Amida Sutra

Part 6 - God and the Amida Sutra
We experienced a computer crash and lost all our Internet programs. Everything seems to be running well again so we will continue with our discussion about Buddhism and G(g)od(s), relative to our Amida Sutra.

So far we have seen that God, and gods, do appear in Buddhist scripture. Keeping in mind that this was 500 years before Christianity and 1000 years before Islam, the omission of historically current faiths was not the result of prejudice, but rather a function of history.

The Buddha Shakyamuni and the highest God known at that time were on friendly terms. In fact, Shakya, and or Brahma, encouraged Shakyamuni to propagate the Dharma among those who would benefit from it. This means that the Dharma was seen as a legitimate, alternate way to 'salvation, approved of by God, or gods as the case may be in the culture in question. The Dharma can be practiced in any world and in any heaven. If a follower of the Dharma finds himself/herself in the heaven or hell of another faith, they simply continue their work there until they attain nirvana. The Buddha Dharma being right does not make other religions wrong. Buddhism has maintained this attitude towards the religions it encounters in the cultures into which it emerges. Sadly enough, others have not found themselves able to return the favor!

The story of Shakyamuni's conversation with the highest God of his day is recorded in the oldest Theravadin scriptures. Shakyamuni, now the Buddha, was enjoying the bliss of his enlightenment and Buddhahood when it occurred to him that others would not understand what he had accomplished. No one would believe if how tried to communicate what he had learned alone there under the Bo Tree. At that point the Lord of Lords appeared to Shakyamuni and encouraged him to teach for the benefit and joy of many. The Deity saw the importance of Buddha's work. He, the Buddha, had conquered the Three Poisons, Ignorance Hatred and Greed, and defeated Death. Many beings could be liberated by the Dharma, so the opinion of the Deity. The Buddha reminded Him that once the Wheel of the Dharma had been set in motion, nothing, not even a god, could stop its working. The Wheel of the Dharma would keep rolling until each and every being without exception attains the liberation of nirvana. The Deity answered in a way that we could put into modern jargon with, "Go for it!" And so it came about that the Buddha Dharma was set in motion in our present era with the support and permission of the Deity! It was to be an alternate, valid source of salvation parallel to the God Walk.

At the time of his birth Shakyamuni stated, "This is my last birth. I will attain complete and perfect Buddhahood and be the teacher of both G(g)od(s) and humans." Those who follow the way of belief in God find this a remarkable statement. Buddha unites within himself/herself/itself the male sky spirituality and the female earth spirituality. Whereas he encouraged people to respect the G(g)od(s), he did insist that the essence of divinity lie rather with love and nurturing rather than with rigid, linear power structures based on fear and obedience. The Buddhas spend their time between rebirths in heaven teaching Dharma to the beings there. Sometimes a Buddha will intentionally go to hell to teach there. Thus all beings can share in the universal compassionate embrace of the Dharma. Dharma grounds us in a supramundane reality beyond civilizations, culture, beyond gender, language and race. It is especially beyond the functions of our egocentric, rational controlling mind.

The Buddhist sense of transcendence lends the feeling of 'walking under an infinitely open sky.' The Pure Land tradition refers to this as a 'horizontal transcendence.' The actual English word would be transilience. Although accurate, this does not evoke the same religious awe as it does in the Asian languages. Zen masters often refer to it as the horizontal exit from samsara.

The book FUNDAMENTALS OF MAINSTREAM BUDDHISM by Eric Cheetam of the Buddhist Society of London discussed the sideways leap of certain practices in traditional Theravadin meditation systems. The schemes are very complex as reflected in the many charts and tables. The Non-returners (anagamin) and the faith (shraddha) liberated play an important role in the shortcuts through a highly complex system on the way to nirvana. Thus we return to one of our prevalent themes, namely, that the roots of Pure Land Buddhism lie will within the origins 'mainstream' Buddhism.

Our tradition of Shin Buddhism communicates the idea of transilience, horizontal transcendence, in another way:

There was once a man who liked to race termites. He even encouraged others to bet money on their speed. He would place handful of termites into a bamboo stalk several meters long. The creatures would start to eat their way out of the stalk. Most chewed the floor of the next chamber above and then through the next and so forth until at long last they ate their way to freedom at the top of the stalk. A few, however, ate their way horizontally out the side and so were free immediately. This was their horizontal escape. Then someone took compassion on these poor creatures and bored a hole in the side so that the trapped creatures could easily escape, the sideways escape. These methods of escape represent the various ways of religious practice. You can realize the heated discussions among the gamblers about who really won the race. The same heated sectarian debates continue to the present.

The tension between the need for organization and the demands of the vision quest with its authentic individual spiritual truth was a problem for the early sangha as well. Devadatta, Shakyamuni's cousin, wanted to organize the sangha around himself as the authoritative head of all Buddhism. He believed that the ordained should have no contact with the layfolk. They could not even physically touch the same objects at the same time. as far as Devadatta was concerned, the layfolk owe the monk sangha everything and the monk sangha owed the layfolk nothing. They were never supposed to talk with females under any circumstances. Nor was there to be any accommodations for other cultures and languages. There were many other restrictive rules as well. He went so far as to engage assassins against Shakyamuni several times. In one version of the story Devadatta was swallowed up by mother earth, a powerful image. In another version he became a close disciple of Shakyamuni, all forgiven. This too is a powerful image. However he spent his last days, his efforts were somewhat successful in that his for of Buddhism lasted about one thousand years. There are still many groups of Buddhists who are drawn to his vision today. In fact, Dr. Lau of China believes Devadatta won. What we see of Buddhism today is, in his view largely Devadattism. The writings of Shinran hint at the nature of this problem as well with his Path of the Sages vs the Path of the Pure Land.

