Amida Sutra

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha of our era, composed poems, music, stories and jokes. Their appeal is often translated out of English sutras. It is important in the present development of Dharma in the West that these elements be fully present.

Shakyamuni delivered this sutra near the end of his ministry at the approximate age of 80. In it he reveals that Buddhahood is not a passive goal out there in front of us to be reached by arduous practices. Here Buddhahood is an order of Dharma and, as such, it is an active force making claims of its own on us. This also suggests that Shakyamuni came to understand his own Buddhahood in terms of a universal spiritual event in human history, rather than an isolated phenomenon peculiar to himself.

Shakyamuni always claimed, in fact, that he had discovered Dharma. It is not entirely correct, therefore, to state that Shakyamuni Buddha was the founder of Buddhism, especially when he himself viewed it differently. It seems only logical to trace "Buddhism" back to a founder called "Buddha." The word Buddha is, however, a title or designation.

In a very real sense "Buddhism" is a Western invention, a somehwhat self-serving one in many respects. If Christ is the founder of Christianity then Buddha must be the founder of Buddhism. At this juncture we can engage in a kind of religious horse race and see who wins. Of course like all rhetoric, the scales are preset to favor one winner. Thus in insisting on its own version of Shakyamuni's Dharma the West has given itself a head start in what it often construes as a confrontation with a very different kind of faith.

In fact, Buddhists have not called themselves Buddhists until very recently in the West. In Asia they are the followers of the Buddha Dharma of Buddha Sasana. The word Buddha here may or may not refer to the historical Shakyamuni. "Buddhism" technically should be called Dharma-ism. Shakyamuni regarded himself as a recipient of a revelation of this Dharma:

…just as if a man faring through a forest should see an ancient path, and ancient road traversed by people in former days. He would follow it and in following it would cone to an ancient city, an ancient prince's domain wherein dwelt people of former days. There he would fine gardens, pools, foundations and walls. It would be a goodly spot, but empty. Then that man would bring word to his prince and the prince would restore the city. That city would then become prosperous and flourishing, populous, teeming with folk. It grows and thrives.

Even so have I, Shakyamuni Buddha, brothers and sisters, seen and ancient path traversed by rightly enlightened ones of former times.

The idea that THE BUDDHA is an archetype that has recurred throughout our spiritual history lies at the root of our Amida Sutra for in it Shakyamuni has a vision of Buddhahood as a universal spiritual force radiating in all directions in the cosmos, as well as backwards and forwards in time. These 'buddhas' stand outside organized religions and offer an alternate, valid form of salvation. They are spiritual hero guides of the vision quest. They can be loving, like Kannon Bodhisattva, Christ-like saviours, like Amida or spiritual smarty-pants, like Bodhi Dharma, who shakes up our assumptions with a glimpse into the Shimmering Void.

In the Amida Sutra Shakyamuni Buddha reveals the universal power of Buddhahood called Amida Buddha. 'Amida' literally means 'not-finite'=infinite. 'Buddha' literally means 'awake, conscious.' The Amida Sutra is the vision of what it means to be infinitely conscious and how that infinite consciousness takes up residence in the life of a finite being living in the world of suffering and death. It is to the introduction of that sutra that we not turn our attention.

The story of the sutra is written in a kind of sandwich format. Both the introduction and conclusion take place in what we have come to call real time. The body of the sutra is trans-historical. It is a vision shared by a crowd of people gathered to hear Shakyamuni Buddha who makes his point by inducing all present to share the same vision.

"One time I heard it told: the Noble One, the Buddha, occupied a garden which was near Shravasti, in the Bamboo Grove together with a great assembly."

The 'I' here is Ananda. He memorized all of the sutras. They were preserved for about 400 years in this way of the oral tradition. Each monk memorized a section and taught it to a novice before he passed into nirvana. Ananda was very good looking. He withstood various temptations because of his looks and became the subject of many humorous stories. He was a faith devotee who became an arahant after many nights of difficult practice. He was the one who recited the whole cannon at the First Council.

These are real historical and geographical places that still exist today. Shravasti is in Nepal now. If you consult a map you will see it near the Indian border about half way East by West. The bamboo grove has not bamboo because of the change in climate but the location is a pilgrimage site.

"All were bhikkhus and together they composed a host twelve hundred fifty bhikkus strong."

The word bhikku is often translated as monk in Western literature. This started in the 19th Century with the first translations being done by Christian scholars. The word itself, however, means sharer and referred to both ordained and lay.

"Moreover, there were arahants well known among the people:"

Arahants were 'worthies', worthy ones. They had achieved a state of mind we may well call non-egological. Therefore, making gifts to them was a source of merit and initiated one's own spiritual enlightenment. Gifts to a being with an egological mind does not have this benefit.

