Filed in Pure Land (Shin)

Born Again Buddhist

Clark Strand stakes everything on faith in the Pure Land.

Clark Strand

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Pure Land, LA

ONE MORNING NOT LONG AGO, I was born again. Though unexpected, this was never outside the realm of possibility. According to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, all who call Namu Amida Butsu, Amida Buddha’s name, may be reborn in the “Land of Utmost Bliss,” provided they truly believe that he will save them. That, of course, had been the problem. Try as I might to finesse my way into the Pure Land, it didn’t matter as long as I didn’t believe.

Then, one Saturday in March, as I sat in my rocking chair gazing out the window at the back yard, a great and irrevocable change was triggered within me: I accepted, simply and without reservation, the teaching I had received from Pure Land founders Honen and Shinran—and I believed. Rennyo Shonin, the eighth head priest in the Jodo Shinshu lineage of Pure Land Buddhism, taught that we should not recite the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) in order to be saved, but rather because we were saved—in other words, not out of fear, but as the expression of gratitude and joy. I’d tried to do this countless times in the mistaken belief that if I could make myself grateful enough I might have the experience of shinjin, or “true entrusting,” that Shinran and Rennyo had spoken about. But I was coming at it backwards. Shinjin was the cause of gratitude, not the other way around. But now all that has changed.

I believe in the Pure Land, established countless aeons ago by Amida Buddha so that deluded beings like myself can be reborn there when they die. Further, I believe that I am born now—that at the moment I step beyond my own understanding, and entrust to a power beyond myself, I am “embraced, never to be forsaken” by Amida’s Infinite Light and Life. And that, at last, does cause joy to well up from within me. In fact, there is no way I can suppress it.

And yet, I do not much care for “Infinite Light and Life” as a way of talking about Amida Buddha, even though that is the literal meaning of Amitabha and Amitayus, the names given to that Buddha by Shakyamuni in the Pure Land sutras. Something about those expressions is too abstract to describe the visceral feeling I now carry within me in every moment, without my having to make any effort to maintain it. It is more like what happens to a sack of wheat when it has been given a good shake so that all the kernels settle at the bottom of the bag. I have been shaken, and settled. I am no longer restlessly running about this way and that trying to sort myself out. I have been weighed and found wanting. But it doesn’t matter. Amida will carry me wherever I need to go.

In a similar vein, I also reject that strain of modern Buddhist thought (dominant in the West) which says that the Land of Utmost Bliss is a fiction, a symbolic way of talking about a mind that has been purified of kleshas, or defilements. Here I part company with most of my own Pure Land teachers (the modern ones, at least), along with such authorities as Thich Nhat Hanh, who once wrote that the Pure Land of the sutras “is just for beginners.” But there is nothing to be done about that. I cannot help what I believe, and at this point I wouldn’t even try. I have cast my lot with the faith of the simple. There is no way back from here.

The esteemed Japanese Buddhist scholar Sachiya Hiro once confessed that he wanted to become a person who could believe in and accept the existence of the Pure Land “with no ifs, ands, or buts.” He discovered, however, that for a modern religious scholar this was not so easy. He lamented letting himself be diverted by what he called “the common sense of the world and of science.” Because of these diversions, he felt he had to offer some proof before he could state, “The Pure Land exists!” If that proof could not be offered, he had no right and no reason to believe. But then a wonderful thing happened and he realized that he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself. Those whose religion was science were responsible for believing in science, just as he was responsible for his belief in the Pure Land. There was no reason the two should be at war. Realizing this, he found there was likewise no reason not to believe. “My Pure Land is my own personal Pure Land,” he wrote. “And that is why there is no need to be reserved about the matter. I am finally able to recite the nembutsu without concern for what others think. Namu Amida Butsu. Namu Amida Butsu. . . .That is the nembutsu that is mine alone."

This kind of subjective realization is the cornerstone of the experience I have called being “born again.” Admittedly, I have appropriated a Christian term to express myself here, and one generally not held in much favor among Western Buddhists. But I have discovered in my own experience of “birth” what must have been at the bottom of Christ’s teaching in the Gospel of John. Thus, I find no reason to exclude Christians from my Pure Land. All are welcome there.

Whether in a Christian or a Pure Land context, being born again is based on the understanding that belief is essentially a wager—albeit one on which we stake everything we have. It is decisive and fully committed. Jesus understood this implicitly and spoke of it again and again in his own Pure Land teachings:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

The meaning is plain: The price of faith is everything. That is what it costs. Nevertheless, for many of us that cost seems too high. That is because we think it means that we must reject the claims of science, or that we must then become intolerant of other people’s religious ideas. But this is only because faith has been given a bad name by the half-believer, by the one who has not yet paid everything for what he believes.

Admittedly, the half-believer can be dangerous. Half-believers are easy to recognize because they are engaged in the work of trying to believe and not in the work of belief itself. They are seeking some confirmation in the outer world to complete an internal process that remains half-finished within them; thus they are often highly vocal and intolerant of other points of view. If science or secular culture seems to deny their articles of faith, they must fight against them or deny them. And, as always, to bolster their belief, it is necessary that others believe as they do—preferably society at large.

By contrast, those who believe fully are at peace within themselves. They have attained what Honen called anjin, or “settled mind.” The Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao described that mind as “adamant,” not as that word has come to be understood in today’s religious milieu, as “stubborn, intransigent, unamenable to reason,” but in the original sense of being “indestructible or diamond-hard.” Such people don’t need an Act of Congress to affirm their faith. And they don’t need a bullhorn to communicate it to others. The experience of conversion, already settled within them, has a way of passing itself on to others, even if they never say a word.

Rennyo taught that when people witness the joy of ordinary lay devotees who have been saved by Amida, even without knowing anything at all about the teaching, those people will attain shinjin, the mind of true entrusting. In other words, they too will be saved. The modern Pure Land scholar Jitsuen Kakehashi explains it this way:

The affirmation of their having been saved by the Tathagata is transmitted through those persons who entrust themselves completely to the Buddha and in whom there overflows the joy of being saved. The power of the dharma that has saved such persons calls out to awaken others around them.

Along with the expression “born again,” I would like to reclaim this word saved, which has fallen on such hard times of late through its association with right-wing Christianity. In Mahayana Buddhism do we not speak of saving all beings? Can we seriously consider such a proposition without first being saved ourselves? But then how is that salvation to be effected?

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