Ajahn Brahm: The Pure Land is Here & Now

This is one of my favorite talks from Ajahn Brahm:

Ajahn Brahm explains that, like in the Vimalakirti Sutra, our world is already a Pure Land, depending on our outlook of life. It depends on us to make the best of this precious human birth, creating peace for ourselves and each other.

The Buddha said, "Sariputra, this buddha-field is always thus pure, but the Tathagata makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of the inferior living beings. For example, Sariputra, the gods of the Trayastrimsa heaven all take their food from a single precious vessel, yet the nectar which nourishes each one differs according to the differences of the merits each has accumulated. Just so, Sariputra, living beings born in the same buddha-field see the splendor of the virtues of the buddha-fields of the Buddhas according to their own degrees of purity."
http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Reln260/Vimalakirti.htm

6 Likes

While the Buddhist Churches of America is of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, it allows members the freedom to find their own interpretations and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

I have never seen or experienced a priest or representative of the BCA say anything negative about reciting the Nembutsu with a Zen/Ch’an interpretation in mind.

I can therefore feel comfortable in the BCA, as far as English-speaking Buddhist organizations in the United States go. I am very thankful for having the BCA in my life the last two and a half years.

I am currently reading Pure-land Zen, Zen Pure-land by Ch’an (Zen) master Yin Kuang. Like Nagarjuna, he makes the distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth:

At the conventional level, Amida is a literal Buddha and the Pure Land is a literal place billions of Buddha-lands to the West. At the ultimate level, Yin Kuang says Amida is the Buddha-nature in all things, including our own Buddha-nature, and the Pure Land is here and now.

He also warns that, if the Pure Land is mind-only, it is not an excuse to neglect our practice of reciting Amida’s name. This is because, for most people, he says Pure Land practice is the only realistic way to attain Buddhahood.

1 Like

I used to go regularly to the Buddhist Church of Canada in Toronto. Looking at the website, and the website of the Buddhist Church of America, it seems they are the same organization in different countries. It is a wonderful and very welcoming organization. I never felt awkward attending a meeting there, and I’m a very shy person, so it is quite easy for me to feel awkward in X or Y space.

This may be only true of the Toronto branch, I really don’t know, but you can actually do any practice you want while acting as a general congregant who is part of the community. The group activities centre around nembutsu, but they are not “nembutsu-only fundamentalists” or anything like that.

3 Likes

You are correct. The central practice of Jodo Shinshu is the Nembutsu, but auxiliary practices are optional (not required).

This is Alan Watts writing about the Nembutsu and Jodo Shinshu:

Popularly, Amitabha is somebody else. He is some great compassionate being who looks after you. Esoterically, Amitabha is your own nature; Amitabha is your real self, the inmost boundless light that is the root and ground of your own consciousness.
You don’t need to do anything to be that. You are that, and saying Nembutsu (NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU) is simply a symbolical way of pointing out that you don’t have to become this, because you are it.
And Nembutsu, therefore, in its deeper side builds up a special kind of sage, which they called myoko-nin. Myoko-nin in Japanese means “a marvelous fine man,” but the myoko-nin is a special type of personality who corresponds in the West to the holy fool in Russian spirituality, or to something like the Franciscan in Catholic spirituality. I will tell you some myoko-nin stories because that is the best way to indicate their character.
One day a myoko-nin was traveling and he stopped in a Buddhist temple overnight. He went up to the sanctuary where they have big cushions for the priests to sit on, and he arranged the cushions in a pile on the floor and went to sleep on them. In the morning the priest came in and saw the tramp sleeping and said, “What are you doing here desecrating the sanctuary by sleeping on the cushions and so on, right in front of the altar?” And the myoko-nin looked at him in astonishment and said, “Why, you must be a stranger here, you can’t belong to the family.”
In Japanese, when you want to say that a thing is just the way it is, you call it sonomama. There is a haiku poem that says, “Weeds in the rice field, cut them down, sonomama, fertilizer.” Cut the weeds, leave them exactly where they are, and they become fertilizer, or sonomama. And sonomama means “reality,” “just the way it is,” “just like that.“
Now, there is a parallel expression, konomama. Konomama means "I, just as I am.” just little me, like that, with no frills, no pretense, except that I naturally have some pretense. That is part of konomama. The myoko-nin is the man who realizes that “I, konomama-just as I am-am Buddha, delivered by Amitabha because Amitabha is my real nature."
If you really know that, that makes you a myoko-nin, but be aware of the fact that you could entirely miss the point and become a monkey instead by saying, "I’m all right just as I am, and therefore I’m going to rub it in-I’m going to be going around parading my unregenerate nature, because this is Buddha, too.” The fellow who does that doesn’t really know that it’s okay. He’s doing too much, and he is coming on too strong. The other people, who are always beating themselves, are making the opposite error.
The Middle Way, right down the center, is where you don’t have to do a thing to justify yourself, and you don’t have to justify not justifying yourself. So, there is something quite fascinating and tricky in this doctrine of the great bodhisattva Amitabha, who saves you just as you are, who delivers you from bondage just as you are.
You only have to say “NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU.“
https://terebess.hu/english/watts5.html

