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Clark Strand stakes everything on faith in the Pure Land.
To this question the Pure Land tradition offers a different answer from most other Buddhist schools, for it begins with the recognition that we are essentially powerless to effect our own salvation. Why? Because our entire being is founded upon ignorance. Thus all efforts to deliver ourselves, even spiritual efforts, are fundamentally deluded. Stated in the simplest terms, it poses the question, How can any being destined for annihilation possibly save itself?
The answer offered by the Pure Land tradition, which accounts for over half of the world’s Buddhists, is that we are saved by Amida Buddha, who welcomes all beings into his Pure Land, regardless of whether they are good or evil, diligent or lazy, wise or foolish. Amida embraces us without distinction or discrimination, if only we call upon his name. Actually, in the Jodo Shinshu (“True Pure Land”) tradition taught by Shinran and Rennyo, we don’t even have to do that. “If I believed that there were any condition in Amida’s embrace, I would abandon this ministry,” wrote Shin priest Hozen Seki. In his book The Great Natural Way, he explains:
I believe that all beings, when they die, are embraced by the Amida Buddha—cats, dogs, humans, whatever they may be. Nor does it matter if they have never heard of Amida’s teachings or recited the nembutsu. I recall that once when Daisetz Suzuki was asked where someone went after death who had never heard the teaching of Amida, he replied, "Ask Amida."
Suzuki must have been thinking about a story he helped to popularize about the myokonin Shoma. In Shin Buddhism a myokonin (literally, “wonderful rare person”) is someone who, usually without the benefit of any formal training or education, comes to deep spiritual insight through faith alone. Shoma was a perfect example. Suzuki writes, “It is marvelous that such an ignorant person can grasp the deepest possible meaning that even learned, scholarly, and acute-minded philosophers fail to grasp because it is too deep for their understanding.”
According to Suzuki, once when Shoma had hired himself out as a day laborer, a man arrived from several hundred miles away, having walked on foot all that distance just to ask Shoma what he should do to be saved. Shoma, who was pounding rice with a great wooden mallet at the time, just kept pounding without giving any indication that he had heard. The man asked again, but Shoma still would not look at him. When the people who had hired Shoma saw this, they felt pity for the man and begged Shoma to counsel him, but Shoma just kept on pounding rice. Finally, the visitor said, “I’ve come such a long way, but if I can’t learn how to be born in the Pure Land, I have no choice but to return to my own village.”
When he saw how miserable the man was, Shoma finally answered. “Why not ask Amida? He’s the one who deals with such questions. It’s really none of my business.”
As simple as this story is, I believe it teaches an important lesson about faith and salvation. “Why not ask Amida?” Those are not the words of a person who thinks of Amida in abstract or intellectual terms. They are the words of one who thinks of him as a person, the words of one whose experience of salvation is unmediated by any kind of intellectual filter. On the other hand, someone who travels hundreds of miles on foot, as Shoma’s visitor did, cannot have done so without thinking of Amida as an idea. Otherwise, he would not have come. Such a person believes there is some special understanding that will allow him to be saved. “If only the famous holy man Shoma or D. T. Suzuki will explain it to me,” he thinks, “then I will be saved.” But both Shoma and Suzuki say, “Ask Amida. He’s the one who answers such questions."
I am not a Pure Land follower, a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, or even a devotee of its teaching. I am a believer, which is a little different. I don’t have to follow a tradition called Pure Land Buddhism and do as it says, nor is there anything compelling me to chant the nembutsu morning to night, or light candles and incense before an altar. The words Namu Amida Butsu come unbidden to my lips at many moments during the day before I have even clearly thought of them, but this happens because I truly believe in Amida and not through long habit or because of any desire to do Pure Land practice. That belief is my candle, my altar, my incense, and my creed. In essence, it just says, “No need for the middle man! Go right to Amida! He’s the one who saves beings like you.”
And what kind of being is that?
In a word, ignorant. I came into this world knowing nothing and will surely depart in the same way. Amida’s life is infinite, mine is not. On the vast sweep of cosmic time, my life places an open and closed parenthesis, like a footnote or a minor digression to some longer argument that I know nothing about. Within those parentheses, many things happen, but the truth is, I don’t understand any of them. I don’t know why they happen in the sense of knowing their ultimate cause, nor do I know what their ultimate outcome will be—if such a concept is even applicable. If what seemed a good thing in the morning can have turned out to be a colossal mistake by the end of the day (or vice versa), how much more so in a lifetime or a kalpa. For too long I used Buddhism to convince myself that I understood something I did not, but now I know the truth. I do not know anything at all. But then, that is precisely the kind of being that Amida Buddha saves—the one who has no choice but to surrender to a power beyond his own.
Actually, in the final analysis, that includes pretty much everyone, which is to say, all sentient beings. And so, along with Hozen Seki, I believe that everyone is saved—dogs, cats, humans, sunbeams, dust motes . . . the whole nine yards of universal being, with no particle left out or left over. And yet, bizarrely enough, that is the principal objection to Pure Land Buddhism that I have heard over the years—that it is too easy, that it lowers the bar of Buddhist practice so far as to become virtually meaningless. But that objection can only be a serious concern if we regard Buddhism as some kind of exclusive guild into which only the spiritually gifted may be admitted. Lowering the bar for entry onto the Buddha Way can only be an issue if one believes the Buddha wants us to high-jump. I, for one, do not believe that is the point of Buddhism. To save all beings is the point of the Buddhism I practice. Therefore I want it to be as easy as possible.
I want someone to be able to hear in the morning that they only have to have faith in Amida in order to be saved, and by evening to have entered the Buddha Way. And I want that person to feel empowered to save others in like manner, not by sharing the fear-driven anxiety of the half-believer, but the joy of the truly settled. I want Buddhism to ignite, spark from flint, and pass from heart to heart like fire. I want it to burn so brightly in America that no one can catch up with it, and no one can put it out. I want it to become a revolution that restores the words faith, belief, and salvation to what they originally meant. Naturally, karma being what it is, I do not know if any of this is actually going to happen. But I believe it will.
Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle. This essay is excerpted from “The Buddhist Manifesto,” a work in progress.
Images: Amida Buddha’s Pure Land and Heavenly Maidens, Hideya Chiji, 1971, section of a mural in the Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. PHOTOGRAPH BY TOYO MIYATAKE, COURTESY OF THE LOS ANGELES BUDDHIST TEMPLE AND YASUHIRO CHIJI