Both Zen and Jodoshinshu are then reactions to the two-tier religion of layfolk and monk sangha as it developed into a serious crises for the Buddhist community as several junctures in history. This is an especially important problem to iron out in the West as Buddhism becomes more widespread. Even Zen and Shin now have their bureaucracies that sadly sometimes interfere, even if passively, with the effective spread of Dharma. When Dharma is being introduced to North America, the last thing we need is another complex bureaucracy. We already have plenty of those, so much so that it has become the object of humor on the Internet.

The following is an example of one of those jokes. It illustrates how the average North American is experiencing globalization and the rise of mega-institutions, including the area of religion:

A Japanese company and a US company decided to have a canoe race. Both teams practiced long and hard to reach peak performance levels. On the big day the Japanese won by a mile. Afterwards the USA team became discouraged and depressed. The management decided to discover the reason for the crushing defeat. A Measurment Team made up of senior management was formed to discover the cause and recommend remedial action. The conclusion of their report was that the Japanese had 1 person steering and 8 rowing, whereas the USA had 8 steering and 1 rowing. The management team hired a consultant company and paid them a large retainer. They advised that too many were steering and too few rowing. The company did not want to lose to the Japanese next year, so they reorganized the rowing teams management sector. This led to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents, and 1 steering assistant manager. They also implemented a new incentive system for the 1 rower. It was called 'The Rowing Team Quality First Program." There were meetings and dinners, and a free pen for the rower. The motto: we must empower the rower through enrichment. The next year they lost to the Japanese by two miles. The management laid off the rower for poor performance, stopped the development of the new canoe, sold the paddles and halted all capital investments for new equipment. They then use the money they saved to award High Performance awards to the steering managers. The rest of the money was distributed to the senior management as bonuses.

This story was shown to several groups, including educators, clergy and people working in prominent institutions. They didn't realize it as a joke! It was at the first encounter merely an accurate description of their daily experience.

We all need authentic spiritual experience that gives us a Way in the complex modern world. The future of Buddhism in North America will be determined on how we resolve the tensions between these two needs, i.e., organization and direct experience with Dharma. I personally hope that our tendency to distrust big impersonal organizations, our democracy, our rugged individualism and our love of direct experience will be part of that future!

Shakyamuni led the way for us by refusing to appoint a successor. He insisted that to see the Dharma was to see him and to see him was to see the Dharma. The Buddha, the Dharma in human form, is a Transforming Force who renovated the world so that no being ever again need fear hell, purgatory, or spiritual death. His universal compassion and wisdom sustain everyone on our world without exception. In Asia he is often thought of as the Great Sustainer, the Great Healer. This is the new building block that Buddha added to our world, however it came into existence. Every being who comes into existence now bears the potential to Buddhahood. Moreover, the Buddha Dharma has become the body language of our reality.

Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Shin Buddhism, fills the world with a pervasive wisdom and compassion equally for all beings, be they Buddhist or non-Buddhist, theist or non-theist, religious or non-religious. The Shin TANNISHO mentions, for example, that Shin is the teaching for the non-religious!

As we shall see later in our discussion of the Amida Sutra, even non-humans have a place in the scheme of salvation. All beings in our world are destined, without exception, for ultimate spiritual fulfillment. The Buddha has made it so.

This innovative spiritual orientation makes room for many kinds of theological perspectives, including agnosticism and atheism, although we have to be careful in using such terms because they evoke such strong emotions in some quarters. What's more, Buddhism's effectiveness does not imply that other faiths are wrong; nor, conversely, do the effectiveness of other faiths imply that Buddhism is wrong.

In fact, when the various faith traditions base their teachings on the derogation of others, they have entered into a codependency of error, a situation that requires serious reflection.

Many people in Asia are bi-religious and view Buddhism as a challenge to widely held assumptions about what it means to be religious.

As Buddhism spread to non-Buddhist areas far away form India, the challenge was to make the Dharma available to a large variety of people, languages and cultures. The existence of G(g)od(s) is an important part of human history. Buddhism never promotes the destruction of other religions in a drive for world domination. Its history is generally that of becoming a complimentary Way within the given cultural context. The local deities become protectors of Buddhism and promote its success. Even today in Japan and China tourists can see statues of local gods guarding the entrance to Buddhist temples.

At one time the Buddha Dharma spread from the Middle East to Japan, and from Siberia to Indonesia. During Jesus' lifetime, Buddhism and Zoroasterianism were the largest religions in the world. Buddhism functioned quite well for centuries in an atmosphere of open international trade with many races and languages. The Miracle of Shravasti and the Amida Sutra both record the Buddha assuring us that the Buddha and the Sangha are everywhere. The whole universe is his Sangha. What he accomplished is not just relevant to the Ganges Plain, the land of Shakyamuni's birth.

Amida's Pure Land is a sphere of influence (buddha-keshtra) where all beings are Sharers in Infinite Light and Infinite Life. Buddha is the Universal Transformer who rearranged the building blocks of our reality so that every being can become a Hearer of the voice of the Sacred. The Amida Sutra provides a gateway to those spiritual realities that transcend race, culture, geography and the boundaries of organized religion.

Buddha's friendly, although ironic, relationship with the Creator God of his day made it only natural for the Deity and his angles to want to include themselves in the important mass vision of the Amida Sutra.

The very short paragraph about the participation of the Lord of Lords and his entourage in the vision made this lengthy discussion of G(g)od(s) necessary. Hopefully a creative discussion of this type will be continued in another context.

We can now turn our attention to the Mass Vision, which begins with the next section of the Sutra.

Blessings Be,
Sensei Ulrich

January 12, 2000

Next: Part 7 - The Mass Vision Begins