2 Likes

For almost the last three years, I’ve been part of the Jodo Shinshu tradition of Japanese Buddhism, though my interpretations of Shinshu teaching aren’t always ‘orthodox,’ as I’m also influenced by Ch’an/Zen.

I recite the Nembutsu, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU, the name of Amida Buddha, with the understanding that our true nature and Amida’s are ultimately the same:

The Mahayana tradition strongly emphasizes that every sentient being has buddha-nature (Skt. buddhata, Jp. bussho). We have buddha-nature within ourselves. A buddha and an ordinary person are ultimately the same by nature, the same ontologically. The only difference is the degree of apprehension of truth. A buddha has attained perfect wisdom, but we sentient beings have not yet attained it. That is, a buddha and an ordinary person differ from each other epistemologically.
http://www.jodo.org/about_plb/what_plb.html

In terms of practice, I am in line with traditional Shinshu practice, but I also voluntarily observe the five precepts, including vegetarianism and abstaining from intoxicants.

I don’t attempt any complex visualization practices other than maybe thinking of an image of Amida Buddha while reciting the Nembutsu. Sometimes, as they do in Zen, I also imagine my body as the body of the Buddha.

The nenju beads in a loop represent that all beings are interconnected in the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. Unlike a rosary, the beads are not for counting, since there is no set number of Nembutsus to recite.

One’s recitation of the Nembutsu is free and spontaneous, and need not be especially focused or concentrated. If Amida is already our true nature, it need not be forced.

It is sort of like the Taoist concept of naturalness. We simply relax in gratitude, letting the Nembutsu do its work in our life. In reciting Amida’s name, we awaken to our True Self.

The Buddha’s last words were to be a lamp unto yourself, seeking no external refuge. How do we square this with the Nembutsu, since Namu-Amida-Butsu means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”?

The name Amida means “boundless light.” Amida, rather than an external refuge, is the boundless light of our own Buddha-nature. In reciting the Nembutsu, we awaken to the True Self, the lamp within.

Rather than a literal flesh and blood man who attained Buddhahood ten kalpas ago, billions of Buddha-lands to the west, Amida is Dharma-body itself, the Buddha-nature in all things and beings.

1 Like

While Zen is more well-known in the West, Jodo Shinshu is the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan. This sect was founded by Shinran Shonin, the most well-loved religious figure in Japanese history, who left the monastic life to marry and have children.

Unlike other Buddhist sects, Jodo Shinshu doesn’t require abstinence from meat and alcohol. Ascetic practices are unnecessary (optional) if we are already Amida Buddha in our true nature. Reciting the Nembutsu is a way of acknowledging and awakening to our innately enlightened true self.

