Amida Sutra

Part 2 - Sermons on the Amida Sutra
The middle portions of the sutra (verses 1-12) lead us into a world of spiritual visions. It also provides us with a description on how Shakyamuni Buddha produced a vision shared by a whole congregation at once. This Buddha led this gathering of historical, semi-mythical and divine beings into a shared vision of infinite compassion radiating in all directions throughout space and time. The sutra invites us to participate in that vision as we read it. A similar experience is described in the Theravadin canon called the "Miracle of Shravasti." In this shared vision, Shakyamuni showed himself reduplicated in all directions in brilliant colours. In his compassion for all beings, the Buddha reduplicated himself in all directions in infinite variety.

The Amida Sutra and the Theravadin canon record the same events in the Jeta Grove near Shravasti, India. A rich layperson named Sudatta (also Anathapindada) brought oxcarts of gold plates for a land purchase. Part of the deal was to spread the gold plates on the ground. The area thus covered became a park set aside for the Buddha and the Sangha. The gold was then given to the Sangha. This transaction insured that Shakyamuni would be a regular guest there on his many wanderings. It also provided a centre for the growing Sangha. Whenever the Buddha was in residence at the Jeta grove he attracted a large following of shravaka, listeners. Other religious leaders became jealous. They conspired with the politicians, with a few of the local deities taking part, to hold a public debate and embarrass the Buddha. The hope was that all of the Buddha's followers would leave him for the 'real' religions. The result was a kind of spectacle for the small community which was now flooded with visitors all of whom wanted to witness the outcome of confrontation. The visitors included not only people but also mythical characters angels, lesser deities and the Lord of Lords Himself.

It is said that when a Buddha sits down to teach, the while universe can fit into one room. It is quite certain that more than a few were there for the entertainment value of the event. This was 2600 years ago, long before the advent of TV, but I'm sure the event would have been ideal for some promoter of tele-evangelism today. Shakyamuni did not rise to the bait, but instructed the whole crowd on how to have a vision of the extent of the power of Dharma. He produced a group vision whereby everyone saw Buddhahood reduplicated in kaleidoscopic fashion in all directions. The Theravadin version is most probably the basis for the Amida Sutra. It is based on actual historical events, however embellished, and show that Pure Land Buddhism is indeed part of mainstream Buddhist thought. Shakra was the God of Gods at that time in India's history. The intent was to invite 'everybody'. This was 500 years before the birth of Jesus and about 1400 years before Mohammed. Had they been alive then it they would most assuredly have been invited as well, along with their respective deities. No one is to be left out of the vision's experience. Although Shakyamuni lived about the time of the great prophets of Israel, the Jews were thousands of miles to the West. There was trade between the Middle East and the Far East but it is doubtful if anyone in India had met a Jew at that time. They too would have been invited, of course. In our modern times every one is invited to share in the vision of Infinite Life and Infinite Light expanding in all directions.

As we chant the sutra we all think of our brothers and sisters of other faiths. Their sharing in the vision is not designed to dissuade them from their faith commitment but to include them in the embrace of the Infinite. Many Western readers, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, find it confusing that G(g)od(s) are mentioned in the scriptures of a religion for which the existence of a Creator Deity is not of central concern. The passages in which the Lord of Lords appears are simply ignored. The growing number of North Americans turning to the Buddha Dharma need to do some tough and creative thinking about this problem, however. This is especially true since the modern expansion of Buddhism has led it into areas where Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the dominant faiths. This is not such a crucial problem for the Asians since many of them are bi-religious, or even tri-religious.

In the West, however, we need to develop bridges of understanding. Here it is commonly believed that if you don't believe in G(g)od(s) you are not religious, even damned. Western Buddhists who are of Asian origins are still the targets of aggressive conversion campaigns. Christianity is in a unique position since it stands in the middle between Buddhism, which has Christ figures but no creator deity, and Islam, which has no Christ figures but a strict monotheism. Perhaps it should be acting as a kind of mediator reconciling the hostilities between the various faiths? This would be a laudable goal in a world of faith hatred and faith cleansing. At the time of Shakyamuni approx. 520 BCE the absence of a Creator Deity at the centre of the religion actually contributed to the flexibility of the Buddha Dharma in the face of foreign cultures, all of which had their own version of G(g)od(s). It was transportable from one culture to another without the usual destruction of other G(g)od(s) and their places of worship. It offered 'salvation' (the word is used advisedly here) through an equally valid alternate route beyond the organized religions of the day and outside the Way of the Gods. It was, however, respectful of that Way and did not aggressively try to eliminate it. Again Buddhism proved itself to be the Middle Way. Its tolerant and somewhat ironic view will be somewhat familiar to the Western readers who have read Goethe's Faust. In the ancient world there was often a wide variety of religious perspectives. There was even a place for those who preferred to go their 'own way' outside the boundaries of organized religion. The tradition of the vision quest allowed for a wide variety of experiences while maintaining social unity. Buddhism originated from within the tradition of the vision quest. As the centralized state emerged around agriculture, however, the philosophical mood changed.

Even in the India of Shakyamuni's time the culture was changing from hunter/gatherer/ small plot farming into a centralized rice culture. This rice culture promoted the development of organized, centralized kingdoms with class structures. There appeared in parallel a kind of centralized religion based on one right way to worship one 'right' G(g)od(s). The former culture was centered on local democratic councils of elders led by warrior/hunters. Even today going on a vision quest on Buddhism is often referred to as 'going in to the forest.' The word Sangha was an old word for democracy as it was practiced in these republics or tribes. As we can readily suspect, the development of one 'right' way to worship and one right way to believe created great problems for a teaching like the Buddha Dharma. These processes are continuing in modern times with greater force and rapidity. It is the religious analogy to the decline in the number of species and the number of languages in the world today. We are somehow impoverished by their loss, as we are by the loss of various ways to be spiritual. One dominant world faith would be a tragedy for our species. A loss of variety is somehow a loss in out ability to survive. It is also loss of our understanding of the depths of our human spirituality.

These ideas will be pursued in the next installment about these few lines in the sutra which refer to the appearance of G(g)od(s) in a Buddhist scripture.

Blessings Be
Sensei Ulrich

October 25, 1999

Next: Part 3 - Buddhism and G(g)od(s)