer; to contemplate the Buddha and the Buddha Land; and to transfer the merit. These practices were advocated by Vasubandhu in his Treatise on Entering the Pure Land and they were selected by Honen Shonin as a key element in the development of the Pureland tradition.
Shan Tao, who lived three hundred years after Vasubandhu, taught that each of these five practices has a “formal” and a “dispersed” aspect. Thus “worship” means such bodily acts as making prostrations on the one hand and all physical work of service to sentient beings on the other. “Praise” means reciting sutras and also all acts of right speech in daily life. “Prayer”, in Buddhism, refers to making offerings and keeping vows, both formally as in our daily recitation of the bodhisattva vow, and informally in the sincerity with which we make our faith the core of our everyday life. “Contemplation” means both renewing our vision through our daily liturgy and letting ourselves be carried by that vision throughout all that we do. “Transference” means declaring together our dedication of merit to others and also living daily a spirit of concern and service. All these are conducive to anjin – the peace of a faithful heart.
In the Five Practices we see how the spiritual life for a Pureland Buddhist is a cycle of deepening and dedicating. All our acts, formal and dispersed, can be vehicles for our life of pilgrimage toward, through and beyond the Land of Bliss, and out of this comes something wonderful to be given away. In the Treatise, Vasubandhu likens the five practices to approaching and entering a great house, penetrating to the innermost chamber and then coming out at the back to play in the garden. The approach and entry represents the activity of the devotee. Penetration to the inner chamber represents entering into the presence of Amida Nyorai and the assembly of bodhisattvas. The play in the garden, or transference of merit, represents the activity of the bodhisattva in the world.
Beholding these profound teachings my cheeks are wet with tears of awe. I see the spiritual life of our sangha as a matter of the utmost importance. Our ordained brothers and sisters have a busy life, but it is important that this does not degenerate into a life of business. What we offer to the world is the peace that flows from hearts open to the Buddha’s grace. In the early days of the sangha this has not been too difficult to maintain in spirit even if it has sometimes been exceedingly difficult to accomplish in form, so pressed is a new community, because a pioneering group has a certain natural zest and enthusiasm. Now that we are becoming more established, however, we need to take special care that there is no decay in the spiritual core of our community but rather further growth. I see how very important it is for us to think about our practice in the right way and to keep ourselves alive as a community wholly centred on faith. Without that we are nothing irrespective of what worldly achievement there may be.
In the December 2006 issue of the periodical The Pure Land, which is the organ of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies, there is published the records of a debate within the Jodoshin school about whether the practice of meditation should be included in the activities of their temples. The background to this issue is, briefly, that in Japan Jodoshin-shu is a form of Pureland Buddhism that places such complete emphasis upon faith in Amida Buddha and upon Other Power that they eschew both the precepts and the practice of meditation, but in North America where there are many Jodoshin-shu churches, Buddhism has become almost synonymous with meditation practice, unlike in Asia where meditation is not so common, and it has become difficult for Jodoshin ministers in North America to present their faith as a legitimate form of Buddhism given that most Americans think that Buddhism is meditation and Jodoshin does not do it. The position that the North American branch of Jodoshin-shu, called Buddhist Churches of America, seems to be moving toward is that of granting meditation the status of a preliminary practice, which is to say, a practice that prepares the mind of the newcomer to receive the core teaching of nembutsu and shinjin. In this way they can cater for the taste of the ambient culture.
The solution to this question in Amida-shu is likely to take a slightly different form in accordance with principles that we have already long established. In Amida-shu the precepts are auxiliary rather than preliminary practices. Strictly speaking there are no preliminary practices in Amida-shu. Although the seven practices contained in the Seven Limb Prayer – prostrations, offerings, contrition, rejoicing, requesting the Buddhas to remain, requesting teachings, and transferring merit – are loosely called preliminary in deference to their being so termed in the Tibetan traditions, strictly speaking, from an Amida-shu perspective, they are auxiliary practices. The distinction between the assured practice, which is nembutsu, and auxiliary practices, was established by Honen Shonin in conjunction with the principle of senchaku. Senchaku means selection, specifically selection of the nembutsu as one’s core practice and of faith in Amida Nyorai as the pivot of one’s life orientation. The Shonin’s point is that such practices are not preliminary to nembutsu, but rather come after.
Once one has established nembutsu faith at the core of one’s spiritual life, all other practices become supportive to it and, indeed, become forms of nembutsu. Until one has done so, (or made some equivalent move within another faith paradigm) such practices remain worldly undertakings. One might do meditation for the good of one’s health or to calm the mind, but this is still a worldly activity. One might keep the precepts in order to accumulate personal merit or to be well thought of or just out of a personal satisfaction in discipline, but this too is all still worldly activity, strictly speaking. Even good works carried out in a purely rationalist secular manner are seen, in this context, to be of little long term value if they are not animated by a spirit that lifts them out of mere “welfare industry” into the sphere of love and trust. We may go so far as to say that most actual religious practice is probably one form or another of what the Rimpoche Chogyam Trungpa used to call spiritual materialism, in our own school as much as in any other. This principle applies equally to all the five practices, the seven practices, and to any other way that one might like to order or structure one’s spiritual life.
