Yes, Pure Land is Buddhism

By Rev. Patti Nakai

 … my Japanese college buddy Jun…took me to a Pure Land Buddhist temple in Chicago. …I asked the head monk at one point how I should understand the Pure Land pursuit of heavenly paradise and Amitabha (the deification of Buddha) when the original teachings of the Buddha seemed so different.

… Then he offered in a soft voice, “Well, my friend, how does the butterfly understand its movement from one flower to the next?” This was followed by a long silence, and I nodded my head slowly, taking in the morsel of enigmatic deep wisdom. Then my friend Jun rolled his eyes and demanded of the monk, “What the hell does that mean?”

:: p. 168 The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma (San Francisco: Harper, 2005)

I’m with Jun! When I met Dr. Asma when we were part of the discussion on Buddhism for the Milt Rosenberg show on WGN-Radio, I found out from him that passage from his book described his first visit to our temple. I assured him that the snow-job minister was no longer at our temple and I invited him to speak at our Bodhi Day service. He must have been more positively impressed because I heard he started referring people to our temple to explore Buddhism. It took several years to get him to return to our temple to speak at our Hanamatsuri service and then we were pleased he was able to give us a Saturday seminar (“Buddhism and Brain Science” on November 5, 2016).

Does Dr. Asma still have that idea of Pure Land Buddhism as being “so different” from the original teachings of the Buddha? I didn’t ask him but I feel that from attending two of our services and talking with our members, he knows our temple is very much about respecting the original Buddhist teachings. Those of you who regularly attend our services and study classes know we don’t talk about the “pursuit of heavenly paradise” and deifying the Buddha.

And though some may have heard other Pure Land Buddhists speak that way, the people we consider our teachers – Honen, Shinran, Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903), Haya Akegarasu (1877-1954) et al – emphasize the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and not deviating from it to satisfy individual human greed.

The occasion of Bodhi Day is a time to remind ourselves of how Jodo Shinshu embodies the essential teachings of the historical Buddha. Bodhi Day commemorates the awakening of the fallible human being named Siddhartha. Siddhartha was born into very privileged circumstances but still felt dukkha (which Dr. Asma translated as “unsatisfactoriness”). He thought he could find a way to transcend his anxiety over old age, sickness and death through various methods promoted by the gurus of his time for controlling one’s mind and body. As someone trained to be a military leader, Siddhartha easily mastered the exercises in physical and mental discipline. But none of these brought him the joyful peace he saw in the face of the mendicant at his palace’s fourth gate. That man with ko gen gi gi “face majestically shining with light” was the manifestation of Amitabha (literally, “not-measurable-light”), the name describing an encounter, not a deity.

When Siddhartha threw in the towel on ascetic practice, he sat comfortably under a tree (he had a nice bath in the river, drank milk pudding offered by a passerby and received a cushy seat of hay from a local farm boy) and wondered how he could encounter that Amitabha again. He searched deeply into his self – into his faulty, deteriorating physical and mental existence – and couldn’t find anything but the opposite of not-measureable-light. Hitting the bottom of despair, he shouted “Avidya!” (not-bright). In that cry, he gave up completely on himself and that was exactly his liberation. What was keeping him from the not-measureable-light were the walls of his ego-self. In his shout of “Avidya!” the walls were shattered and he felt the brilliant light of Life itself flood into his whole existence.

As he went forth to share his awakening with as many people as he could, he found out most guys needed to go through the ascetic process then struggle through hours of deep contemplation. The Buddha found that unfortunately some people who went through these processes became more ego-centered, their walls of separation became thicker instead of shattering apart. He also found people (including females) who didn’t need to spend a lot of time in discipline and meditation – the hard knocks of their lives already brought them to the full manifestation of Buddha-nature.

For the people in the latter group, it makes sense to call them beneficiaries of “other power” while those in the former group are victims of “self power.” Those in the “other power” group have been brought to the “realm of flowingness” (sukhavati, which I feel was grossly mistranslated as “pure land,” or worse yet, “paradise”). Those people, despite the faults they are well aware of, are thoroughly in (“embraced by”) Amitabha – the liberated state of egolessness.

For us to recite “Namu Amida Butsu” is to echo the Buddha’s cry of awakening, “Avidya!” Of course, it is not exactly my awakening, but just a faint echo of the Buddha’s experience. Yet it is a powerful reminder nonetheless that I have been taken onto the path towards egolessness. As expressed in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Buddha realizes his moment of awakening was possible only through the awakenings of all the lives surrounding him, past, present and future. Bodhi Day has happened, is happening and will keep on happening for each of us.

Rev. Nakai is a minister at The Buddhist Temple of Chicago.

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