Shariputra: a close friend of Shakyamuni. He served him for 40 years. His role was that of a kind of moderator or MC in the sutras. They were directed through him to the listeners. Many of the sutras are structured this way.

Maka mok ken ren (Mahamaudgalyana): Shariputra's best friend. He is a key figure in the Japanese obon celebration. He saw is mother suffering in hell and was shocked because she had been a good mother. She had however stolen food during a famine to feed her own child, resulting in the death of those thus deprived of food. She was suffering the bad karma of these acts which were motivated by love for her off-spring. Maka mok ken ren wanted an answer to this problem and sought one from the Buddha. The obon celebration is the result of the answer to the fact that our good motivations can sometimes have bad consequences.

Maka ka sho (Mahakashyapa): The first patriarch of Zen. His enlightenment was brought about by Shakyamuni's merely holding up a flower.

Maka ka sen nen (Mahakatyayana): An extremely intellectual monk who established his own school of Buddha Dharma.

Maka ka ku chi ra (Mahakausthila): An expert in monastic rules. Little is known about him.

Ri ha ta (Revatna): A popular monk, a friend of Mahakatyayana

Shu ri han da ga (Suddhipanthaka): He was probably involved in the Madyamaka movement which may have been an early mystical school.

Nanda: Shakyamuni's half brother.

Ananda: Shakyamuni's cousin. He was the one who memorized all the sutras.

Ra go ra (Rahula): He was Shakyamuni's son.

Kyo bon ha dai ( Gavampati): A friend of Shakaymuni. He joined the sangha on the same day with three of his friends to seal their friendship forever.

Bin zu ru ha ra da (Pindolabharadvaja): A leader of the sangha. He lived to be almost 100, nicknamed " chief of those who roar like a lion."

Ka ru dai (Kalyodayin): Shakyamuni's childhood friend.

Maka ko hin na (Mahakapphina): One of the first to join the sangha.

Ha ku ra (Vakkula): Also one of the first to join the sangha.

An u ru da (Anuruddha): Cousin to Shakyamuni. He was very good looking and an expert in the martial arts. He became blind in old age and could not care for himself. Shakyamuni Buddha took upon himself the task of keeping Anuruddha's robes in order by sewing and mending them regularly. Everyone was moved that the World Honored One would stoop to such a lowly task. The Buddha used their shock to teach them the depths of compassion that lie within the Dharma. While listening to the Buddha's voice, Auuruddha saw with his old blind eyes the radiant light of Buddhahood described in the Amida Sutra.

"And all were great disciples, every one. Along with them there could be seen as well a host of Bodhisattvas. All were great."

Bodhi means light. Sattva means being. A bodhisattva refuses to enter salvation (nirvana) until all beings enter before him/her. They take the vow: I promise not to enter nirvana until all beings, even unto the dust on the soles of my feet, enter first before me." They thus stay in our world until all beings experience complete spiritual enlightenment. This is very well described in the Beastie Boys "Bodhisattva Vow" They are universal spiritual saviors and helpers.

Mon ju shi ri ( Manjushri): related to Kannon (Quan Yin), the Bodhisattva of infinite mercy.

A it a (Ajita): a follower of the materialist school of philosophy, similar to dialectical materialism. He asked Shakyamuni if members of other religions could attain nirvana. Shakyamuni answered that as long as the Four Noble Truths were present in any religion, the members of that religion could indeed attain nirvana. One can, to add information here, even attain nirvana from any heaven, purgatory or hell, or wherever one might find oneself. All the members of the materialist school converted to the Buddha Dharma.

Ken da ka dai (Gandhahastin): His name probably means 'as strong as an elephant."

Jo sho jin (Nityodyukta): His name is connected with offering food to the starving.

These figures represent real human beings who had what we in the West would call a real historical existence. Even the Bodhisattvas have a historical person at their core. The list of those in attendance is a kind of unity-of- the-Buddha-Dharma statement since they come from many forms of Buddhism. This is an important point since Buddhism in the West is also prey to sectarian rivalries typical of religious institutions. All forms of Buddhism are invited to join in the vision presented here. Before the advent of European predation in Asia the worship of Amida was the most widespread form of Buddhism. Many schools, including some forms of Zen, included Amida worship in their practices. The worship of Amida united most schools of Buddhism just as presented here in the sutra. The West is just now taking the Amida Buddha a little more seriously. As the Dharma of Faith, Pure Land Buddhsim will surely play a role in the bridge between Christianity and the Buddha Dharma.

Blessings Be,
Sensei Ulrich

October 27, 1999