However, once one has put the nembutsu at the centre of one’s life, all these activities and many others besides are transformed into auxiliary acts supportive to the faith of oneself and others. I have often said that the most important precept among all the precepts that we take as ordained members of the sangha is that which enjoins us to do nothing to destroy the faith of others. Ethical action is, for the nembutsu-sha, an expression of and an encouragement to faith. The contemplative activities that are these days often classified as meditation can also be similarly expressive of faith. The important thing in the debate over meditation, therefore, is not whether we as a school do or do not sanction the practice of meditation, but rather whether or not the practices that we do are expressions of our nembutsu faith, whatever actual form they may take.
This has practical implication in terms of the kinds of contemplation that we do. To recite the nembutsu is itself a form of contemplation; indeed it encompasses all the five practices. To do nei quan, reflecting upon one’s bombu nature, is a deepening of the “Namo” and corresponds to Vasubandhu’s category “contemplation”. To do chih quan, offering all to Amida and receiving the grace of Nyorai’s light into the heart of one’s being, is a deepening of the “Amida Bu” and corresponds to Vasubandhu’s category “prayer”. These spiritual exercises are clearly auxiliary acts. Similarly, any form of rapture focussed upon one’s devotion to Nyorai is also an apparent form of “nien fo with body, speech and mind.” Meditative techniques focussed upon the breathing or body postures are less likely to fall into this category, but there is nobody who can say definitively that any practice cannot in some circumstance be so, for what matters is what is in the heart of the practitioner rather than the exact form of the practice undertaken. In any case, nembutsu is the core and lynchpin of our faith and practice and everything else that we might undertake flows from that single point. As Pureland Buddhists we are devotees. As devotees we give time and attention to devotion. This means both that all the little things that we do are shot through with the spirit of devotion and also that there are special times of greater intensity for worship, praise, prayer, contemplation and transference: special times daily, weekly and annually – times for services and times for short and longer retreats; times for being carried away, transported out of self and into a greater light.
When we carefully reflect upon the early descriptions of dhyana in the Buddhist texts we find that the first dhyana is an exercise in which a thought is planted in the mind, like a seed, and this thought can be of any wholesome or holy matter, but, in the best established meditation manuals from a variety of Buddhist schools, the most efficacious seed is the thought of Buddha. This is precisely the practice of the Pureland School. The second and subsequent dhyanas are states of rapture arising from the natural joy that flows when a devotee so contemplates the Beloved. These dhyanas entrain successively joy, bliss, and finally equanimity. Now Shakyamuni himself says that these states are not enlightenment, which is a condition of self-effacement, but rather are they joyful and peaceful abidings proper to those who practise with a faithful heart. In other words, they are not to be regarded as “means to attaining” but rather as natural, right and proper blessings for those who have entered the path to enjoy. I venture to say that what is being described here is the rapture of worship and devotion that is entirely proper to the Pureland spirit and is far away from any kind of technique of mind control. When the Shonin says that nembutsu is not a form of meditation, what he is warning against is the reduction of spiritual practice to a self-development technique. He is not opposed to devotees entering states of beatific communion with the Beloved or sublime reflection upon the Realm of Bliss.
The Pureland tradition derives from the very beginnings of Buddhism, firstly from the ecstasy that Shakyamuni revealed to Ananda Sonja, as recorded in the Larger Sutra, and also to Vaidehi in the Contemplation Sutra, through exposure to the domain of Amida Tathagata, and secondly from the expression of grief by the “unenlightened” (bombu) members of the sangha, including Ananda, at the time of Shakyamuni’s decease, as recorded in the Mahaparinirvana. We are, therefore, the Buddhism of spiritual passion in all its forms. This passion is expressed through the thousand forms of nembutsu and these include entry into states of rapture, whether through silence and stillness or through dance and song. This makes Pureland a fully human and inclusive spirituality within which the whole bhakti tradition is incorporated.
All in all, therefore, this letter is a call for us to ground our actions in love and faith, to not neglect the forms that sustain our spiritual life, yet, at the same time, to appreciate that it is the spirit that matters, for the spirit points us beyond the forms. Our wonderful practice of nembutsu in all its forms is the expression of “always going beyond”, thus giving adequate expression to the gratitude that we feel for the immense love and trust that the Buddha has for us. At this time when we are seeing many signs of the Light in our midst it becomes doubly important that our activity stand upon that ground and that we have a care to ensure that we nourish one another’s faith and practice and guard against worldly mind creeping in, for we are all weak and can so easily slide into mistakes and old habits even within the innermost sanctuaries of our sangha life together. This is also, therefore, a call for creativity, freshness and humanity in spiritual practice. If the heart is right, you can do anything. There is no action or practice that by its form alone will yield salvation, but only by right intention is an action made truly Buddhist. A nembutsu is nembutsu if and only if it is truly intended so, and an act of loving spiritual care is itself nembutsu for love is synonymous with such intention.