It’s not discouraged in Jodo Shinshu to be vegetarian or abstain from alcohol. It’s just that Jodo Shinshu was one of the first Buddhist sects to accept people who had to kill meat to earn a living, like hunters and fishermen.

Another thing is that many people aren’t able to follow the traditional prohibition of intoxicants because they’re chronically addicted, no matter how many times they try to stop. Jodo Shinshu gave these people a path to enlightenment as well.

In its popular form, i.e., for ordinary practitioners in this spiritually Degenerate Age, some twenty-six centuries after the demise of the historical Buddha, Pure Land involves seeking rebirth in the Land of Amitabha Buddha…

Thus, at the popular level, the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is an ideal training ground, an ideal environment where the practitioner is reborn thanks both to his own efforts and the power of Amitabha Buddha’s vows…

At the advanced level, i.e., for cultivators of high spiritual capacity, the Pure Land method, like other methods, reverts the ordinary, deluded mind to the Self-Nature
True Mind. In the process, wisdom and Buddhahood are eventually attained…

This high-level form of Pure Land is practiced by those of deep spiritual capacities: “When the mind is pure, the Buddha land is also pure. To recite the Buddha’s name is to recite the Mind.” Thus, at the advanced level, Pure Land is Zen, Zen is Pure Land.
https://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/yin_kuang.pdf

As a Buddhist, I neither affirm nor negate the existence of Amida as a literal being, sitting on a lotus flower billions of Buddha-lands away. This is from the Vimalakirti Sutra:

He makes offerings to the immeasurable koṭis
Of Tathāgatas throughout the ten directions,
Without having any thought of discriminating
Between the buddhas and himself.
https://www.wisdomlib.org/buddhism/book/the-vimalakīrti-sutra/d/doc59378.html

From an ultimate perspective, the relationship between Amida and ourselves is non-duality. As it says in Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho, “There is no Buddha apart from the mind.”

Please keep in mind that all this talk of Amida being our true nature is empty if one doesn’t recite the Nembutsu:

It is precisely because of the Self-Nature Amitabha that the practitioner must recite the name of Buddha Amitabha of the West seeking rebirth in the Pure Land – so as to achieve the Self-Nature Amitabha through gradual cultivation. If he merely grasps at the Self-Nature Amitabha but does not recite the name of Buddha Amitabha of the West, he cannot achieve immediate escape from birth and death – not even if he is truly awakened, much less if (like most people who ask this question) he is pretentious and just indulges in empty talk without engaging in practice.
https://purelanders.com/2011/12/11/mind-only-pure-land-self-nature-amitabha-western-pure-land-amitabha-buddha/

I will soon be reading The Lankavatara Sutra. This sutra is famous for saying that all things are mind-only, that Buddhist practice is for the purpose of awakening to our Buddha-nature, and that all Buddhist teachings are a finger pointing to the moon of enlightenment, rather than ultimate truths in and of themselves.

The Lankavatara Sutra has been influential on the Ch’an/Zen understanding of Pure Land practice, that the Pure Land is mind-only, that the purpose of reciting the Buddha-name is to awaken the Buddha within, and that Amida Buddha is a finger pointing to the moon of enlightenment, rather than an external being:

As the foolish see the finger pointing at the moon,
contemplating the finger and not contemplating the moon,
those attached to names and words,
do not see see my Truth.
https://moonpointer.com/new/2013/09/moon-finger/

Amida Buddha is not a theistic god. In reciting the name of Amida Buddha, and bowing to his statue on the altar, we seek to realize Amida as our true Buddha-self:

So the question becomes, “what does the statue of Buddha represent?” Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, so, by definition, idolatry can’t be an issue here.
In Zen, we usually say that we are bowing to our own Buddha Nature, that higher aspect of ourselves which we have in common with all other beings.
When we bow, we are reminding ourselves of our inborn enlightenment, which our greed, hate, and delusion keep us from realizing, and making a renewed commitment to become what we truly are.
http://www.chzc.org/bowing.htm

