It was Wednesday morning and I had travelled by bus to the town of Yu Qian China 25 minutes from the town of Zaoxi here our temple is located in order to do some shopping for the temple.
The streets were alive with people on this early summer morning with the temperature beginning to rocket like a New Year firework and humidity drenching my body. Street vendors were announcing their wares in raucous voices. Suddenly I spotted Mrs Zhang amidst the faces. Hands together she beamed a refreshing smile, bowed her head with a gentle“Amituofo” and invited me back to her house for tea and Waxberries. How could I resist?
Mrs Zhang, a devotee of our temple, organizes a small Way House comprising part of her home in the middle of the town. She is Amidha ren, or Pure Land practitioner. Chinese Pure Land Buddhism took shape in China about 402 CE under the monk and first patriarch Hui Yuan and is now one of the major schools of Buddhism in China. The Way House comprises of a most beautiful small chanting hall, an upstairs temple dedicated to Amidha Buddha and bedrooms for those wanting to stay overnight.
As I entered the front gate I found myself beside a large lotus pond, home to many turtles and gold fish. Mrs Zhang offered aromatic local green tea which we quietly sipped in the cool of the shady trees within the courtyard. Such Way Houses dedicated to Amidha Buddha are steadily growing in China driven by lay people coming together to chant, inspire and encourage each other in their Buddhist journey travelling a road less travelled in the haste and bustle of business in the cities. I certainly found a piece of Pure Land in Mrs Zhang’s home that hot summer morning.
In the Sutra of Visualizing the Buddha of Immeasurable Length of Life, Queen Vaidehi and her husband king are destined to die in prison. When the Lord Buddha comes to her she asks him a seemingly relevant question: “What is the wrong I must have committed in my previous lives to have such an unfilial son (who has wrongly imprisoned us)? We can perhaps think of times when we have asked ourselves similar questions: “What have I done to deserve this?” Such questions focus on the past. No answer was going to be of any comfort to Queen Vaidehi in the terrible situation she was in. The past was, in this instant, irrelevant. Lord Buddha does not answer her question. The queen then asks the Buddha to teach her how to see a “place of pure karma.” Aren’t there times in our own struggles with life we wish we could be somewhere else and dream of being there? However, what the Buddha was about to teach her as not just some practice to Visualize the Pure Land but rather a method to bring her slap bang into the present experience. “Do you know, Vaidehi, that Amidha Buddha is not apart from you?” Pure Land is a present reality. Pure Land is but one breath away. It is not some sort of utopia dream. It is potential reality awaiting our minds to discover it. It is a discovery waiting to be made.
Traditional Chinese Pure Land Buddhism has many methods to train the mind to one pointed concentration – Buddha Name recitation, chanting of mantras, as well as esoteric meditation. As we begin to still the mind and focus purely upon Amidha Buddha something gradually begins to happen to our life. It is not spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It is the law of cause and effect. What we plant is what we get.
Queens Vaidehi and her husband king were able to attain Samadhi in prison. The notions of prison and Samadhi seem like oceans apart. All we need to do is examine the prisons of our own life and realize that it is possible to transcend our suffering. Queen Vaidehi and the King Bimbisara both most likely died in prison. Buddha did not promise that life’s struggles would disappear. He did, however, teach us a way in which we can change our relationship with life’s struggles, transcending them, and live a deeply contented and supremely happy life in spite of them. “Although he (the King) was in prison, his mind was free and undisturbed.”
A turtle raised its head as it rested on the rocks in Mrs Zhang’s lotus pond unperturbed by our presence. Amidst the chaos, commerce, push and shove to gain a piece of the economic pie of the new China rests Mrs Zhang’s garden and Way House. I am reminded that Pure Land is in my midst. Right Now.
Just one breath away.
Just one breath away.