The author has spent many years in China as a ‘bridge builder’, that is, being a bridge between East and West and introducing Pure Land Buddhism to a Western audience. He has watched many people come off the small bus bringing them from Lin’an to our small rural temple from their three-hour journey from Shanghai. He has observed the furrows in their brow, the line of stress in the wake of the hectic and seeming insane life of the mega-metropolis. He sees them look about themselves as they begin to drink in the silence and backdrop of mountains. He sees their deep need to relax. Very quickly into the retreat, many participants ask what they need to do to be a Pure Land Practitioner. The first thing told to them is “relax, trust and thank.” These are actions, verbs, doing-words, not dogmas or doctrines.
Now some may become shocked at reading this. Please don’t have the wrong idea; it is not that doctrines and dogmas are not important. What is more important is that the newcomer to Pure Land Buddhism learns how to relax in the warmth of Amida Buddha.
We live in a highly stressful society amidst many constant fears. Many commercial entities make money from highlighting our fears with promises of a better life or better looks if we would only buy their products or services. Governments feed fear into us as a way of attracting votes. Bosses often use fear a motivator to make their employees work harder and longer. Buddhism on the other hand is a way of life that brings freedom and a mind which is joyful and confident free from fear. However, we often bring residual societal fear into our own cultivation and forget to relax. In the Meditation Sutra the Buddha speaks comforting words to Queen Vaidehi: “Amida Buddha is not apart from you.” There is no separation. These are relaxing words. The realization of the presence of Amida Buddha is not something we do totally by our own efforts. The presence of Amida will come upon us of its own accord. Amida is always in us and with us. It is only by means of our own limited human understanding that we place him outside of ourselves, then struggle and strain again and to do all in our power to take hold of him again. It is only when we revert to our simple nature, when we give up the struggle with all its selfishness that Amida’s presence makes itself known. “You will see the Pure Land and its happy things by the power of the Buddha, just as you see your own figure in a clear mirror.” Again these words of the Buddha from the Meditation Sutra are relaxing words. It is through the Vow power of Amida Buddha that we are able to see him. Looking at ourselves in a mirror is a natural thing. Seeing our reflection is simple and natural.
This relaxation must permeate throughout all our relationships. Relaxation does not mean that we are slack and inattentive to what is necessary. It means we allow the naturalness of nature to be present. When a friend is struggling and stressed it is not necessary to give him a long Dharma lecture on karma. We do what comes so naturally. We listen. Perhaps we pour a cup of tea, invite our friend to sit and relax while we open the ears of our heart to him in deep and compassionate listening, and then, after he has been able to be embraced by the depth of listening we may be able to guide him gently with how the Dharma may help. There is a Jodo Shinshu (Japanese Pure Land) story in the Kudensho, the Notes on Oral Teachings of Shinran. In it, Shinran said that if someone loses a loved one and comes to you in distress, you should not get on your high horse. Instead, Shinran said that you should briefly teach them the Dharma, then get them drunk. So you drink with them, and when they can smile and forget their pain for a little while, you leave them be.
I am not sure of the historical accuracy of this story, nor would I suggest this method. However, I think it points out the spirit and essence in which our compassion is acted out in the spirit of relaxed friendship. Further, Pure Land does not remove us from the everyday world but helps us live and flow in the world in a way that embraces our togetherness and interconnection with all. Our stance must be one of relaxation in the midst of life’s tensions, the naturalness of Amida’s presence in all things. The author found himself recently going into an office in Shanghai. He was running a little late and in his rush came to the glass door to the entry of the office and began to push open the door. He pushed and pushed in an effort to get inside. Then he looked down at the sign “PULL”. He felt a little foolish. He reflected later on this and found this is similar to our inner life. We so often struggle and push on the door of Awakening without really being aware of what we are doing.
Secondly, we must trust. Trust is an integral part of the tripod of Pure Land Buddhism. In the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra the Buddha exhorts us: “Stand firm in your faith, without any doubts”. Many of us have flown in airplanes to various destinations. Most often we get on board, attach our seat belts and prepare for take-off without even the slightest thought of mistrust in the skills of the pilots. We place all our trust in them to defy the laws of gravity and bring us miles above the earth to our destination. In the same way we need to trust the vows of Amida that he will bring us safely to the Pure Land. One of the reasons why so many do not succeed in finding fruits in Pure Land practice is that many do not trust the method and are overcome by doubts. Another reason is that of the failure to observe outcomes. This is crucial. The author in the early days of his practice was working in the mental health sector in Australia. He had a very responsible and often challenging role of managing a region of respite facilities. One morning his administration assistant came to him and asked: “Why is it that you always seem so calm and relaxed in situation where everyone else is under stress?” This question took him by surprise as in the past he did not cope well in stressful situations but now it seemed evident something had changed. He put it down to his continual efforts in practice. Without the administration assistant’s comment he may not have noticed this change.
It was mentioned that this is crucial as observing the outcomes is a vital part of the learning chain. Without that our motivation will flag and we will most often crumble under the impression that nothing is happening. Amida Buddha grants us a wonderful destiny. The destiny is only reached through the learning chain:
Will – Desire to Change -> Learning -> Practice -> Observing Outcomes = faith/trust -> Develops motivation -> Increases discipline -> Strengthens will -> Develops character -> Creates Destiny
Amida is not just some abstract idea or distant Buddha. Amida is our closest friend as his nature is deeply part of our own nature. Aren’t all close friends deserving of our trust?
Thirdly there is the need to thank. Being thankful and showing gratitude is an important part of our journey. In fact, I feel it is the secret ingredient to a rich and meaningful life. It is easy to take things for granted without taking the time to acknowledge the web of connections that support each and every one of us. There is no such thing as total isolation or independence. We are intricately connected to the entire universe. As I tap the keyboard of this computer I can be thankful of the people who made it, to the person who donated it, those who work in the Electricity Grid to supply the power. But it is easy to forget.
Life is essentially about two things; the Gift and the Obstruction to the Gift. For there to be a gift there has to be a giver and a receiver. With regards to our cultivation we receive the wonderful gift of the Dharma from the Buddha and we are deeply thankful. The deep gratitude prompts us to in turn be a giver as we hand on the gift of Life to others. One of the most beautiful gifts we all have is the gift of being reborn human as it is as human that we have every opportunity to cultivate the dharma and end the crazy not-so-merry-go-round of re-birth and death. Amida gave an extraordinary gift in his great Vow. When we are able to see the gift of all things in life, yes, even those most distressful things then we have learnt the secret of life. In that moment in our meditation when Amida and meditator become one, it is in that moment that each has sacrificed some part of each other so that union can take place. Each has given to the other so that there is no longer any line between giver and receiver. There remains only the gift of life – Immeasurable Life. The only obstruction to this moment of beauty is the Ego-Self. Yet, even that is a gift; for in recognizing it we are able then to do something about it. What a gift!