1 Like

In terms of whether the Pure Land is after death or here and now, these words of the Buddha are helpful:

‘With his heart thus unhostile and unafflicted by ill will, thus
undefiled and unified, a noble disciple here and now acquires these
four comforts. He thinks: ‘If there is another world and there is fruit
and ripening of actions well done and ill done, then it is possible that
on the dissolution of the body, after death, I might be reborn in a
heavenly world.’ This is the first comfort acquired. 'But if there is no
other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done
and ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility,
affliction and anxiety, and I shall live happily.’
https://books.google.com/books?id=7AO9OLr2oJEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Seeking to live in the Pure Land here and now, through the dual practice of Ch’an (Zen) and Pure Land, need not deny the existence of a Pure Land after death.

Yet if our true nature is the same as Amida Buddha’s, then we can here and now be free from hostility, affliction and anxiety through the mindful recitation of Amida’s name.

1 Like

Thank you very much for this information. Helps me understand something different than this life’s experience (so far!) and lays to rest a worry. May all beings achieve liberation, and in the meantime cultivate peace and happiness for all.

1 Like

You’re welcome.

2 Likes

The name Amida means “boundless light.” This is because, archetypally, Amida is the originally pure or luminous nature of the mind, before it became tainted by the Three Poisons of passion, aversion, and delusion:

This luminous mind is also referred to as Buddha-nature, which is every being’s innate potential for enlightenment. In reciting the name, Namu-Amida-Butsu, we are calling forth the primally radiant nature of our mind:

“Luminous, monks, is the mind.[1] And it is defiled by incoming defilements.” {I,v,9}
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements.” {I,v,10}
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind.” {I,vi,1}
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind.”
Pabhassara Sutta: Luminous

Of all Buddhist practices, the Nembutsu is most suited for ordinary people, who can’t follow the rigorous discipline of monks and nuns. This is important to remember.

In the words of Shinran, “Since the Name is devised to be easily recited by the unlettered who cannot even grasp the basic meaning of the scriptures and commentaries, such utterance is called effortless practice.”

If we are, in our own Buddha-nature, Amida Buddha just as we are, then reciting the Name, Namu-Amida-Butsu, is a natural expression of our original enlightenment.

Amitabha is the most commonly used name for the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life. A transhistorical Buddha venerated by all Mahayana schools (T’ien T’ai, Esoteric, Zen …) and, particularly, Pure Land.
Presides over the Western Pure Land (Land of Ultimate Bliss), where anyone can be reborn through utterly sincere recitation of His name, particularly at the time of death.

Amitabha Buddha at the highest or noumenon level represents the True Mind (Buddha-nature), the Self-Nature common to the Buddhas and sentient beings –
all-encompassing and all-inclusive.
This deeper understanding provides the rationale for the harmonization of Zen and Pure Land, two of the most popular schools of Mahayana Buddhism.
About Us | Young Men's Buddhist Association of America

Zen Buddhism traditionally recognizes two kinds of enlightenment, small enlightenment and big enlightenment. Small enlightenment is called kensho, the sudden flash of insight which allows us to see into our own Buddha-nature.

Big enlightenment is the full perfection of a Buddha, which must be cultivated after the experience of kensho. It is extremely rare for a Zen monk to attain the perfection of a Buddha after the initial experience of kensho.

I once asked a Rinzai Zen monk if one can attain Buddhahood, in this lifetime, through recitation of the Nembutsu alone, without needing to wait for rebirth in the Pure Land. The monk said it was unlikely to happen, given the extreme work it takes for even a Zen monk to attain Buddhahood.

However, the Zen monk said a Nembutsu practitioner can experience kensho or small enlightenment through reciting the Nembutsu, with the understanding that the Buddha-nature within is ultimately the same as Amida Buddha’s.